Saturday, September 15, 2012

Gastropub Review: The Black Birch, Kittery Maine

Reviewed by Dave Leshinski

The Black Birch... I quickly salivate at the utterance of it's name. To some, it is a genus of North American tree. To others in the New England area, it is the foodie mecca. A dimly lit haven for those seeking the most comforting, yet brilliant food, along with the most ambitious beer and spirit menu on the East Coast. It is located in the quaint downtown of Kittery, Maine, just 4 miles north of downtown Portsmouth, NH. The only way to spot the restaurant is to get out of your car and search for the carved wooden sign resting against the glass window.

The setting offers an industrial twist on a rustic New England gastropub combining dark woods with brushed metals and hand crafted fixtures. The bar is equipped with approximately two dozen hand selected (constantly rotated) craft beers from all over the world, as well as an eclectic spirits list. The seating is cozy (50-80 capacity), but it sparks this incredible dialogue between veteran and rookie patrons asking each other whatʼs good on the menu today or how hoppy the IPA is that youʼre drinking. The bartender also has vintage vinyl spinning in the background as you enjoy your meal.

I will admit, the reason I travel to this restaurant is because as a beer geek their beer menu is something to be reckoned with. I was able to try two very different but very tasty brews. First, I had a glass of Allagashʼs Confluence. A dry-hopped Golden Ale fermented with their house Belgian yeast strain as well as Brettanmoyces. It is a ridiculously balanced sweet and spicy beer with just the right amount of Belgian funk. Second, I tried Green Flashʼs Le Freak. A modern blend of a Belgian Triple with an American Imperial IPA. This beer won the Bronze at the World Beer Cup for Best American Belgo Ale. All I can say is - the BEST of both worlds, the end.

As for sustenance, we started off with the Deviled Eggs 3-ways: bacon, jalapeno, and
pineapple; carrot and pickled ginger; and wasabi tobiko. Ah-mazing. This dish has
changed combinations each time weʼve been here, which ultimately adds to the
intrigue. For an entree, I had the Lamb Bolognese with goat cheese. The flavors
married together and melted in your mouth. My girlfriend had the Roasted Marinated
Chicken Thighs with Sweet Potato Hash and Smokey Chorizo, which was also to die
for. Everything they create is miraculous; from the Bacon and Bleu Cheese Mac, to the
Deep Fried Short Ribs, comfort food has never felt so comfortable.

I beg... nay, PLEAD you to travel from wherever you may think you are getting great
beer and food and visit this tiny piece of what I hope heaven to be.

Don't just take our word for it, Beer Advocate Magazine Issue #66 reviewed The Black Birch as one of the top beer destinations in the Portsmouth, NH & Kittery, ME area.

For more information visit The Black Birch at:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

O.C. Brew Fest Reviewed

This past weekend I ventured out to sunny California to check out some West Coast craft beer, as well as attend the 3rd Annual Orange County Craft Beer Festival located in scenic Oak Canyon Park in Silverado, CA.

This event is partnered with the Local 3631 Firefighter's Union. Boasting over 60 Award winning Breweries serving 150+ beers on tap, it raises thousands of dollars for the Fallen Fire Fighters Relief Fund.

All of the big breweries of the regional west were in attendance - Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Stone, Avery, Firestone Walker, North Coast Brewery as well as numerous smaller California breweries.

My strategy was to try things I haven't had before from some of the West Coast's craft beer trailblazers as well as discover some of the up and coming breweries. We found that most of the larger breweries had two tap lines, simply showcasing their flagship beers. I have to admit that I'd hoped based on my experience with Midwest beer festivals, that this would be a venue to try some special/limited releases but this was unfortunately not that case. The smaller, local breweries really came out to shine!

