According to NRG beer director Greg Engert and director of public relations Megan Bailey, the new establishment will contain a full-scale production brewery, a brewpublike tasting room (with a single long table and 20 or so barrels for aging sour beers) and a 200-plus-seat restaurant overseen by Birch & Barley/ChurchKey executive chef Kyle Bailey. Maybe more important, however, is the fact that NRG has hired a head brewer: Megan Parisi, former lead brewer at Cambridge Brewing Co. in Massachusetts.
The arrival of Parisi, who moved to Bethesda last fall when her husband got a job in the area, is big news for a brewery that, in Engert’s words, will be “a giant experiment.” It’s the sort of project whose team isn’t shy about declaring that they hope to do things that no one has done before.
Cambridge Brewing, founded in 1989, is a brewpub whose reputation for boundary-pushing beers has always far outstripped its size: In 1990, it released Tripel Threat — which Cambridge claims was the first Belgian-style ale brewed in the United States. During Parisi’s seven-year tenure, Cambridge won five Great American Beer Festival medals, including two in the “experimental beer” category. In recent years, Cambridge has come out with a barley- and rice-based beer/sake hybrid fermented with Japanese sake yeast and a “summer barleywine” aged in white wine barrels and designed to taste like a Riesling.
“It was kind of a playground — really a brewery that focused on creativity,” Parisi says. “I had very little incentive to leave. So coming down here was definitely a risk, but it seemed like a worthwhile risk given the turn that the D.C. brewing scene is taking.”
Parisi’s experience at Cambridge, Engert adds, made her an ideal fit for Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s new venture. “The thing that stood out to me,” he says, “was that this wasn’t just somebody who was a great brewer of classic English pale ales or something. This is a brewery really known for innovation, barrel-aging, strange ingredient usage and things like that, all the things that we want to make a hallmark.”
Engert emphasizes that barrel-aged sour beers — much like Belgium’s tangy lambic beers — will be a major focus at the brewery, which is installing an old-school coolship, a large shallow pan used to cool unfermented beer and expose it to ambient wild yeasts and bacteria. (Undesirable in most brewing settings, these microbes produce sour beer’s characteristic funk.) Non-sour beers will also be aged in barrels formerly used to store bourbon, rum and “crazy stuff” that isn’t the norm at most breweries, like gin, or barrels made from unusual kinds of wood. “We want to see what actually happens when we use acacia versus new American oak,” Engert says.
Parisi, for her part, says she was drawn to NRG because it presented the opportunity to help build a business from the ground up and because she admired the company’s approach to beer. “I really like that they want to have a broad range of styles and a broad range of flavors,” she says, pointing out that the beer list, like those at NRG’s other establishments, will be organized by flavor categories such as “toasty and nutty” and “fruit and spice.” “You get people to think and drink outside their comfort zones.”
This won’t be Parisi’s first time working in the District. Before she began her brewing career by scrubbing floors and cleaning kegs at Cambridge, she played clarinet for the U.S. Navy Band — based in Navy Yard, adjacent to the site of the new brewery, which will likely open in about a year.
“It’s like a homecoming,” Engert says. “And it seems like a perfect way to start.”