Birch’s on the Lake

On Saturday, I spent the morning running and volunteering at a local half-marathon with good friend Mike B. The race was held at Gear West in Long Lake which is right near a brewpub that I had never been to, Birch’s on the Lake. Despite not running a half marathon, we were both ready for a big meal. We ran almost 7 miles at the crack of dawn, and then volunteered for over three hours on our feet. It was time to replenish.

Birch’s had 8 beers on tap and was serving their weekend brunch menu. We ordered up a flight of all 8 beers and shared them so we could each taste them all. I was happy to see a few sours on the menu and had high hopes for them. The standout one for me was the Blood Orange berliner, which was super tart, but easy drinking. I was a bit disappointed by the Boysenberry Gose, as it was incredibly sweet, and almost syrup like.

The red rye and blonde ale were both very nice and easy drinking. They were the kind of beer I could see enjoying on a patio out on a lake. I had high expectations for their Chipotle Stout, and unfortunately it didn’t match up to what I had at Big Axe in Nisswa. The one beer that really stood out for us was their coffee ale. This was a straw colored beer infused with coffee and it had amazing flavor. The coffee flavor was rich and fresh, and the malt body of the underlying beer was very smooth. I recently had another pale coffee ale, and this beer knocked that one’s socks off. A truly amazing brew.

Our food arrived, and we enjoyed a nice time relaxing and talking about running and hiking. Birch’s was a great way to finish off a great morning, and I can see going back there if I’m ever in that neck of the woods again.

Blacklist Artisan Ales

This past weekend, while in Duluth for a race, I took a brief break in the action to stop by the newest taproom on the North Shore, Blacklist Artisan Ales. I only had about 45 minutes between activities, and so we walked down Superior Street for a quick taste of what they had to offer.

I took a seat at the bar and ordered up a flight. They had a pre-set flight, which was fine with me, as I had just finished running 16 miles and wasn’t in the mood to think too hard. The beertender explained that they specialized in Belgian style ales, and on the flight I had a Belgian Wit, Belgian IPA, Belgian Golden Strong, and a stout on nitro.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Belgian beers, as I find the yeast flavor a bit too “strong” for my liking. I can’t explain it fully, but there’s a sweet character to Belgian yeast that I find distracting from enjoying the malt and hop character of a beer. I started my sampling with the Belgian Wit. It was pretty much as I expected, a very boldly Belgian beer, but on par it was pleasant to drink. The lighter malt body of the wit was refreshing, and since it was just a flight sample, I found the beer acceptable.

Before I went to the next beer on the flight the beertender offered me a sample of their Keller Vienna which they had brewed up just for their Oktoberfest celebration that was going on. There was polka music on the speakers, and a small stage set up for people to dance. The entire space is a beautiful old building, with windows facing the street as well as Lake Superior. It’s light and fun, and is the type of place I could see myself sitting at for long periods of time.

The second beer on the flight was their Belgian Golden Strong. Immediately I noticed that it had a much, much more subdued Belgian quality than the Wit. It actually surprised me a lot, as I was expecting an even stronger sweetness. Instead, I found a very pleasant and drinkable beer, that still hinted at a Belgian ancestry, but it didn’t knock you in the face with sweetness. I’ve only occasionally enjoyed Golden Strong’s, but this beer was something I could see drinking more of. That’s a high compliment in my book.

Next up was the Belgian IPA. Again, this beer had a much more subtle Belgian character to it. It was distinctly Belgian, but not so strongly that it overpowered the hop character. It was a well rounded beer that would appeal to IPA fans as well as Belgian drinkers. Finally, I finished up with their Stout on nitro. Holy cow was this a perfect stout! It had a beautiful hint of chocolate that balanced wonderfully with the roasty character of the malt. Serving it on nitro just made everything better, as the smooth finish left the chocolate notes dangling on your palate well after you had taken your sip. They distribute this beer in cans, but on CO2. If I want the nitro version, I’ll have to come back.

