Birch River Grill Beer Tasting

Walking into the Birch River Grill, Sandy and I felt as if we had entered a country lodge.  We were impressed with the earth tones, wood decorations and the floor to ceiling fireplace roaring in the bar/waiting area.  At the bar, the obligatory large HD TV was tuned to ESPN making me feel right at home.  Just as we comfortably settled into the large wing chairs, Chuck Valenti, the restaurant manager, greeted us and offered each of us a pint of Goose Island’s Honker’s Ale.  This was a great beginning.

A welcoming fireplace

Birch River Grill, privately owned, opened in 2006.  It boasts several comfortable dining areas surrounding an elevated center.  We were told that about 30 people would be participating in the tasting to be held in one of the side dining rooms.  Before long, Chef John Ayaleanos joined us and explained his choices of food and beer pairings. His 15-year career is quite varied. He and his brother once owned Fantasy Gyros, a fast food restaurant, and later he worked for “Lettuce Entertain You” at Papagus, Marche, and Red Light and is currently at Birch River Grill. The 6 courses chosen were mostly from the regular menu and adapted for the tasting.  Course 3 was exceptional – a barbecue peppercorn bacon wrapped shrimp with white cheddar grits served with a Belgian blonde (Leffe Blonde).

Chef John Ayaleanos

To help us learn more about the beer, we spoke with beer experts, Katie from City Beverage and Jessica from Annheuser Busch before dinner.  They were both enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  From them we learned that barley is the body, head and soul of beer and ale. Hops provide the spice and aroma and acts as a natural preservative. Yeast is the life. Unlike wine which provides its own liquid, water must be carefully filtered and remain colorless and odorless. There were stouts, lagers and ales, which would accompany the dishes. In judging these drinks one must be mindful of appearance, mouth feel, aroma, and taste.  While beers don’t have legs like wine along the glass, they do have “lacing”. You shouldn’t swirl beer like wine to see the legs and aerate the wine, but you can gently angle the glass clockwise and see how the head appears on the sides.  We were instructed to taste the beer before the food and then we were ready for them to “Bring on the food”.

The bar

Course 1: Herb-n-garlic boursin cheese stuffed mushrooms with horseradish sauce served with Honkers Ale (Goose Island Brewery).  Frying the mushrooms locked in the natural juices. The cheese provided a pleasant texture when crunching into the mushrooms. The horseradish sauce (which could have been spicier) was a great match. The Ale perfectly matched the flavors and cut the saltiness of the cheese.

Course 2: Greek Salad with artichoke hearts, and other items was accompanied by Stella Artois.  We learned that this beer, the best selling Belgian Beer, should be poured to reveal a two-fingered head.

Glazed shrimp with Bass Pale Ale

Course 3: Cheese grits served as the perfect platform for the glazed shrimp with a squiggle or red pepper puree that added color and flavor had Bass Pale Ale as its accompaniment.  The beer was “outstanding” said Sandy raising her glass, and a perfect match for this delicious course.  This ale has been brewed since 1777.

Course 4: Salmon was presented on a bed of wild rice with a broccoli flower and baby carrots.  After being marinated for 24 hours, it was meaty, not overcooked and the spices and maple glaze blended well with the Belgian Leffe Blonde Ale with 6% alcohol spiced orange and cloves.

Salmon and Belgian Leffe Blonde Ale

Course 5: Cumin scented (boneless) short ribs with potato gnocchi in a bowl was served with Michelob Ultra Amber. I wasn’t prepared for the “pop” in my mouth when I sipped the Amber along with a mouthful of the short ribs. (George Reisch – Brew master at Annheuser-Busch explained that you feel the carbonation more in a light beer, which greatly enhances the food. It sure does!)  The stew had a rich earthy flavor while the beer enhanced but did not overpower.

Pumpkin Spice Bread Pudding with

Course 6: Have you ever drunk beer with dessert? I hadn’t. I said to Sandy they have gone too far!  But they hadn’t.  Much to my surprise and delight the Pumpkin Spice Bread Pudding with a dollop of ice cream was terrific. But, the “Shock Top Belgium White” (by Annheuser Busch), served with an orange slice was worthy of seconds. There was almost a creamsicle flavor when drinking the Shock Top after a spoonful of pudding and ice cream.  

All too soon the meal and conversation ended. As Sandy and I left, we reflected on the new friends we made and how much we had learned.  We will be back!

Returning home, I realized that I wanted to know more about yeast and contacted George Reisch, brew master at Annheuser-Busch in St. Louis. Yeast is crucial to beer and there are literally thousands of yeasts. There are yeasts for lagers and yeasts for ales. Lager is brewed from the bottom up, so yeasts work at he bottom of the kettle. Ales are brewed from the top down. Yeasts (just as in wine) convert sugar (originally carbs) into alcohol.  Yeasts create 60-70% of the flavor of beer and alcohol says, the brew master. After talking about beer for some time on the phone, George offered this thought: “Beer is the humble servant of the food.”

75 W. Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights, IL
(847) 427-4242
Hours:6 a.m. - 10 p.m. Mon - Thur ;6 a.m. - 11 p.m. Fri ;7 a.m. - 11 p.m. Sat;
7 a.m. - 10 p.m. Sun
Private dining available with seating for 40-60

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