BOP Till You Drop

Vine Park Brewing Company
1254 W. Seventh St., St. Paul;(651) 228-1355
www.vinepark.com
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-1:00 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 10:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Sunday; kitchen serves till 10:00 p.m. nightly; late-night appetizers available until 11:30 Tuesday through Saturday  

Want to start a meal with five glasses of beer? Sure you do. Just claim a table in the glitteringly spic-and-span newish brewpub of the Vine Park Brewing Company and order the "Vine Park Sampler." You'll receive five 5-ounce glasses--for $5!--filled with five of the beers that Vine Park is serving that day. So, five beers, 25 ounces, all arranged on an annotated placemat, which is roughly like one of those toddler puzzles, when you fit the cow in the cow-shaped cutout, except tipsier. Unless you exhibit some extreme interest in the beer, like I did one lunch, and then you get the whole run of seven beers that fit in all seven placemat circles; 35 ounces of beer--at lunch! Minnesota wild, indeed.

Dangerously, these beers are subtle, complicated creations drawing from the whole universe of brewing tradition, and they require repeated sipping to discern their art. For example, the Lazy Days Pale Ale is an English-style brew with a clear amber aspect and an aggressively hoppy nose. Justus Ramsey Red is made with beech-wood-smoked German malt, and the first impression on the palate is that someone put flaming sticks in the brew. Soon enough, though, it becomes apparent that the body of the beverage supports its strong taste, it's one of those rare acquired tastes you can acquire in only a few tastes.

This is no lowest-common-denominator beer; it's crafted by hands with a sense of the breadth that beer can claim. When the hands that made it all--attached to the body of head brewer Brian Schiebe--dropped by my table to talk about the stuff, I was charmed. So charmed that I soon decided that the Eelpout Stout was melodious. The Eelpout is a nearly black Irish stout roughly along the lines of Guinness, which is nitrogenated (charged with nitrogen) just like Guinness is to give it that characteristic super-creamy, velvety mouth-feel, but it's sweeter, lighter, and more floral. Melodious. Shudder. What was I looking for, thinking such things so close to the new Xcel Energy Center--a hockey puck to the head?

But Vine Park is no Johnny-come-lately hockey bar: Vine Park Brewing Company has actually been doing business right where it is, as a "BOP," for five years, and the new restaurant and pub part has been in the works since long before the Minnesota Wild ever had a name. BOP means "brew on premises"--a place where you brew your own beer. There are fewer than half a dozen BOPs in the whole nation, and husband-and-wife owners David Thompson and Allyson Williams had to get special permission from the state Legislature to open theirs.

To make your own brew at Vine Park, make an appointment and choose a beer recipe from the 45 that Vine Park offers. Show up, pair off with a brew coach and a fancy state-of-the-art brewing kettle. Start brewing, using all the Vine Park fancy-pants malt your heart desires. Let your wort (the fermenting infusion of malt) steep. (Time for--depending on the recipe--an hour or two steeping break!) Return, add the rest of the ingredients, like fancy-pants hops. Pump the liquid into a shiny fermentation vessel. Go home. Two weeks later, return, bottle, and load up your car, six cases of beer heavier, but $105 to $135 dollars lighter--depending on the materials you have chosen. The beer is bottled in large, 22-ounce bottles, 12 to a case, but even the most expensive averages out to less than $2 a bottle.

BOP-ing offers many advantages to the aspiring home brewer: It's cleaner, faster, and usually cheaper than doing it yourself, and the professional equipment means the end product is usually better than anything you could pull off at home. In fact, says Williams, this process has proved so appealing that Vine Park has helped 15,000 brewers. The inspiration for the brewpub, which opened in July, came from those one-to-two-hour breaks necessary in the brewing process. "The goal was to create a place for our brewers to eat and drink," she says. "Instead of going over to McGoverns."

Never has the prospect of not going to Patrick McGoverns Pub and Restaurant been so rosy. Anyone who gives two hops about beer and local brewpubs simply has to give Vine Park a whirl. If you get there fast you can get some of their seasonal Dunkelweizen, a milk-chocolate-colored wheat beer that tastes almost like a smoked cheese. And while you're there, have a burger ($9), which is a great, handmade effort cooked to temperature, topped with good chewy bacon, salty white cheddar, and fit into an excellent soft bun. Or try the grilled, marinated portobello mushroom ($9), served on an herbed focaccia roll, topped with thin-sliced grilled eggplant, zucchini, and summer squash, covered with melted Gruyère, the whole thing dressed with a red-pepper mayonnaise. It's resilient, nicely textured, and tasty--a first-class concoction, fit even for meat eaters. Or, if you're feeling bold, get the good caesar salad ($4.50 for a small one, $8 for a vast large one), cut romaine covered with a garlicky dressing and decorated with tender, hand-shaved curls of cheese. At lunch, you can even get the grilled ham and cheese ($7), made on crisp sourdough, as long as you get them to leave off the odd cubes of pulpy marinated tomato they'll try to put in there. Because aside from the most basic things, Vine Park is a great brewery that proves the old adage: Lucky in beer, unlucky in double-thick blue-cheese-stuffed pork chops ($16.50).

