It's a Belgian beer bar, but not as most people know it.
Belgian beers include some of the most popular styles and brands on the planet, and its traditional beers, including gueuze and kriek, are enjoying a revival among craft beer lovers. But Engert -- who is responsible for the beer lists at 14 restaurants and the annual Snallygaster beer festival as well as the Bluejacket brewery -- feels that too many people have a limited understanding or experience with them. "Belgian beer is not just this broad category of strong, fruity and often spiced beer character. There are Belgian beers that are bone dry. There are stouts, sours, dry-hopped blond ales."
Spreading this knowledge, or letting people geek out over their first Cantillon gueuze, is what led Engert to move away from the American IPAs and saisons that he champions at ChurchKey and Rustico, at least for one project. "People say, 'American beer is so hot, why would you do Belgian beer now?,' Engert says. "I think American craft beer is unfortunately elbowing out everything else around the world. But until someone makes something as good as [Belgian brewery De La Senne's] Taras Boulba" – he laughs – "It's like, this farmhouse ale revolution started somewhere, and it wasn't America."
"The best beers in the world should be sought out and tasted. People should not be surprised that I want to pour every drop of [Belgian breweries] De La Senne and De Ranke that I can get my hands on. In that family of beers, they're as amazing as Cantillon is their style. People will be banging down the door for Cantillon, but they haven't had XX Bitter by De Ranke."
With that said, this will not be your average Belgian beer bar full of dancing pink elephants and colorful branded glassware. "We went to serve Belgian beers we believe are distinctive, rather than have a caricature of a Belgian beer bar. It's annoying how many of these same brewers roll in with their umbrellas and crazy glassware. The popular brands tend to be similar in flavor," so the Sovereign will focus more on the smaller, often lesser-known producers.
"Belgian" is more of an attitude than a strict requirement.
Of the 50 taps planned at the Sovereign, Engert plans to reserve some for his favorite Belgians, including Taras Boulba, De Ranke XX Bitter, and De Struise Pannepont and Black Albert, which will be on as often as he can get them. Around 30 taps will rotate between other Belgian beers. And at least five to 10 will pour American or international beers made in a Belgian style. "I'm focusing on the things I think are fantastic – smaller producers creating exciting stuff, or people who are creating beers that people don't see as much as they should," such as Prairie, Jester King and Crooked Stave, Engert says. And even when there's a familiar name on the bottle list, it might not be a familiar beer: The 14 Allagash selections include "a variety of vintages and things that are a little bit rare" including Farm to Face and magnums of Curieux.
Get ready to get educated.
Engert acknowledges that education is a vital component at the Sovereign, because it can be hard to get customers to order beers they're not familiar with. "If we're going to all this trouble, you need to know the why and the how," he says. "Our staff will be docents."
But Engert is also talking about hosting Belgian beer classes and beer dinners over the two floors, both "intro-style tastings" and some "broader tastings, with multiple beers from the same brewery." Says Engert: "It's fun to go to breweries and taste a range of stuff and get an idea of a producer's brewing ethos. If you taste 12 De La Senne beers, you get a sense of the brewery's unique purpose and approach," and a tasting would be cheaper than a plane ticket.
There will be special guests, too: This spring, when De La Senne brewer Yvan De Baets visits Washington, Engert expects him to host a special tasting dinner.
There's more to drink than just beer.
The NRG team is putting together a European-style menu: Cocktails feature genever, the Dutch ancestor of gin, which is still popular in Holland and Belgium, and there will be an absinthe program with the traditional fountain. Wine director Brent Kroll has put together a list heavy of "funky" French wines from small producers, which he says will pair with the food as well as a lambic beer.
The food won't be the usual beer and mussels.
The Sovereign's founders took a group trip to Belgium last year for "research" purposes, and the menu will be stocked with many traditional dishes, "with our own nuances," Engert says. In particular, they were struck by the differences between mussels of the two sides of the Atlantic. Dutch-style mussels, Engert says, "have a fuller, rounder taste … they're not as stringy" as mussels from Prince Edward Island, and chef Peter Smith was about to source them. There will also be tarte flambe
Why Georgetown? 'Why not?'
Engert acknowledges that he's been asked about the location more than a few times. "People ask, 'Why are you opening in Georgetown?' Why not? It's a beautiful neighborhood and I think there a great clientele who want to drink great beer there. Frankly, not every new place has to open on 14th Street or in Shaw in 2016."
From the early '80s until 2002, this building was Champions, a sports bar known for underage drinking – a suspended liquor license led to its closure – and rowdy weekend crowds. It morphed into the upscale cocktail lounge Blue Gin from 2004 to 2008 before briefly returning to its sports bar roots.
If you went to any iteration of the building, you'll remember the long alley that leads from Wisconsin Avenue to the front door. The Sovereign's owners are hopeful that they'll be able to host events outdoors.
It turns out Engert has a personal connection to the neighborhood: "I moved to D.C. in 2002 to go to Georgetown," he says, where he studied English literature in the graduate program. "I lived in Burleith. I went to Champions once or twice, and I'm excited to spend time over there again."
The Sovereign, 1206 Wisconsin Ave. NW. thesovereigndc.com. Opening the first week of February.