Since the 2011 announcement of Bluejacket, a brewery and restaurant poised to debut this month in DC’s Navy Yard area, the Washington beer community has thirsted for news on the project. Bluejacket is owned by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group—the hit factory behind such successes as Vermilion in Alexandria, the Buzz Bakery chain, and Red Apron butcher, among others. Anticipation built even more when it was announced that the brewer would be Megan Parisi, former head beermaker at the respected Cambridge Brewing Co. in Massachusetts.
Long on ambition, with plans to put out six categories of beer along with lots of collaborations and special projects, Bluejacket promises to bring national attention to Washington’s burgeoning craft-brew scene. But to really understand the excitement around it in beer-geek circles, you have to go back about seven years, when Greg Engert took a job with the restaurant group.
Having recently abandoned a master’s program in English literature at Georgetown, Engert had been waiting tables at the Brickskeller in DC’s Dupont Circle, a now-shuttered lair steeped in global beer culture where the best servers—and Engert was, by all accounts, among the best—honed their knowledge of the more than 1,200 bottles on offer. Trading dialogism and Dos Passos for dunkel and doppelbock, Engert transferred his bookishness into an obsessive study of brews and their interactions with food.
In 2006, NRG owner Michael Babin took notice and hired Engert to run the taps at Rustico in Alexandria. Engert’s enthusiasm for beer-and-food pairings proved infectious, and before long he and Babin were dreaming up plans for Birch & Barley and ChurchKey. The beer-focused restaurant and upstairs bar opened in DC’s Logan Circle in 2009, quickly becoming a clubhouse for suds savants, who crowd the bar to chat up Engert and sip from a changing array of 50 drafts.
That same year, Babin toured an old boilermaker plant three blocks from the new Nationals Park along the Anacostia River—an up-and-coming area with plenty of condo construction but not much in the way of good drinking spots. Some restaurateurs considered the barren riverfront risky business, but Babin fell hard for the factory—its glass walls, soaring ceilings, and steel bones were a rare find in a city with little manufacturing history.
Faced with filling 7,300 square feet, NRG expanded its plans to include a 200-seat restaurant, brewery, and bar. (A hundred more can pack into the outdoor patio.) Birch & Barley chef Kyle Bailey would run the kitchen, which would share space with a third location of Buzz Bakery next door. Two mezzanine levels above the restaurant accommodate fermentation and brewing machinery along with offices and a sensory-analysis lab.
Engert is guided by two principles: flexibility and experimentation. Babin bought 19 fermentation tanks (a typical start-up of this size begins with about a quarter that many) so that Engert and Parisi could play around with many recipes at once and brew special batches on a whim. Their wide-ranging brewing styles encompass easy-drinking Kölsches and pale ales, farmhouse ales and saisons, tart Belgian-style sours, “big beers” like imperial stouts and barleywines, culinary focused brews devised in collaboration with the kitchen, and historical beers—Engert wants to work with local writers and historians to bring back old styles, including forgotten recipes from defunct DC breweries.
Customers will be able to explore the idiosyncratic setup via guided tours that wind around the M.C. Escher-like staircases, through a room stocked with beers aging in barrels and into an area devoted to sours (a shared passion of Engert and Parisi, these complex brews are made by allowing wild yeasts to develop). In a small private dining area that will double as a tasting room, visitors will try recipes in development and special one-offs such as a saffron-laced saison made with the Massachusetts brewery Mystic. Bluejacket also hopes to craft beers with chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, and winemakers—or as Engert says, “anyone who loves flavor.”