Beers of Note/Best in Show
• Epic Brewery (Salt Lake City, UT) Spiral Jetty IPA (6.6%), A bold IPA boasting 7 types of American hops
• North Coast Brewing Co. (Fort Bragg, CA) Red Seal Pale Ale on Nitro (5.4%), Copper-Red and creamy
• Bootlegger's Brewery (Fullerton, CA) Golden Chaos Belgian Ale (8.4%), Perfectly spiced
• Golden Road (Los Angeles, CA) Get Up Offa That Brown (5.5%), Smooth & smokey English-style Brown Ale
• Taps Fish House & Brewery (Orange County, CA) Pumpkin Ale (5.8%), Well balanced

Best Tent Display
• Hangar 24 Craft Brewery (Redlands, CA)
Custom Tent, vintage truck, 4+ taps, lots of swag - these guys had all of the bells and whistles.
Breweries To Keep An Eye On
• Hangar 24 Craft Brewery (Redlands, CA) 
With a impressive list of quality crafted beers and vintage branding that can't be overlooked this local favorite caught my eye. I had a chance to visit their brewery - stay tuned for a dedicated write up.

Brad from Ritual Brewing and I
• Ritual Brewing Co. (Redlands, CA)
A craft brewery opening this fall, this was their first festival and they had quite a showing. The Wit's End was refreshingly delightful.

• Monkish Brewery (Torrance, CA)
These guys did not have their own tent, but were being served by Brü. Their Belgian spiced beers - Rosa's Hips (Belgian Brown spiced with rose hips) and Crux (Belgian Single spiced with elderflowers) were by far the most impressive I had while in Southern California. Check out their new tasting room right outside of LA.

Best Food Trucks
• Ranch A Go Go (Multiple Southern California locations)
Let's just say these guys rocked my world with their over-sized Pulled Pork Sliders.

• Brewcakes (Redlands, CA)
A unique bakery specializing in desserts infused with craft beer, wine or liquor. We tried a sampling of craft beer infused cupcakes that were delicious!

Glass Half Full
 • Wrist bands - pretty cool each little tear off square was a drink ticket, no worries about losing paper tickets
• Overhead Misting Cords - such a life saver on a hot day
• Location - great amount of shade, not over-crowded

Glass Half Empty
• No cell reception - hard to meet up with people
• No map handouts - hard to know which breweries were where for planning/strategizing
• Brewery representation - as a beer geek I would have loved to see more people from the breweries who could answer questions about the beers on tap.

Overall the festival was spacious, delicious and well planned. Thanks so much O.C. Brew Fest and O.C. Firefighters Union, we had a fantastic time!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beer T-Shirts of SoCal

Truth: People at beer festivals love their kitschy beer t-shirts, so it became a fun hunt of sorts to find and document the best of the fest. Only one person got angry at me, everyone else was pretty excited about being part of my project.

Route Beer?
That's what she said...
Brewcake was one of the delicious food vendors

This was our favorite!
This guy has a Belgian Yeast Infection

I have no idea...

Words to live by!

Trust me, this guy had plenty of beer.

This guy actually called me an asshole for asking about his beer blog, but let me photograph him anyway.

My score of the day. Pork: the perfect accompaniment.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Portland Brew Festival Reviewed

This past Labor Day weekend Portland Maine celebrated its 2nd Annual
Brew Festival on a picturesque New England summer day. It was held at
an old marina warehouse right on the waterfront of Oldport, which
added a unique and rustic feel to the event. Over 30 local breweries
were in attendance, including Allagash, Baxter, Shipyard, and Sebago
to name a few. The beer was flowing from 12-4pm, unfortunately the
selections from the breweries were a tad lackluster. The majority were
offering their staple brews without the added bonus of rarities or new

Allagash, however, was pouring their anniversary brew Fluxus, a
strong golden ale with a classic Belgian aroma and tart/peppery
finish. It was definitely a highlight of the afternoon. If you are a
Belgian beer fan, their beers always offer a balanced yet unfettered

Longtrail Brewery also surprised me by having their new Brewmaster’s
Series Imperial Pumpkin ale, which at 9% abv was amazingly smooth and
devoid of the canned pumpkin flavor. It was fresh and festive, as a
fall pumpkin brew should be.

One of the most distinct and satisfying beverages of the day wasn’t
actually a beer. Urban Farm Fermentary, based out of Portland,
specialize in ciders, mead and Kombucha, a Japanese fermented tea.
Their Ginger Kombucha was incredible. With aromas of pickled ginger, a
light effervescent mouthfeel, and refreshing sweet and sour flavors,
it was hard to believe I wasn’t drinking a Flemish sour ale. Kombucha
is derived by fermenting tea leaves with live bacteria and yeast,
sometimes including the ever popular strain Brettanomyces
Bruxellensis, which gives it that classic Belgian funk. Clocking in at
around 1.5-2% abv,  it isn’t exactly a party brew. In fact, you might
catch your parents drinking it within the next few years if it gains
popularity. The copious amounts of healthy bacteria in every bottle
are said to help ease indigestion and extract toxins from the body. 
Sounds like a perfect breakfast beverage after a late night out in one of 
the fastest growing craft beer cities on the east coast.

