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Tap Talk: Birch's On The Lake

Over the last five or so years, the craft brewery movement has grown exponentially in Minnesota. The Associated Press says licensing records show two-thirds of Minnesota breweries have opened just since 2010. So, we decided to help you – and your livers – keep up with the taproom trend by stopping by some of these Twin Cities brewhouses. This week, we're featuring Birch's On The Lake in Long Lake.

Fifteen minutes west of Minneapolis, there's something quite special going on at Birch's On The Lake in Long Lake.

Yes, it's situated inside an iconic building on a great location at the edge of Long Lake. The view -- seen on both levels of Birch's -- is stunning. However, what makes the place truly unique is its partnership of an American-style brewery and quality Wisconsin-style supperclub food.

On the top level, there's the fine-dining experience. It's where chef-proprietor Burton Joseph does his thing, serving quality locally sourced and seasonal food, including upscale surf and turf. Steaks, walleye, ribs, lamb, sandwiches and soup … it's all here.

Birch's On The Lake Main Restaurant
Upper restaurant view (credit: CBS)

Meanwhile, on the lower level, brewmaster Brennan Greene runs the brewery and taproom. It's where Greene brews seasonal beers, all the time. There are no recurring beers on tap at Birch's – and that's the way Greene wants it to stay.

"It's always seasonal … there's no point in forcing beers on people. You want to make a bunch of brews, see what people like and if they don't like it, make something else," he said. "That's one of the great things about working at a brewpub, is you don't have to make the same beer over and over again … you can kind of do whatever."

Birch's On The Lake - Brewery View 1
(credit: CBS)

Another big thing: Birch's doesn't distribute its beer. It's all poured right from Birch's taps.

And there's a good reason for that.

"Fresh beer is best. As soon as it leaves the door, you can't control it anymore," Greene said. "Beer tastes better when it's all together in the bright tank, when it's all ready to go. As soon as you start syphoning it off into smaller and smaller parts (e.g. kegs & bottles), then they go bad quicker and quicker."

And there's so much more to Birch's story. So, for more on its beer, the partnership struck between Joseph and Greene, what exactly a "Wisconsin-style supperclub" means, check out the interview with Greene below!

Birch's On The Lake - Brewmaster Brennan Greene
(credit: CBS)

How did the partnership with restauranteur Burton Joseph happen?

Greene: So, I was working at Schlafly in St. Louis and I decided that it was time to move on.

After about seven months of hitting my head against the wall in St. Louis, my dad who lives around here (in Minnesota) -- and I grew up around here – said "there's this guy who owns a restaurant in Long Lake and is looking to expand. You should come up and meet him."

So I flew up here for the day, spent about three hours with Burt. We looked at this building, we went to Freehouse downtown, talked about what we really wanted was a really nice, warm, kind-of-cabin by the lake … he can have his supperclub up on the upper level and I'd have my brewpub on the lower level.

And I flew home that night – I had only spent about three hours with him – and I was like "yes, this is going to work."

That was October of 2014. By December, we had signed a lease with this place and by February I had moved back here. April we started construction and late September (2015), we opened.

Birch's On The Lake - Front View
(credit: CBS)

The bottom line is that I miss the lakes. When I was living in St. Louis, there were no lakes anywhere. I grew up on Lake Minnetonka and I always just like being by the lake. I loved St. Louis, but that was the biggest flaw.

Your new location along Long Lake is very new, but the building has a lot of history, so what was it like taking the reins of an iconic building that's been vacant for years?

The funny thing is the building closed down in 2005, early 2006. It used to be called Billy's Lighthouse and got bought out by a developer that was going to put 16 townhomes in the lot, which tells you a lot about the real estate we're on right here.

All of a sudden the economy goes down. It was 2008. So we hit the recession and they lost it. It went back to the bank and the guy across the street, Phil Ordway, bought it and just didn't want to see townhomes here. He sat on it for 8 years or so, waiting for the right thing to come around.

So, it closed in 2005 which is when I went to brewing school and this building sat and waited for me. Waited for me to go to brewing school, waited for me to work at a brewery for 9 years, to get all the experience I needed so I knew could make good beer. And then when I finally came back, it was sitting here waiting for me. It was totally fate, in my opinion.

Birch's Brewers
Greene with his part-time brewer Alex Lake (credit: CBS)

So, on to beers – what's your philosophy behind your beers?

