One for the Road – The Birch Bar

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When it comes to availability of craft beer, we here in Boston are absolutely, positively, 100% spoiled. Sunset Grill & Tap. The Publick House. Meadhall. Stoddard’s. Five Horses. Bukowski’s. Lord Hobo. Park. Their beer selections are phenomenal, and usually, the people pouring them know their stuff, too. And this is but a small sample – in nearly every corner of this city and its neighboring towns, you can find a bar with dozens of microbrews on draft, usually accompanied by extensive bottled and canned options. Local and regional breweries, large and small, are well represented, while beers from all over the country and around the world are shipped in every day. Whether your taste for craft beer is casual, evolving, or so advanced that you can justify paying $30 for a 16-ounce bottle of some obscure Belgian ale, this city’s got you covered.

Boston is only one among many great beer cities in the United States. Portland, Maine, is rich in local microbreweries. I remember seeing endless beer options on a trip to Seattle, Washington, a few years back. Denver, Colorado, and Portland, Oregon, are considered craft brew meccas. And that’s only naming a few; there are hundreds of cities in this country where you can find bars with rich, expansive beer selections.

Now, there probably aren’t many beer aficionados who have Norfolk, Virginia, penciled in on their list of drinking destinations. But what it lacks in renown, it makes up for in promise – craft beer in the Hampton Roads region has seen a surge in both popularity availability over the past several years. The O’Connor Brewing Company churns out hearty microbrews, the 12th Annual Virginia Beer Festival took place last weekend, and local bars continue to expand their craft beer selections. And no bar better epitomizes this growth than Norfolk’s Birch Bar.

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Housed in a former industrial building, with a retractable garage door still intact, the Birch isn’t the only place in Norfolk with a great beer selection. But there are few if any other bars in the area that display such single-minded devotion to craft beer. There are 21 rotating options on draft, dozens more on a weekly bottle list, and not much else.

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No live music, no cocktails, and very little food. No TV. No neon signs or colorful posters. Within its Spartan interior, the only thing likely to catch your eye is the large chalkboard on the wall that lists the Birch’s draft beers and their vital stats – the brewery, name of the beer, style, origin, price, and alcohol by volume. This is beer with no distractions.

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I was recently in Norfolk for my sister-in-law’s graduation from nursing school. Melissa and I met up with our friend Chris and his buddy Matt for an evening at the Birch. It was a warm Virginia night, perfect for sitting at one of the three small picnic tables out front.

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The Birch’s beer list is largely influenced by European beer styles, though their brews change so frequently, the selection is always diverse. I consulted the big chalkboard of drafts and began with a Maui Coconut Porter.

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I’ll order just about anything with the word “coconut” in it, but I’m reasonably sure this is the first time I’ve seen it associated with a beer. The coconut flavor was pretty subtle, contributing a faint sweetness, and the beer itself was smooth and creamy.

Melissa took the suggestion of our server – we relied on her advice for much of the night – and ordered the Carnegie Porter from the bottle list. A very malty Baltic porter, it had an unexpected molasses-type sweetness and hints of chocolate.

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We were fortunate to be there on a Friday, because that’s when the Birch does beer and cheese pairings. It’s a novel idea; one normally considers wine to be cheese’s customary drinking partner. But a well-made beer can be every bit as distinguished as a fine wine, and properly pairing one with the right food demonstrates appreciation as well as knowledge. There were a few different combinations, and Chris went with the Contreras Valeir Extra beer, a Belgian style pale ale, accompanied by Bellavitano Balsamic cheese.

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As the menu teased, “the Balsamic enhances the syrupy candy flavors and starts to form gummy bears in your mouth.” If that isn’t a persuasive argument for ordering beer and cheese, I don’t know what is.

Mel followed Chris’s lead and got the Piccolo Chiostro, a Belgian-style golden ale made in Italy and brewed with wormwood leaves (normally associated with absinthe and hallucinations), served with Saint Nectaire, a French cheese “with hints of hay and fresh milk.” A sucker for anything hay-flavored, Melissa couldn’t resist.

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If beer isn’t your thing (and I don’t know why you’d come here if that were the case), or you’re simply looking to mix things up, Birch does offer a couple of alternatives – most notably, a rotating selection of ciders and meads.

Matt was intrigued by the mead, and at first, we tried to get him to order the habanero chili mead. (Why anyone would choose to infuse a sweet honey wine with the heat of a chili pepper is beyond me.) But then the waitress told us there was a mead called Viking’s Blood, and the die was cast. “Sweeter than I’d expect Viking’s blood to taste,” Matt noted, diplomatically.