Finally, I was treated to a quick taste of their Spruce DIPA. This was a nice refreshing beer, but at 9.5% is has to be a sipper. I usually have a hard time tolerating such high ABV, so I was pleased I got to get a simple taste before ending my visit.

I can say without a doubt that Blacklist is worth stopping by. The space is warm and inviting, and our beertender was friendly and helpful. As for the beer, it is all brewed exceptionally well, and for a non-Belgian drinker like myself, it provided a lot to enjoy, while still being a Belgian-heavy brewery. I loved the balance that they were able to achieve in their brews, and I will most certainly be making a stop back here from time to time as I’m through the area. I’d suggest you put in on your list as well.

12welve Eyes Brewing

I recently got to sample the latest brewery to open up in downtown Saint Paul: 12welve Eyes Brewing. This is a new brewery started by three gentlemen who all wear glasses, hence the name about 12 eyes. They are located in the historic Pioneer Endicott building, in the garden level. Because of this, they are the only skyway connected brewery in Saint Paul. With the boom in housing in downtown Saint Paul, this feature alone will help them generate a solid crowd of regulars.

I got there just as they were opening up in their first week of business. I took a seat at the bar and ordered up three small sample sizes of their 11 brews that they had on tap. I have to say that starting a new brewery with so many beers is a gutsy move. One of the biggest issues I’ve found with new breweries is that they get over ambitious and lose sight of quality by trying to do too much too soon.

Before I talk about the beer, I want to make one comment about the space. One of the key components in a great experience at a taproom is being able to order your beer as efficiently as possible. Many taprooms that I have been to have beertenders behind the bar taking orders wherever people can squeeze through and order. Or perhaps they pull aside a couple of stools to made a space, but it never feels like you know where to go to order. I incredibly happy to see 12welve Eyes has learned from others, and corrected this in their design. When you walk into the brewery, the entire end of the bar is dedicated to serving up beer without disrupting people sitting along the sides of the bar. It helps create a nice easy flow for people ordering.

However, I chose to sit at the bar, along the side, to enjoy my brews. The first brew I sampled was their lemon hefe, and wow was this one a winner in my book. They use lemon puree in it, and it created a beautiful, rich, lemon flavor. I don’t think I’ve ever had a beer quite like this one, and I could see enjoying this one again. I hope this one becomes one of their staple beers.

I then moved on to their Black IPA. This was well balanced, though not as hoppy as what most people consider a IPA (even a CDA version). It was still really pleasant and enjoyable and well brewed. I finished off with their brown ale, which was very delightful. It is brewed with oats which gave it a very unique character for a brown ale. It had a smooth finish, similar to much bigger beers, but with a lighter feel of a brown. Overall, I think it worked.

All the beer I sampled was well brewed and contained no flaws that I could detect. This was a pleasant surprise with a new brewery with so many taps flowing. 12welve Eyes is committed to being a nice local brewery for the area, and I think that they’re on a winning track. They have a nice taproom and a solid beer list. I’m looking forward to trying them again very, very soon.

 

 

Barrel Theory Beer Company

Thursday night I got a chance to sample the latest new brewery in downtown Saint Paul, Barrel Theory Beer Company. This is a new brewery that went in next to the restaurant Dark Horse, which opened last year. If you’re from around the Twin Cities and know where the Gopher Bar is, that’s where Barrel Theory is.

They took their time and put together a really nice space in a building that was most likely turn of the century. There’s lots of nice brickwork and their decorations fit with the setting really well. Items like hanging table lights made with metal pipe, and bulbs that are shaped like old bulbs, help to give the entire place a solid vibe. Yet, the space still feels modern.

I was meeting a friend there after work, and as I was waiting I ordered a bunch of 4oz samples of 4 out of 5 of their beers. Currently, they have two IPAs, one east coast and one west coast, on tap. I had a lot of fun doing the side by side of the two and seeing the difference. The west coast IPA was pretty true to style, but I felt like the east coast one lacked a bit of the hop character that defines an IPA. East coast IPAs aren’t supposed to be super hoppy, but this felt more like a blonde or golden ale.

