Brew Hub: New Brewery Bluejacket Is a Laboratory for Food-Centric Beers
The folks behind Bluejacket want to make one thing clear: It’s not a brewpub.
Beer Director Greg Engert and Head Brewer Megan Parisi are adamant about distinguishing the soon-to-open brewery from the adjoining restaurant, both housed in a high-ceilinged factory in Navy Yard once used to make boilers for ships. Brewpubs, Engert says, have long held a reputation for middling food and relatively small operations limited to on-site drafts. But Bluejacket, the restaurant, is headed by two of the city’s top chefs: Birch & Barley husband-wife team Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac. And Bluejacket, the brewery, is a full-scale production facility that will produce about 5,000 barrels a year—more than most brewpubs yield. That’s also about twice as much as 3 Stars Brewing Company makes and roughly what DC Brau produced until it expanded its operation to more than double that amount this year. Only about 40 percent of what Bluejacket makes will actually be sold at the restaurant, including some bottles that will later be available for retail. The rest will be distributed to restaurants and bars across the city and eventually beyond.
And yet, despite that insistence on separating the brewery from the restaurant, the two are inevitably interconnected. It’s no surprise that the restaurant’s menu of fried pig tails and braised lamb neck cassoulet is built around beer, or even that spent grain from the brewing process makes its way into dinner rolls. What’s distinctive is the extremely culinary approach that Engert and Parisi bring to brewing.
The brewery is, after all, run by a restaurant group. The idea has been in the works since 2006, when Neighborhood Restaurant Group owner Michael Babin hired Engert as beer director. In that position, Engert is responsible for curating the constantly changing roster of more than 550 beers at ChurchKey and Birch & Barley, as well as overseeing the beer programs at other Neighborhood Restaurant Group venues like GBD, Red Apron Butcher, and Rustico. Locally, he’s been a huge influence in getting people to think of beer with food in the same way they think of wine with food.
Parisi, formerly the head brewer at Cambridge Brewing Co. in Massachusetts, was hired as head brewer in 2012. While she operates the equipment day-to-day, shoveling the spent grain in pink boots and checking on the fermenter tanks, she collaborates with Engert to conceptualize recipes. He usually starts by describing the flavors he’s looking for; Parisi comes back with a recipe, and they go back and forth until they feel they’re ready to brew.
How beer will match food is always in the back of their minds. Rather than creating dishes to go with beers (as some brewpubs do), Bluejacket is creating beers to go with certain dishes. On the opening menu, for example, a black lager—crisp and refreshing, yet dark and malty with a slightly spicy hop finish—was brewed specifically for Bailey’s Juicy Lucy burger with two aged brisket patties stuffed with white cheddar.
And in addition to the 20 beer collaborations Bluejacket has done with breweries around the U.S. and Europe leading up to the opening, Engert and Parisi are also teaming up with fellow Neighborhood Restaurant Groups chefs. The duo worked with MacIsaac to create a strong Scotch ale brewed with figs, cinnamon, and nutmeg that’s reminiscent of her figgy toffee pudding at Birch & Barley. Tony Chittum, who will head the forthcoming Greek-inspired Iron Gate Inn, helped conceptualize a strong Belgian-style blonde saison with notes of anise, cucumber, and mint “seasoned” with mastic, an licorice-flavored tree sap popular in Greece. And a doppelbock was inspired by the half-smoke created by Red Apron Butcher’s Nate Anda. The beer uses smoked malts with the same blend of woods that Anda uses to smoke his meats and incorporates some of the same spices, including white cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne.
“His half-smoke incorporates beer, so why not incorporate the half-smoke into a beer?” Engert says. The goal is not to create a beer that tastes like a sausage, but to make one that would go great with a sausage. “When you do these more adventurous flavors, you still want to know it’s a beer.”
Bluejacket plans to eventually expand its collaborations with chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, and others outside of Neighborhood Restaurant Group.
But the culinary aspects of the brewery go beyond just working with chefs, or offering a brewery tour option that culminates in a tasting menu. In their approach to beers, Parisi and Engert are like chefs constantly changing their menus, sometimes playing off local, seasonal ingredients but also satisfying their experimental whims.
In keeping with the seasonal aspect, beers brewed this summer with nectarines or peaches from local farms will be available at the opening, but once they run out, they’ll wait until the fruits are back in season to brew with them again. Meanwhile, an overgrown lemon bergamot plant from the garden at Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s baking and butchering production facility near Union Market makes its way into a bright fruity, funky tripel. And Engert and Parisi are also working on a series of “sidewalk” saisons, brewed with herbs that Bailey and MacIsaac gather from Arcadia Farm in Alexandria. The latest incorporates poor man’s pepper (a member of the mustard family also known as Virginia pepperweed) and violet wood sorrel.
What makes all this variety possible is Bluejacket’s atypical set-up. Instead of the five or six large-batch fermentation tanks that most craft breweries have to produce a handful of staple beers, Bluejacket has a whopping 19 tanks. That means the brewery can have far more different kinds of beer in the works at the same time. It also means it has the capacity to let beers mature for longer periods rather than rush them out to sell.
The types of beers that go into those tanks will also depend greatly on the customers. “This is really interactive for us,” Engert says. “This is a laboratory. It’s a test kitchen.”
Among the beers Bluejacket is experimenting with are sour ales, which are all the rage with beer nerds right now. Engert and Parisi culture their own wild yeast and bacteria, and Bluejacket is one of a handful of breweries in the U.S. to utilize a coolship—a long, open-air, bathtub-like vessel for cooling wort (the liquid from the mashing process) that also exposes it to the “airborne terroir” of wild yeast and bacteria.
In a different section of the three-level, labyrinth-like brewery, Bluejacket is experimenting with an extensive barrel-aging program. The brewery has acquired more than 50 wine, whiskey, bourbon, tequila, and even maple syrup barrels from various craft distilleries, wineries, and others that the restaurant group has relationships with. In many cases, Parisi and Enger plan to brew beers specifically for certain barrels.
Bluejacket will open with 20 of its own drafts plus five casks, which will rotate frequently. “This is why a lot of other breweries think that we’re foolish,” Engert says. Parisi chimes in: “It’s not practical, what we’re doing.” What would be practical? Focus on perfecting no more than six to eight beers for the launch.
And whereas most breweries aim to make their beers as consistent as possible, Bluejacket embraces the fluctuations. While there will always be a pilsener, for example, the exact recipe may evolve. And that’s just fine with Engert and Parisi. “Our whole idea is variation. Every day, it’s something new. It’s not like trying to perfect one recipe or two recipes or four recipes,” Parisi says. “It’s just trying to perfect each one and nail it each time.”
Bluejacket will open Oct. 29 at 300 Tingey St. SE.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery