It’s the first beautiful day of spring in Minnesota—a cloudless, 70-degree afternoon in early May on Long Lake. The only thing separating today from those perfect summer days that pass by too quickly in July is the slight chill of the breeze.
The patio tables at Birch’s on the Lake Brewhouse & Supperclub are dotted with men and women in short sleeves soaking in the sunshine and taking in a late lunch or happy hour. Though we’re just 20 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, it’s peaceful and secluded here, as if we’re actually a hundred miles away, in the heart of cabin country.
— Birch’s on the Lake (@BirchsOnTheLake) May 26, 2016
At the back of the patio is Brennan Greene, co-owner and brewmaster of Birch’s, which opened October 2, 2015. He’s up a ladder inspecting a broken bulb on a string of lights. With his long tangles of brown hair, and short, wild beard, he looks like Jeremiah Johnson, if Jeremiah Johnson were a camp counselor.
After introductions, we sit down and order a beer. Brennan suggests either the golden chocolate ale or the peach sour ale. I’ve had the former—delicious and a total mind bend—so I opt for the latter, which is bursting with succulent peach flavors followed by a pleasant lip-puckering tartness. So far, all the positive reviews I’ve heard about this young brewery are proving accurate.
The conversation starts in typical Minnesota fashion: talking about the weather. As we exchange thoughts on how lucky we are to be sitting outside, having a beer by the lake, the tone quickly changes from small talk to something more; I can tell we’ve hit on a topic at the very core of this man.
Brennan spent his childhood in Orono, Minnesota, just west of Wayzata on Lake Minnetonka. In his early adolescence he found a source of freedom on the lake. “I got my boat license at 13, and all of a sudden I could go to Wayzata or Excelsior and just be out on my own,” Brennan says. “When you grow up around here, you have to drive everywhere. And if you don’t have a driver’s license, it’s really hard to go anywhere. But with a boat, all of a sudden this whole new world was opened up to me.”
There was something about being on the lake that spoke to Brennan. He felt it at his parents’ cabin on Lake Vermilion, as well as at the summer camp on Lake Nebagamon in northern Wisconsin where he was a camper and later a trip leader. It was a sense of serenity, he says—something that had been ingrained into his DNA from the very beginning.
“I’ve been going to the Boundary Waters since I was in my mom’s stomach, and I’m pretty sure I’ve gone every summer since. I just love it up there,” Brennan explains. “I’ve got a trip planned with my brother up to Quetico this summer; my wife came up with me when she was pregnant a couple years ago. I’m just not going to miss a summer.”
It was during the summers Brennan spent leading campers into the Boundary Waters for Camp Nebagamon that he discovered craft beer. On his days off, he and coworkers would hop over to nearby Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota, to visit Twin Ports Brewing and Fitger’s Brewhouse. The beer he sampled at the two craft breweries opened his eyes to the depth of flavor and varieties beer could have.
Later, with graduation from the University of Wisconsin–Madison approaching and still no idea of what he wanted to do afterward, a conversation with a friend sparked Brennan to consider pursuing a career in beer. He pitched the idea of attending brewing school to his parents, who offered to pay the tuition for the 12-week World Brewing Academy program in Chicago, Illinois, and Munich, Germany.
In the summer of 2005, Brennan returned to Camp Nebagamon one last time to spend the season on the lakes before his program began. As chance would have it, he was introduced to a camp parent, Dan Kopman, co-founder of Schlafly Brewing in St. Louis, who was visiting his son. Kopman told Brennan to touch base when he was finished with brewing school—that there might be a job for him in St. Louis.
Brennan called Kopman after returning in early 2006 from the Siebel Institute in Chicago and Doemens Academy in Munich. By June 1, Brennan and his now-wife, Natasha, were St. Louis residents and he was a full-time brewer at the Schlafly Tap Room, the company’s original brewpub.
Over the next eight years, Brennan worked his way up to head brewer, brewing over 1,000 batches on the brewpub’s 15-barrel system and developing his identity and philosophy as a brewer—someone who cares first and foremost about the quality of flavor. Near the end of his tenure, however, Brennan was growing discouraged with the company’s direction.
As Schlafly grew, greater emphasis was put on creating consistency between the beer made at the brewpub and the beer made at the company’s 23,000-square-foot production facility, Schlafly Bottleworks. The problem, in Brennan’s eyes, was that getting both versions of beer to the same Q/C specifications was coming at the expense of the beer’s flavor.
“It just became a numbers game. They just totally lost sight of what really matters—how a beer tastes,” Brennan says. “Taste is a spec, too, but they would consider it just like any other spec; whereas, to me, taste is the only spec that matters.”
Brennan decided that in order to brew to his philosophy of flavor over specifications, he would need to open his own brewery. More specifically, he’d need to open a brewpub.
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