The next one I sampled was their berry berliner weisse. This was an easy drinking 4% ale, with boysenberry, kettle soured. It was a tasty brew, but the fruit puree was way too strong, so it ended up feeling like I was simply drinking fruit juice, and not a beer. I like the flavor, but felt that it wasn’t quite balanced between the beer and fruit flavors.

The final one that I tried, and one that I got a second helping of, was their coffee stout. This was a really nice, smooth stout, with a slight hint of coffee flavor. I could have gone for a little bit more of the coffee aroma, but it was a tasty beer. The overall stout profile was nice, with a hint of roast, but smoothed over by a lot of oats. It was a slight bit stronger, ABV wise, than I usually prefer, but overall a solid beer.

I’m excited for all the new breweries that are coming to downtown Saint Paul. Barrel Theory has a great environment, with solid beer, and I could see making it a regular destination for some after work refreshment.

Hoops Brewing

This weekend we’re up north again, and I had the opportunity to check out the newest taproom in Duluth, MN; Hoops Brewing. The ownership of this brewery has a pedigree with Fitger’s in Duluth, and so I was excited to see what they had to offer.

We called ahead to Grizzly’s Woodfire Grill across the street and grabbed some takeout on the way. Once we arrived at Hoops we were handed a menu and we looked around for a table. At first I didn’t know if I was supposed to go up to the bar to order my beer, but I then saw servers running around to different tables and took a seat. Eventually, our server came over and asked us what we would like. They don’t serve flights, but in a round about sort of way I was informed that I can get 5 oz pours of any beer. Basically, this is make-your-own-flight.

As we ate our dinner and I waited for my beer to arrive, we noticed a gentleman next to us changing the TV channel. I recognized him as the owner and complimented him on the beautiful space that Hoops has. They are built into a gorgeous old brick building with lots of exposed wood and brick. It’s a really great environment, and I could see enjoying a lot of time in this space.

Eventually my beer arrived and I got to sampling. Since we still had some driving to do, and it was very warm out, I didn’t get anything too heavy. I stuck mainly to the pale ales and wheat beers, and ended up ordering a second one of their wheat beers when there was a mis-communication with the server about which wheat I had ordered.

Overall, everything was well made, and there were no flaws in any of the beers. Everything tasted as it should, and I enjoyed each of the beers. My personal favorite was the summer wheat beer, as it was light and refreshing with a little lemon zing to it. The perfect type of beer to have out on the patio on a hot summer night. I enjoyed it enough that I bought a crowler of it on our way out.

Since Hoops has only been open a week or so, I wasn’t expecting a ton of weird or unique beers, and what they have on tap is solid. Combined with a beautiful space, it’s a great place to hang out and drink beer. I only had one little complaint. I hate the paradigm of a server bringing me my beer.

I’ve been to dozen, and perhaps hundreds, of taprooms, and the only time I want to see a waiter/waitress is if they’re also serving food. I have no problem with standing in line and ordering my beer, like every other taproom. When I have a waiter to deal with I have to order beer on their schedule, as they’re trying to serve other tables. Then at the end of it all I once again have to think about tips and waiting for my check before I can leave.

I realize that during busy times, a brewery might worry that the line could get too long. However, other breweries have solved this problem with a large, dedicated space to order beer, and staffing it with 2-3 beertenders who are not tending the bar. I saw many, many servers last night that simply didn’t need to be there, when we could have all just ordered our beer at the bar. Perhaps others really like the idea of having a waiter bring you your beer, but it just irks me, and next time I visit, I plan to try and find a seat up at the bar so I don’t need to deal with waitstaff.

Despite my quibble about how you’re served, Hoops is a solid brewery, and is putting out good beer. It’s got a beautiful location, and is in the heart of Canal Park, so you know it’s going to be popular. I’m certain I’ll be hitting it again in the future as I pass through, and I hope to see even more unique experiments on the menu next time.