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Behind the Bar: Tell Me a Story

Narratives count. Greg Engert, beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and the man behind ChurchKey, talks about the details that can help bars sell more of your beer.

Greg Engert Feb 18, 2020 - 9 min read

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Fifteen years ago, I became infatuated with craft beer by going beyond the glass. Once the beer was poured and I had taken that first sip, I set about discovering the beer. Who made it and how? Where was it brewed, and how old was this brewery? Which ingredients and techniques were employed, and why? From there would come an examination of style and brewing tradition, one that would inevitably branch out beyond beer history and touch on social, cultural, and gastronomic contexts. As a recovering academic, I had transitioned into a new realm of study; the next step was getting out there and teaching.

From the very beginning, my team and I have set out to build experiences around the enjoyment of craft beer in our bars and restaurants. Never merely stocking beers, we serve them. Immaculate draft lines, proper glassware and serving temperatures, food pairing possibilities—these are some of the ways that we echo and honor the passionate craft of the brewer. We also craft the beer’s narrative, drawing on research to illuminate the brew and provide a unique and memorable drinking experience.

Interestingly, while the research in those days took more effort, it was consistently more rewarding. The beer shelves were dominated by imports, most hailing from breweries with long histories and complex traditions; they had stories to tell, and they took great pleasure in telling them. Even the American craft brewers, who have multiplied tenfold since then, imbued their offerings with narrative, sharing the influences and ideas that gave their beers life. Heavy rotation and the pressure to make it new had not yet taken hold, so brewers tended to spend more time with each offering.

Instant electronic access was not the way to gather that information, since Beer Advocate and Ratebeer were nascent platforms, Untappd was years away, and cell phones were not yet ubiquitous conduits for sourcing background material. We had to read anything we could get our hands on from Michael Jackson and Roger Protz, devour Ale Street News, Celebrator Beer News, and every region’s Brewing News in print form before contacting the brewers and importers directly with questions about hops selection, style inspiration, or name derivation.

While all of this information is now only a few clicks away, the narratives have become less engaging. Many brewers provide little to no information about their operation and output, and those that do tend to parade out very basic facts of production without showcasing the passionate verve driving the decisions of beer making. I understand that the pressures of continual creation and production can make this kind of brand work seem difficult or even futile, and that countless drinkers line up, trade, and tick according to ratings and hype. But when I dig through dozens of stock sheets looking to fill the gaps on my draft, cask, bottle, and can menus, narratives always count.

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Greg Engert is beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose bars and restaurants include ChurchKey, Rustico, and the Bluejacket brewery, among others.