Birch’s Lowertown opened for business in the Market House Collaborative building in St. Paul on Tuesday, September 11, bringing its small-batch, handcrafted brewing ethos to a thriving brewery neighborhood.
This is the second Birch’s brewpub for co-owners Burt Joseph and Brennan Greene, and they join Market House tenants Octo Fishbar, Peterson Craftsman Meats, Almanac Fish, and Salty Tart in the historic building. Furthering the collaborative nature of Market House, most of the menu for the 100-seat brewpub is prepared in the kitchen of Octo Fishbar and delivered to the patrons in the brewpub. (Mucci’s pizza is available at Birch’s bar.)
Unlike other brewpubs in Minnesota that operate one brewery and supply beer to satellite locations, such as Town Hall Brewery and Fitger’s Brewhouse, Birch’s Lowertown is the first brewpub in the state to install a full brewhouse in a second location. While the decision to invest in and install a brewing system in their second location legally allows each Birch’s brewpub to brew up to 3,500 barrels of beer per year, per Minnesota statutes, the decision stemmed largely from the fact that Birch’s on the Lake is running up against space limitations that will cap their production at around 1,000 barrels of beer per year.
Others might view a second location as an opportunity to scale up to a larger system, but Greene and Joseph have stuck with the 10-barrel brewery model that’s worked for them in Long Lake.
“I don’t want to maximize, I just want another little small place where we can just make beer and serve it at that place, and keep it all in-house, and have that same feel,” says Greene of the new brewpub. “You have the same brewhouse, you have the same reverse-osmosis water, same ingredients. Even our brewer, the assistant brewer at Birch’s on the Lake [Dave Wiessner], is now the head brewer down here. It’s just having those things be as similar as possible. No two batches of beer are the same ever, but this is as similar as we could possibly make it.”
While they are trying to get close in taste and atmosphere to the original Birch’s supperclub and brewhouse overlooking Long Lake, Birch’s Lowertown is ultimately meant to have its own identity.
“To me it has a similar feel, but it was always supposed to be its own place,” Greene says. “I love our little spot in Long Lake, but people all the time go, ‘I’m not going to go all the way out there.’ Whereas I’m excited to have a place that more people find accessible and they’re going to stop in and try our beer, because to me it’s always about the beer anyways.”
Greene and Wiessner have strong opinions when it comes to beer, all of which are driven by one principle: freshness. The year-round offerings at Birch’s on the Lake, and now at Birch’s Lowertown, are dictated by the customer. If they drink a batch of beer quickly enough, Greene and Wiessner will brew it again. But “no matter how much you or I might love it, if they can’t drink it in a reasonable time frame before it starts to go bad, then don’t make that beer anymore,” Greene explains.
Initially at the Lowertown location, Wiessner has rolled out the most popular beers from the Long Lake brewpub, such as Coffee Chocolate Golden Ale and Blood Orange Berliner Weiss. However, he says he’s excited to introduce new recipes at Birch’s Lowertown as he learns the tastes of his new clientele. “This is kind of sadistic, but I’m also excited for criticism,” Wiessner says. “I’m a huge critic of myself and I think we can always be improving on our beers, so I like to hear criticism even if it’s super negative and mean. I can find some nugget of useful information by some guy trashing our beer.”
Many breweries seek precision through batch-to-batch consistency, but for Greene and Wiessner, each batch of beer doesn’t need to taste the exact same as the previous as long as it hits the mark on flavor. In Greene’s opinion, there can be no such thing as a consistent product when it comes to beer.
“This is this beer, and we know it’s never going to be exactly the same,” Greene says. “Even if it was exactly the same, it wouldn’t taste the same to you, depending on what kind of mood you were in or what you had for lunch that day or what beer you just drank before that one. It always tastes different anyways, even if it was the same, so why try to make it the exact same every time? It’s just crazy. Brewers drive themselves crazy trying to make it exactly the same all the time.”
Greene’s outlook is clearly colored by his years “brewing to spec” at Schlafly in St. Louis. “Spec is a four-letter word for me. Fuck a ‘spec!’ Does it taste good? That’s all that matters,” he says before launching into a brewing parable about a beer at Schlafly that hit every specification but tasted off. “And it was like, ‘Well, send it out the door. It’s in spec.’ And taste was a spec, but it was just one of a hundred specs. Whereas to me taste is 99 percent of every spec and the rest of it isn’t that important.”
Coming from this perspective, it may come as no surprise then that neither Birch’s location has a dedicated lab.
They have a hydrometer and some test tubes for testing gravities and pH levels, but Greene and Wiessner don’t microtest their beers or scope for yeast counts. For the past few years, they judged their pitch rates for yeast by lifting the container and feeling the heft. (Since hiring two new brewers to assist at both locations, however, they’ve invested in a scale and have established specific weights for pitching yeast.)
Greene admits that their approach flies in the face of the industry’s push for greater investments in QA/QC programs and lab equipment—something that we at The Growler have advocated for on multiple occasions. “A lot of breweries, when I start explaining the way we do things around here […], they just look at me like I’m crazy,” he says. And when he tells them Birch’s uses the same yeast culture for 30 to 35 batches before starting with a fresh culture (industry standard is anywhere from five to 10 batches), he helps collect jaws off the floor.
“We don’t take sanitation for granted,” Wiessner interjects, noting the dumbfounded expression on our faces. “We have very good practices on all the things we do. […] Brennan’s got 10 years of brewing experience; he knows how to do things sanitarily, so he’s taught me to do things sanitarily.”
Wiessner knows their approach isn’t for every brewer, and he’d never tell a brewer not to do more stringent testing of their beer. “Just don’t let it overrun your brewery. Don’t let your own personal senses get trumped by that,” he advises.
At Birch’s in Long Lake and Lowertown, Greene and Wiessner are showing that brewing fresh, quality beer is possible so long as brewers have a clear understanding of brewing science, institute sanitary practices in the brewery, and repeat those practices until they become second nature. The method helps them avoid getting bogged down on the microscopic level and allows them to fully embrace the creative side of the process.
“How you stir it makes a difference, and every little thing along the way makes such a difference,” says Greene, noting how each of Birch’s brewers leaves their fingerprints on any given beer. “That’s the fun of it. Honestly, that’s why it’s an art.”
Brewer: Dave Wiessner
Beer: Blonde Ale, American IPA, Blood Orange Berliner Weiss, Coffee Chocolate Golden Ale, Mexican Chocolate Milk Stout, Raspberry Shandy. Coming soon: Citra Sour and Session IPA
Address: 289 5th St. E., St Paul, MN 55101
Hours: Monday–Wednesday: 4pm–11pm; Thursday–Friday: 4pm–Midnight; Saturday: 11am–Midnight; Sunday: 11am–11pm
Grand Opening: September 11, 2018