Beer Academy

Beer/spirits tasting
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Editorial Review

Confused over beer lists? Rustico is ready to school you.
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, March 2, 2012

Drinking beer in Washington bars used to be so easy: Bud or Bass? Hefeweizen or Guinness? But since ChurchKey, Pizzeria Paradiso, R.F.D. and Brasserie Beck have gotten us hooked on rare taps and hard-to-pronounce breweries, even neighborhood bars are upping their menus. For the lay person, this can be confusing: Would you like a traditional English pale ale brewed in Baltimore or a hoppy American IPA made in a small town in Belgium?

Thankfully, ChurchKey beer director Greg Engert is here to school us all in the basics of beer, running a twice-monthly Beer Academy at Rustico in Ballston. Engert, whose honors include being named one of Food and Wine's sommeliers of the year, realized that customers didn't always have a good grasp of beer basics but were eager to learn more.

Each session covers a different topic, such as a primer on styles of ales and lager (last month) and farmhouse ales (this month), with a half-dozen beers to taste while learning. (Don't you wish college had been more like this?)

Actually, the Beer Academy feels like a college lecture on the history of beer accompanied by a delicious beverage. At a two-hour class last month, Engert rapidly hopscotched from the history of porter to the way that European climactic shifts of the seventh through 10th centuries led to the beginnings of aging beer to the real origins of India pale ale, which isn't quite what you think.

While the class sips Germany's rich Aecht Schlenkerla Urbock, which gets its flavor from the malt that is smoked slowly over beechwood fires, Engert explains why the brewers chose that particular wood, and it has nothing to do with taste. (At this point, the class laughs when Engert reminds them that Budweiser advertises that its beer is aged with beechwood.) "The thing about beechwood is that it isn't good for much else," he says. "You don't burn oak because it has so many other uses."

Then it was off to talk about Belgian beers. While sipping a refreshing Cellar Door saison from Baltimore's Stillwater Ale, Engert explains how the Hanseatic League, a trade association in the Middle Ages, led to a broadening of beer styles, thanks to increased trade in herbs and spices. For example, he says, the Dutch empire's expansion into the New World led to the importation of Curacao oranges, which influenced the growth of what we know today as witbier, from Hoegaarden to Shock Top. This was all delivered without notes, in a nonstop - almost free verse - manner.

If you've ever been to a wine-tasting class, well, this is anything but - much to the relief of Kate Bowers, who was sitting next to me in the class. "A wine class is so structured: 'This is the type of this grape, this is what you should be tasting.' That's clearly not what we're getting here," says Bowers, 28, of Woodley Park. "When you know so much about beer, you're not going to just focus on that one aspect. This is just so interesting. Clearly he could have gone on for seven more hours, and I probably could have sat here and listened to him."

As you might expect, the classes have been popular. February's lecture, on farmhouse ales, sold out almost immediately, as did March's discussion of breweries that source local ingredients. At least one class is sold out every month until the summer; a few seats remain for "Sour Ales: The Old and New" on April 21, "Real Ale: A Cask Ale Primer" on May 19 and "Barrel-Aged Beers" on June 23. The schedule for the second half of 2012 will be announced soon.