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I was curious about the ciders and chose an organic champagne cider made by Etienne-Dupont. This was the only clunker of the night. “Champagne” had me looking for bubbles, of which there were none, and the flavor was kind of sour.

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I quickly switched back to beer with a Duck-Rabbit Wee Heavy Scotch Ale. Brewed in North Carolina, it was big and potent, with a nutty, bready flavor and a somewhat earthy mouthfeel.

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The Birch does make a few concessions to those who prefer beers that are not quite so complex. Listed as “Hipster Beer” on the menu, Cisco Sankaty Light comes in a can and represents a lower-cost, plainer option.

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If you’re expecting a hearty meal to soak up those high ABV beers, you’re out of luck – the most substantial thing on the menu is grilled cheese. Yes, that may be the simplest meal you might make for yourself at home, particularly if you’re returning from a long night of beer consumption. But whereas you might make grilled cheese with a few Kraft singles that have been in your fridge for…a while, the Birch makes theirs with cheeses such as fontina and manchego, incorporating ingredients like dried currants and prosciutto. Chris opted a sandwich called the Oarsman, made with Hook’s 3-year cheddar, house cheddar, and a pickle.

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Beyond grilled cheese, the options are pretty much limited to a soft pretzel, popcorn, chips, nuts, and a snack mix. It’s an amusingly sparse menu, but I suppose that helps keep the spotlight on the beer.

Blessed as we were with a beautiful night for enjoying good beer in the fresh air, we moved inside for one last round. With its scuffed-up concrete floor, lights hanging from the ceiling, and a floor lamp here and there, the Birch’s interior kind of looks like a basement. There’s a 16-seat, L-shaped bar and nine tables with wooden captain’s chairs. A wall behind the bar neatly houses the beer taps.

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I closed out with a Sculpin American IPA from Ballast Point Brewing Company. Very hoppy, but with nicely balanced flavors; I detected grapefruit or some other citrus flavor.

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Matt’s final beer was Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack, an American black ale. The roasted malt flavor was offset with a surprising hint of citrus.

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Mel and Chris both ended the night with a Schneider Hefeweizen.

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Despite it being a Friday night, the bar never seemed to get too packed. It certainly wasn’t dead, but I don’t think there were more than 15 or 20 people there at a time. That might be due in part to the Birch’s location, which is a little off the beaten path. With few bars in the immediate vicinity, this isn’t the kind of place you stumble into and out of a few beers later. Beer lovers seek this place out, and once they get here, they stay.

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That all contributed to a quiet, laid-back atmosphere, which is good – beers like this call for conversation, and it helps when you don’t have to shout to be heard above TVs or crowd noise. Even the music was at the ideal volume, and it was awesome stuff; like listening to the iPod of a friend who has really good taste and is into a lot of bands you’ve never heard of.

My visit to the Birch was exceptional. But if I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t have an opportunity to talk with the owners, Ben and Malia. A young married couple who grew up in Virginia Beach and opened the bar in January 2011, their passion is obvious, and their enthusiasm, infectious. All night I saw them chatting with customers, dispensing beer advice, and fielding compliments and suggestions. They seemed friendly, down to earth, and happy to have customers who share their appreciation for craft brews. In other words, exactly the kind of people you’d want to share one with.

Last Call

Everything about the Birch Bar is devoted to the beer-drinking experience. No frills, no bells and whistles. Just a simple environment for enjoying some very complex brews.

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The beer list is an achievement unto itself, but I wouldn’t measure the selection merely in terms of quantity; it feels like each beer is chosen by people who clearly know and love what they’re doing.

Not that you need to be a serious beer drinker to have a good time here. Everyone who helped us spoke knowledgeably about each beer, and they can steer you in the right direction if you’re unsure of what to choose.

Prices are certainly better than what I’m used to in Boston, though I don’t know how they compare to other Norfolk bars. Most of the drafts ranged from $3 to $9, depending on the beer type and glass size. The bottle and can list was more varied, with specialty brews as expensive as $35 and cans of Sankaty Light for only $3. Snacks are all $3 and $4, and grilled cheese ranged from $6 to $9. The beer and cheese pairings were $5 and $6.

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While the Birch looks and feels like a fairly modest neighborhood tavern, its reputation continues to grow beyond its West Ghent location – RateBeer.com called it one of the 50 best beer bars in the world in 2012. Not too shabby. Ben and Malia should be proud of the bar they built, just as Norfolk should be proud to be home to a bona fide destination for beer lovers.

Address: 1231 W. Olney Road, Norfolk, Virginia

Website:http://www.thebirchbar.com/

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