My experience at Vine Park was that much of the extensive menu of nearly three-dozen options seems weird, and anything that at first glance seemed weird, at first bite seemed very bad indeed. A mahi-mahi poor boy ($12) never became larger than the sum of its parts: The tender fish was drenched with a sour, but not hot, jalapeño tartar sauce, and the whole thing fell apart in the hands. Butternut-gouda pizza ($9) is basically a bland purée of squash spread on a rosemary-flavored disk and topped with islands of nutty cheese and walnuts. It looks like nothing so much as a baby-food pizza, and offered no distinct flavor to even object to--one of the blandest things I've ever eaten. Portobello-pear crostini ($7) were really peculiar, vast planks of bread arranged around a wide bowl of pear-onion broth, with a mound of incredibly bland smoked sliced pears and soft onions. A pair of pan-seared ahi tuna fillets ($19) with julienne vegetables and soba noodles was pleasantly dressed with soy and ginger, but it wasn't really good; it was merely not bad.

I could continue to eviscerate this bland, strange, and poorly executed menu, but I'd rather not. Instead I'll wrap up with a few cruel remarks on the cider-cured pork chop ($16.50); it was deadly dry, and offered none of the sweet nutty taste that one turns to pork chops for. Still, the accompaniments beside the chop were good; parsnip mashed potatoes were fluffy and buttery; butternut squash purée was silky. Put that grilled ham and cheese where that pork chop was, and now you're talking. Service was sort of gee-whiz and easily confused: One time a server helpfully offered which of the beers he found "offensive"; another time my table didn't receive our dinner entrées because of a server error. (To their credit, the management did what they could to make reparations, and we were flooded with free appetizers from the late-night menu--so flooded, in fact, that we walked away feeling guilty, instead of wronged.)

Still, it's my opinion that all you really need at a brewpub--after the beer--is a good burger and fries, and everything after that is icing on the cake. Vine Park has the good burger, beat that with a good grilled portobello mushroom--and then they even have the cake. Namely, a signature chocolate cake shaped like a bottle cap ($6), which is everything you want in a cake shaped like a bottle cap: It's warm, it's fudgy, it's chocolatey. Cream-soda-poached pears ($5) were also very good. The dense, beautiful pears were served on a bed of crème fraîche. It was like the best part of a fresh-fruit tart, even though I didn't know what to do with the bowl of poaching liquid and plumped dried cherries that surrounded it.

Co-owner Williams admits that the place is still finding its way. She and her husband never got into BOP-ing to create the best pork chop in the universe (in fact, both she and her husband are vegetarians). They got into it for the beer, and for all the many brewers, who, Williams says, have become like family. "We have wonderful people who come to brew with us, and we wanted to spend more time with them; and to create a place where our brewers could spend more time with each other. We talk about beer, we brew beer, we drink beer. It's a cozy little family, and we brew, and we take brew breaks."

TABLEHOPPING:

93 CENTS MAKES YOU CUTE:You think you're so smart, downloading your little girl's Christmas list off her Palm Pilot while the two of you snowboard through Gstaad. Well, guess again: Where were you when the Nutcracker Suite Teatime was selling out at the Buckingham Bee in White Bear Lake? Good God, woman, in the name of all that's sweet and sticky--you also missed out on the Holiday Tea in Ireland! If you don't get on the phone now--and I mean now--you're going to miss the chance to book "Christmas Tea in Imperial Russia" at the tearoom on December 17, an $18.95 exploration of porcelain, pastry, and sugar tongs, with seatings at both 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. Owner Kathleen Boehm says she's even going to break out an authentic samovar for the event. And there are still seats available for the December 29 and 30 Duchess of Bedford Century Teas: six-course--yes, six--extravaganzas with a strolling duo of singing Victorian musicians; three savory courses, including cucumber sandwiches; scones; two sweet courses; and perhaps even nonalcoholic elderberry cordial, just like they drank in Anne of Green Gables. The Century teas cost $26.95, and the fare far outstrips that of conventional teas. Owner Boehm won't disclose what she'll be serving, but last year there were "floating Pavlovas" and vol-au-vents. This year patrons can rent fancy vintage hats (93 cents, or $1 with tax) to wear for the event. Looking cute and dainty is available at no extra charge. The Buckingham Bee: 2179 Fourth St., White Bear Lake; (651) 653-2052.

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