Monday, April 4, 2016
Birch's Please! Birch's On The Lake Review...
At this year's Winterfest one of the stand-out beers for me was one from the relatively new brewpub Birch's On The Lake. I talked briefly with head brewer Brennan Greene and was intrigued enough to want to jump this place up on my schedule for brewery visits.
Greene is one of two owners of Birch's and has a pretty impressive resume. He went to the University of Wisconsin Madison and got a degree in Philosophy. He then learned (presumably) what most discover: that Philosophy degrees are not exactly great for finding a "real" job. (I have a couple of friends who've been down this route.) He ended up attending the World Brewing Academy, then started as the brewer for the Schlafly Taproom in St. Louis. Shlafly was the first craft brewery to take on local favorite Budweiser... I visited there in 2012 and my write-up is HERE. I really liked the Tazmanian IPA when we visited (I gave it a 4 out of 5) and it turns out that that beer was Greene's recipe using then fairly experimental Galaxy hops. I tried one of these in the bottle just last week and felt that the quality has dropped since it went into bottle production. Knowing how many types of good beers Greene must have brewed at Schlafly, I was excited to try his newest venture with Birch's!
Birch's On The Lake is located in Long Lake (and yes it is right ON the lake, looking over the water.) My wife and I arrived around 6 PM on a Tuesday night and the place was busy but we didn't have to wait. There's a downstairs Brewhouse that's open Weds-Sunday and serves food and beers--unfortunately they were having an event down there when we visited so I wasn't able to check it out at the time. When we entered the building and walked up a short set of stairs I was struck by the classy wine-bar or supperclub feel. A rack of wines takes up the entire wall to the right of the host stand along with a gas fire feature. The walls are a mix of dark woods and leather upholstery, giving the place and upscale and timeless look far different from any "brewpub" I've visited. I felt a little shabby in my T-shirt and hoody compared to a bunch of the suited-up after-work crew. But hey this is Minnesota, you can wear anything you like to most places!
We were seated in a high-backed booth covered in dark leather, looking out over the bar and with a partially obstructed view of the lake (until it got darker anyway). The bar is shaped like a square, with seating all around, on a slightly lower level. Seating at the back of the bar (by where we were sitting) is elevated and looking into the bar itself. The bar is dark granite with white leather along the front. The chairs are (imitation?) snakeskin and very comfortable looking. There's a lot of space in the place for seating, and even more when the deck outside opens up for the season.
We had great service while we were there, attentive and knowledgeable. We were served a strange little 1950's tray of radishes, celery, carrot sticks, and pickled peppers served atop shaved ice--odd but added to the retro steak-house feel.
They had 8 beers on tap, available as 2, 4, 8, or 16 ounce pours for all of them. I had to try them all! As usual, Sarajo tasted along with me, as well as gave me dirty looks for spending too much time taking notes on my phone. Here are my brief impressions of the beers. My scale is 0-5, with 3 being my standard OK beer, 4 being outstanding, and 5 being my white whales.