Reviewed by Dave Leshinski

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Beer Bistro North Opens in Lincoln Park

With an extensive background in the craft beer industry and a love of bringing quality beer and food to the masses, owner Bob McDermott has established the The Beer Bistro brand as a premiere destination for beer lovers. Whether you’re visiting the Madison location or the newly opened Fullerton location, you’ll find a feel-good atmosphere that is homey, welcoming, and unpretentious. Bob McDermott and his staff pride themselves on having a neighborhood approach - they offer a rotating selection of high-end beers, but will never look down at you for ordering a Miller High Life.
We met up with Bob at The Beer Bistro North on Fullerton to check out the new location and talk about their recent expansion.

H2TA: Bob, I understand you have quite a background in the restaurant industry. What led you to focus on brewpubs in particular?

Bob McDermott: I’ve worked at a lot of Chicago institutions over the years. My love of craft beer exploded when I was working at Goose Island on Clybourn and also helped open the Wrigleyville location. I then went on to run a larger national chain of restaurants. I learned an awful lot through those places - what to do, what not to do. Like any business you have to make a lot of mistakes before you get decent at it, that’s how you learn.

As far as what drew me to brewpubs, I’m a big fan of variety. I don’t want a beer all night long, it’s just not my style. I like to be able to have options - different IPAs, seasonal styles, really big beers to balance my day or night. Most brewpubs are pretty laid back and casual, which is how I am, not white collar and stuffy. I like the idea of hosting a party every day and I like that my party offers more variety than other places can.

H2TA: In 2005 you were one of the first to bring the artisan food and craft beer concept to the West Loop. How has the scene changed and what still makes The Beer Bistro unique?

Bob: The Beer Bistro didn’t start off saying “we’re going to be THE beer bar in the West Loop” and cut our niche. I opened it up as a neighborhood bar with a good beer list. Luckily the people in the neighborhood and those going back and forth to the United Center for games have learned about The Beer Bistro and use it as their stepping stone to learn about craft beer. We try to be very inclusive, rather than exclusive, and that goes for my staff. It’s important to have knowledge about what you’re selling but don’t be an asshole to people who don’t know, bring them into the fold because then they’ll come back and want to learn more about craft beer. Right now, craft beer in the West Loop is on fire - Haymarket, The Publican, Girl & The Goat, Paramount Room, Twisted Spoke – they all have great beer lists. We were fortunate enough to open up when the neighborhood was starting to change and were the first bar on the street. This neighborhood has helped us be who we are and what we are.

H2TA: This past spring you purchased Small Bar Fullerton as your second location and opened The Beer Bistro North in ten days - an incredible feat in this industry! Can you tell me a little bit about the space and what made it the ideal location?

Bob: Small Bar was already established and very successful. They have a great brand and did a good job of putting the bones in place. There’s a lot of history in this building - it used to be St Paul’s Billiards back in the day, where The Color Of Money was filmed. When I was younger, I used to hang out here because they sold $1.75 bottles of Miller High Life and $2 an hour to play pool. As a kid growing up in the city that was a pretty good deal. As an adult, it’s an odd feeling to actually be working here now, even though it looks different, because I know what was here. It’s in the middle of a neighborhood that wants to do more, surrounded by some great restaurants. I’m happy to be up here on the Northside and I think there’s a lot of potential. You can see we didn’t do an excessive amount of work to Small Bar, we just broke up some of the hard lines and made it a little softer and more homey.

H2TA: The West Loop is known as being a community of serious foodies and “hop-heads”. Is your approach at The Beer Bistro North any different than at the original location? What are you finding the Northside clientele are looking for?