It's all seasonal, all the time. I don't want any year-round beers. But I do always want to have a light beer, a hoppy beer, a sour, a cider and a coffee. What's funny is that I don't actually drink coffee, but I love coffee beer. Always have. Like now, we have two coffee beers. We've got our chocolate coffee golden ale and have Surly's Coffee Bender, because we needed a stout and I love Coffee Bender.

Like, our IPA right now is the Columbus IPA, but when that runs out, we just today brewed a Sorachi Ace IPA and we're just gonna do a single hop series of IPAs – that way everybody can know what that hop tastes like, enjoy it or not and move on.

What styles of beer do you enjoy brewing the most?

Well, I really love sour beers and they're hard as hell (laughs). Everything about them is tricky, and they could take years, and sometimes they don't come out the way you want them to come out at all. But that's been my passion for the last 5 or 6 years at least. I really want to make good sour beers.

But in the end, every beer is about the occasion and it depends on what you're looking for. To me it's not about a particular style, it's kind of what's happening in the moment.

Beer is totally objective. When you find a beer that tastes just right, drink it! Don't let anybody tell you otherwise – even if that is a light lager. Sometimes when you're out on the boat, it can really hit the spot.

You guys decided not to distribute your beer – why's that?

The bottom line is that I feel most breweries nowadays are just trying to expand their reach and grow as much as they can as quickly as possible. And to me, it's about making the best possible tasting beer. The only way to do that is to serve it in house where I can monitor it. I clean the draft lines. I make sure it's always in peak condition.

So, you're never getting a beer that has been sitting on a store shelf for a few months, let alone imported beer. To me, imported beer never tastes the way it should because it sits on a boat, it sits in a warehouse on the east coast and then gets on a truck and then sits in a warehouse in Minnesota. By the time it's on a liquor store shelf, it's already a month or two old, and it might sit there for a month before you get it. It just doesn't taste the way it should.

Birch's On The Lake - Brewery System
(credit: CBS)

What are your thoughts on the beer industry? There was that recent major merger …

I think the fact that AB InBev bought SABMillerCoors is a total monopoly and I cannot believe that the government let that happen.

At the same time, to me it's them running scared. They see these craft breweries coming up on them and they try to release their own craft beers and they try to discredit craft breweries with that Super Bowl ad … but there is nothing they can do to stop the growth of these craft breweries. And they keep losing market share.

What are your hopes and dreams for the beer scene in general?

The other good reason we're a brewpub is because tap handle space and liquor store shelf space is at a premium and it's harder and harder it get in there. And it's harder to distinguish yourselves from other breweries. But there's always room for a local neighborhood brewpub. That's the way it was before prohibition. Every town had its own brewery. It was a community gathering space really.

What I would like to see is less production breweries and more brewpubs just where they're needed. Where they're in it to make beer and have fun.

Birch's is about more than just beer though, of course.

One of the main things we got going for us is that we have really, really good food. You can expect to come and get the full experience. It complements the beer so well.

The other big benefit we have by not distributing our beers is that we have a full bar. You can get wine, liquor and other people's beer! It's just fun to have guest brews on.

It's much more of the full experience.

And, of course, you can't beat the view. No one's got a view like that and my brewery is sitting there specifically looking out at the lake, because I wanted to sit there and look at the view while I was brewing!

Birch's On The Lake - Panorama Lake View
(credit: CBS)

Lastly, What does it mean to be a "Wisconsin-style supperclub"?

The supperclub is always the nicest spot on the lake. And no one is going to open a new place that's the best spot on the lake because it's already there!

And to me, it's more traditional comfort foods. It's steaks, it's walleye, fried chicken and just really good, solid food. The stuff they've been making for a 100 years.

And it's the attention to detail. Every meal that comes out is done just right. Nothing gets missed. [Burton] is a total perfectionist. That's what it takes to run a restaurant really well.

Simply put, why beer?

That's a surprisingly good question … why beer. Well, because I really, really love beer. I guess that would be the gist of the answer. I'd been going to Fitger's a lot. I'd go to every brewery I could find and after I graduated from college I had a friend who asked what I wanted to do with my life. I was actually a philosophy major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. So I had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew whatever my career was going to be it had to be something I was really interested in. Because otherwise, what a waste of life if you're not doing something you're passionate about.

And the only thing that I really liked was going to these breweries and trying out all these different beers.

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