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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BTU Brasserie: Alternative to Traditional Brewpubs

When it opened last summer on Northeast Sandy Blvd, BTU Brasserie was a much-anticipated addition to a strip that is dominated by Asian-themed eateries. Combining Chinese cuisine with a brewery is a pretty unique concept and one that may have traction with folks bored with standard brewpub fare.

Frankly, I believe offering an alternative to traditional pub fare is a great idea and one that makes a lot of sense around here. Food, whether better or just different, is a great way to differentiate yourself in a city xthat is virtually overrun by brewpubs and craft-centric restaurants.

In the case of BTU Brasserie, the folks running things have significant experience on the culinary side. Co-owner Nate Yovu served as head chef at Burnside Brewing and also has training and experience as a brewer. One of his partners, Chris Bogart, has a strong culinary background and also worked at Burnside. Nate's brother, Jay, has homebrewing experience and assists with the brewing program.

It's certainly fair to say these guys have a greater depth of experience with food than they do with beer. That's probably what accounts for the beers being what they are. And what they are isn't bad. But I believe there's a difference between brewers who brew for standalone drinkers and those who brew mainly to enrich or complement a restaurant menu.

For example, Fire on the Mountain brews beers that are largely designed to fit with the hot & spicy food they serve. So they have some beers that are intended to put out the fire, so to speak. That isn't all they have, but it is a definite focus. These beers aren't often seen outside FOTM locations.

An alternative example is Laurelwood, which features mostly standard pub fare and brews a variety of beers. Some of those beers cater to non-beer geek patrons. But Laurelwood also brews standalone beers like Workhorse, that bring people into their pubs and are regularly poured at various watering holes around town.

The Beers
When I walked into BTU last summer, they were in the middle of renovating the space. A brand new 7-bbl brewhouse was in place, though it appeared they were a month or more from opening. When I returned a couple of months ago, they had only two of their beers on tap. I resolved to come back later when they were up to speed with the brewing.

Having recently received word that they were now pouring seven beers, I resolved to stop in. Early Saturday evening proved the perfect fit.

First things first. The cost of a seven beer taster flight at BTU is just $7. And these are solid 4 oz pours, so nothing to shake your fist at. This is a good deal and what you should expect to pay for this much beer. Too many places jack up prices to discourage taster flights, which are admittedly a bit of a pain is the ass.

BTU's flagship brew (from the beer menu) is BTU Lager, an amusing little beer that clocks in at 5.5% and 22 IBU. It's brewed with Chinese short grain rice and filtered. This beer is clear, clean and crisp. It also lacks significant character. If it hadn't been under-carbonated, I might have mistaken it for Coors Light. I suspect it's their flagship because it goes well with the food.

Rusty's Red is another one of their popular beers, at 5.8% and 52 IBU. It's billed as a generously hopped American Red Ale. It seemed coarsely bitter to me. Maybe it could use a little residual sweetness. Out For a Rip IPA fell into the same category. Its numbers, 6.4% and 55 IBU, aren't big compared to other IPAs out there. But it struck me as being intensely bitter with almost no hop aroma or flavor. It reminded me of the IPAs I made 15 years ago as a home brewer, in which all or most of the hops went into the boil. Those days are gone and I think these beers need some work.

It gets better. Dark Helmut Schwarzbier (6.3%, 28 IBU) is a nice representation of the style. It's smooth and mildly roasty. The name may not fit with the Asian theme, but the beer works perfectly with some of the food. There's also Sandy Blonde (5.4%, 25 IBU), a golden ale featuring Cascade hops, that works well. Polaris Wheat (5.4%, 34 IBU), named for the Polaris hop, is a mildly bitter rendition of the style. I think it probably pairs nicely with some of the spicier dishes here.

The outlier on the beer list is Joulupukki Festive Bock (5.8%, 16 IBU), a holiday beer spiced with pumpkin, peppercorns, fresh ginger, star anise, cinnamon, orange peel and coriander. The spicy character of Joulupukki is pretty subtle and gets more pronounced as it warms up. I'm not sure where it fits in with the theme or the food, but it's worth trying.

It seems to me the BTU folks have succeeded in producing beers that complement the food experience there. The owners, I suspect, are still in the process of figuring out their brewing system and tweaking recipes. The beers will evolve. They will get better and there will be even more variety going forward.

There was talk early on of distributing kegs. As it stands, there isn't  a BTU beer that would have much traction in a taproom, pub or growler fill station. These aren't standalone beers. If I were going to pick one to market outside the restaurant, it would be the Schwarzbier. Why? Because it's a well-made beer and there aren't a lot of competing dark lagers out there. Just saying.

The bottom line with BTU Brasserie is this: It isn't a place you're going to go strictly to have a beer, although it may well become a beer destination down the road. For now, it's a place you're going to go to have lunch or dinner and a beer. Because it seems to work really well on that level.

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