1) Kolsch Blonde Ale: This has a great German hop aroma. Flavor is crisp, hop bitterness present. Slight fruity esters of pear and white grape that put this in the top kolsch styles I've had in Minnesota. This one is going to go fast come deck season. 4
2) Apricot Berliner Weiss: Strong apricot aroma, borders on extract/fake. Suitably tart but with a sweeter apricot finish. One of the better kettle sours I've had in Minnesota this year so far. 4
3) Witbier: Coriander and white pepper in the nose along with some Belgian yeast esters. Coriander strong in flavor. Perhaps too much clove and banana for Belgian Wit--more like German Hefe. A bit sweet on finish. Probably my least favorite of the bunch but still gets a 3.5
4) Coffee Chocolate Golden Ale: This is a beer that should not work. But it does! A deep golden color with excellent clarity. Fresh coffee and cocoa powder aroma is surprising for the appearance. Flavor is full of bright light-roast earthy coffee, white chocolate. Body medium--thicker than expected. Simply wonderful. 4.5
5) Vanilla Milk Stout: Aroma is pretty subtle. Roasted malt in flavor, hints of milk chocolate. Mild vanilla. Mouthfeel medium-plus. Grainy finish. Despite her love for stouts this was Sarajo's least favorite. 3.5
6) Simcoe IPA: The aroma is bursting with catty (cat pee!) Simcoe hops. The flavor is more balanced with mild caramel, but not sweet. Lots of powerful citrus fruit of grapefruit rind and tangerine. 4
7) India Brown Ale: Well balanced beer. Mix of mild roasted grain with plenty of pine and earthy hops. Very drinkable. 3.75
8) Double IPA: Crazy aroma on this! I get mosaic and simcoe for sure. Flavor is sweet and fruity up front. A bit of alcohol zip. Honey character. This reminds me of Hopslam about 3-4 years ago...in a very good way! 4.5
These beers are great. Like really remarkably great! Not since our visit to Junkyard Brewing in Moorhead last year have I been this impressed with beers from a relatively new brewery. Brennan Greene knows what he is doing! Tasting these IPA's, I remarked to Sarajo that they must be using reverse osmosis water and building it up--since it's quite difficult to get such a balanced flavor in hoppy beers with our hard Minnesota water. Later we got to talk to the young and friendly assistant brewer Alex and he confirmed that guess. Take note other small Minnesota breweries!
While I was finishing my nose-in-glass reviews of these remarkable beers, our food arrived. I had spicy fried chicken that was quite good, (but messy to eat) served with roasted corn on the cob, sriracha honey sauce, coleslaw, and a wonderful cheddar-thyme bisquit. Sarajo won this round of eating with her expensive but perfectly done Filet Mignon topped with marrow butter. The food was stellar and far above what I was expecting. For dessert, Sarajo had a 4 oz pour of the Coffee Chocolate beer and I finished up an 8 oz Double IPA.
On our first visit to Birch's, we found out that they do a beer dinner every month and signed up for it. On a somewhat overcast Tuesday night (again) we trekked out to Long Lake to give the place another look. We started out downstairs in the brewery this time, so I got to check out the mellow wood tones of the square bar, copious seating, and shiny stainless steel of brewing equipment. We were greeted with a glass of the Kolsch (I'd like to try this side by side with Waconia Brewing's version). While we sipped our beer, I wandered around taking pictures for this blog entry--most of which were pretty dark. Eventually Brennan showed up and we got to talk to him a bit before the official tour began. Once the whole group was ready, we all migrated to the brewing area and Brennan gave a really fun history-of-brewing talk that was one of the more entertaining that I've heard. While we were on the tour, one of the servers brought us over sample glasses of both the coffee ale and the newest (tweaked) batch of the DIPA. Yup, still just as good as the first time!
Soon we moved upstairs into a private dining room (this place is seriously huge) and were seated family style around one large table with about 10 other people. Over the course of the dinner we got to know our neighbors (this is not something I'm used to as a Minnesota native--but beer dinners seem to facilitate this process.) One of the guys at our table--Jim--was the brother of one of my High School classmates! Small world. We had four courses of amazing food paired with different beers. I've been to a lot of beer dinners, and I'd say that only The Happy Gnome and Butcher & The Boar have outdone this dinner for overall beer and food quality. We got to try a new version of the Belgian Wit--this time with ginger and lemongrass--and I upgraded my score to a 4 compared to the previous version. We also got to try the new Mosaic IPA that was perfectly balanced between the malt and hop bitterness and incredibly easy to drink (also a 4). We had a sorbet made from the Vanilla Milk Stout as an apertif between the appetizer and main dish that was even better than the beer itself. The best pairing was the most tricky: the rich and creamy lemon mascarpone cake paired with the zippy and fruity Apricot Berliner.
I almost don't want to publish this review, just to keep this place secret for myself and the other few in-the-know people who have been suggesting we visit. The beers are amazing already at just 6 months in--far better than many Minnesota breweries that have been open for years. The food and ambiance are upscale and somewhat fancy--not like any brewpub I've been to (other than perhaps Surly's Brewer's Table.) The one potentially negative thing I will say is that most of the people in the restaurant were drinking cocktails and wine--so perhaps the craft beer may take a little bit of time and education for these guys. I'm pretty sure we're signed up for the next beer dinner already!