Behind the Counter: Greg Engert on Snallygaster 2023
Good friend and industry-celeb, Greg Engert is well known for his appreciation for craft beer. It began at a young age when his father, an early adopter of little-known microbreweries such as Samuel Adams and Saranac, introduced Greg to the concept of small-batch beers, which clearly made a lasting impression. Following college and graduate school, Engert made his first foray into the beer business at the famed Brickskeller in Washington, DC. Appointed Beverage Director of Neighborhood Restaurant Group in 2008, Greg has transformed the way we all think and drink about beer. Greg is one of Food & Wine Magazine’s “Sommeliers of the Year” making him the first beer professional to receive the honor. In February 2012 the James Beard Foundation nominated Greg for “Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional.” That same year, Engert created Snallygaster, NRG’s annual beer festival that brings some of the very rarest and most prized brews from around the globe to D.C., and has since grown into the largest craft beer festival on the East Coast. And the Beast … that is the Snallygaster … is back this year on October 14th. Greg has all the delish details below:
170 brewers pouring 400 beers. 25 food vendors. 10 bands and DJs on two stages. 8000 festival goers. 300 volunteers. 11 years and going strong. All for one very important cause.
This is Snallygaster 2023.
As I type the stats above, I find myself dumbfounded. Not just at the magnitude of what has become the East Coast’s biggest beer festival, and all of the passion and hard work that goes into it year after year, but how we even got here in the first place. The story actually stretches back further than the 2012 Snallygaster debut and has its roots in the DC area’s craft beer explosion.
Neighborhood Restaurant Group—having opened a series of wine-centric locations beginning in the late 1990s (including Evening Star Café, Planet Wine, Vermilion, and Tallula)—turned its attention to craft beer with the opening of Rustico Alexandria in 2006. I was lucky enough to meet NRG founder, Michael Babin, at this time and joined Rustico as Beer Director. Prior to this, I’d left behind grad school and an expected career in academia to taste, study, and sell the very best beers from around the world at Washington, DC’s—and the nation’s—first beer bar, The Brickskeller, which opened in 1957. Michael and I hit the ground running at Rustico which—kind of unbelievably—was one of a handful of bars (including The Brickskeller of course) actually even pouring craft beer on draft in the area at that time.
Back in those days, showcasing the wide array of beer styles, flavor profiles and brewing techniques available from craft brewers was the most important part of our mission to change the opinion of just what beer could be. With exposure came further education and we, along with a bourgeoning crew of zealots nationwide, began to see a generation of drinkers turn toward small-batch, full-flavored ales and lagers.
Events were always key to these introductions and we put our first spin on the now pervasive outdoor Oktoberfest festivities with Rustico’s OktoBEERfest in the fall of 2007. Gathering a few hundred locals in the back parking lot to taste a few dozen seasonal offerings was an undertaking at the time, but one we were excited to expand upon with each successive iteration. By 2011, the event had grown to attract thousands of guests and the city of Alexandria kindly asked that we curtail the offering. Ever since ChurchKey had opened in DC, back in 2009, we’d been considering adding a new event in the city and as we were beginning construction of Bluejacket brewery, in Navy Yard, we thought that this neighborhood would be the right spot for a relocated outdoor beer fest with the ability to grow. Back then, Bluejacket was surrounded not by newly-constructed apartments buildings, bars and restaurants, but (again - kind of unbelievably now) parking lots and open fields, so the move was natural.
With the shift to Navy Yard and DC, the time was right to rename the fest. Now called Snallygaster, after the winged beast said to have once terrorized German immigrants in nearby Frederick County, we were ready to push to over 100 beers for the 2012 festivities. The new fest would be bigger and more expansive, in line with more and more brews available from the local scene and further afield, but also have a new focus beyond beer. From now on, Snallygaster would serve as the single biggest annual fundraiser for our newly formed non-profit, Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture.
We started Arcadia in 2011 to create a more equitable and sustainable local food system in the Washington, DC area. Since 2012, Snallygaster ticket sales have continued to support Arcadia’s demonstration farm in Alexandria, where the team practices sustainable farming and has hosted thousands of school children for lessons in farming and healthy eating, two Mobile Markets that make weekly stops to underserved and low-income neighborhoods so that nutritious food can be made both accessible and affordable, and a veteran farmer program that has trained hundreds of military veterans, active duty servicemembers, and their family members for new careers as farmers. Each coveted sip of lambic from Cantillon or 3 Fonteinen, each splash of hazy from Monkish or Fidens, and each lager pour from the likes of Suarez Family or Schönram goes to making an impact in the local community.
We’ve worked hard to evolve Snallygaster over the years so that it can continue to expand both its commitment to Arcadia and to providing an increasingly enjoyable, and reliably memorable, festival experience in the nation’s capital. Each year we take stock of the event and utilize important guest and vendor feedback to hone our offering. At the top of the list has been to increase the sheer number of beers available, while tirelessly pursuing new and intriguing brewers never before seen in the area. This has increased our need for additional space, especially as guest interest has grown well beyond our region, and we’ve moved Snallygaster around Navy Yard and even over to Union Market before finally arriving on Pennsylvania Avenue, with the Capitol building as the most fitting of backdrops.
Once we added this singular setting to an already exciting beer fest, we set about further refining the offering. We’ve added more and more outstanding food vendors annually, along with more and more music and kid-friendly activities, while rethinking our approaches to festival entry, guest seating and beer lines as well. A major breakthrough came in 2019 when we adjusted the ticket offering to an unlimited tasting format rather than the pay-as-you-go model previously employed. Guests can now try shorter pours of countless beers and truly experience the dizzying array of craft-brewed flavors on offer, which—after all—is what inspired us to start Snally’s predecessor back in the parking lot of Rustico Alexandria 17 years ago.
170 brewers pouring 400 beers. 25 food vendors. 10 bands and DJs on two stages. 8000 festival goers. 300 volunteers.
We will see you at Snallygaster 2023. And many more.