Bob: We’re still feeling out the Northside clientele. They’re not as hop-driven as the West Loop. The West Loop can’t seem to get enough. When we did a tap takeover for IPA day we went through 4 barrels of Hopothesis in 3 hours, it was awesome. We’re learning up here (Northside) that sours and some other things we’re trying are well received. There are different distributors between the two locations so we’re able to bring in some unique beer at different times.

H2TA: With approximately 200 beers available, The Beer Bistro and The Beer Bistro North are considered prime beer locations. How are you able to consistently bring such a diverse selection of quality beers to your bars?

Bob: We want to have great beer list with variety. Breweries in the Midwest are on fire right now, so it’s not difficult to bring in quality beer. We’re fortunate enough that we have gotten the respect of not only the sales community but customers that come in that we can sell great beer. With this second location we’re learning that the craft beer drinker really is everyone - male, female, 25-75. You’ll get the older gentleman who drinks his High Life and shot of whiskey and then turns around and orders a Lagunitas A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and you’re thinking - “How does he know about this?” but he does, it’s awesome.

As far as looking ahead to what’s new – we’re just asking, trying and having fun with what we do.

H2TA: And with the diverse selection you have at your fingertips, why was it important for you to have a House Draft? Who brews it and what makes it unique?

Bob: We’ve always done a “Beer Of The Month” special and I wanted to have a beer that we could call our own, one line that could switch out seasonally. We’re not brewers; I’m much better at selling it than making it. Originally, I wanted it to be locally-sourced, but that was in 2009 when Midwest beer was really exploding and breweries were having a hard time keeping up with beer production. We put our feelers out and were able to pair up with Brooklyn Brewery and it’s been a really good partnership for us. Will it always be with them? I don’t know. With the amount happening in Chicago right now, I’d love to see a window open up where we can work with someone locally, but we’ll see.

H2TA: You are known for some pretty fantastic tasting events (Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, Goose Island Fulton & Wood) and tap takeovers (Three Floyds, Two Brothers, Milwaukee Brewing, IPA Day). What is it about these events that draws so much excitement? How important are these events in promoting the local craft beer community?

Bob: Our first tap takeover was Three Floyds and it was not the easiest day for us. We had twenty different beers on tap on at once, which we had never done before. It was a huge investment and our hope was to be out of beer completely at the end of the night. It happened on February 23rd last year, the “thundersnow” day, where there was lightening and thunder in the middle of a snowstorm (which only seemed appropriate for Three Floyds). We were nervous whether people would make it out, but we tapped the beer at 4:30pm and by 5pm it was nuts in here. There were no issues and it was great because everyone was here for the craft beer. We try to offer all of the pints at the same price so that you can taste 8-10 different beers and get more flavors and varieties. The tap takeovers recreate the beer tour experience by bringing everyone to their neighborhood bar and letting them meet the brewers and try beers they haven’t had before.

H2TA: What excites you most about being on the purveyor side of craft beer and where do you see the future of The Beer Bistro/The Beer Bistro North?

Bob: I like to drink it, bottom line. I love craft beer. I’m going to be at a bar no matter what and I enjoy running a business doing it. Otherwise I’d be the bum, the old guy, complaining about the $5 whiskey.

I see the Madison location continuing to do well and hopefully being a mainstay in the neighborhood. At Beer Bistro North, the sky is the limit. We’re just getting started and working on some crazy events. There’s a lot of potential to do some different things up here. You can’t catch lighting in a bottle twice, and I wouldn’t presume to try. I think that’s the downfall of some establishments opening multiple locations - to run on reputation alone. We take advantage of social media, but we don’t pay for advertising, it’s not the way we do things. We’re just getting into the community and involved with this neighborhood. We’re about to hit Fall which is when Chicago comes alive with football, basketball, hockey and we love it. I’m blown away by our city’s ability to adapt and change beyond a Miller/Budweiser city. Chicago is a craft beer city and I’m happy with that.

H2TA: What value do you see in becoming an allied member of the craft beer community?

Bob: I’m not one of the brewers, I’m one of the purveyors and that’s where my strength lies - providing to the masses. I think there’s a huge advantage to being a member of the community beyond networking and shaking hands, it’s much more than that. With the amount of restaurants trying to survive, we felt it was time for us to expand. I have a great management staff in place, Chris Wortendyke is a great asset to my business on Madison. We’re not just selling craft beer, we’re part of the community and living craft beer life.