interview condensed and edited by EJ Toudt
Entrepreneur | Restaurateur | Beer Maven
Malia Paasch is well known in the Hampton Roads beer scene. In 2011, she opened The Birch, which was recently named one of the best beer bars in the country. She’s followed that success by opening Four Eleven York this year – a restaurant and soon-to-be companion bed-and-breakfast. We decided it was time to sit down with the beer expert and talk about beer, life and the new business. (Full disclosure: she writes beer reviews for us.)
So, let’s start with the easy stuff. How did you get into the beer business?
Yeah, kind of a long story. In college (The Savannah College of Art and Design), being a graphic designer, I got into beer based on the design of the packaging. I started buying six-packs just because of what they look like. I started trying them, (then) my friends and I started pairing food with them, doing little mini beer dinners on the weekends.
Being from the Hampton Roads area, my former partner and I knew there wasn’t really anything like The Birch. I decided to be my own creative director and did the logo and the menu design and all that. That way I still could use my undergraduate degree and do something fun.
What motivated you to tackle the traditionally male dominated beer scene?
Well, they sometimes say women have better palates than men, actually. It is interesting when we have beer tastings and bottle shares and the girls around the table would be like, “Oh, well I smell this!” and, “I taste this.” And the guys all kind of looked at us like, “Huh, I guess I could see that.”
But I definitely had to prove to people that I knew beer, especially when I took over The Birch on my own. People were kind of worried that the (beer) list was going to change or that something was going to be different. I think The Birch’s beer selection has gotten better and better. I’m learning how craft beer drinkers’ palates, which have changed, and I keep evolving to change with them.
How did you settle on opening The Birch in Chelsea? There wasn’t a lot there when you opened seven years ago.
I think the reason most people in Chelsea chose that area even before it was Chelsea, was that it’s a place where there were warehouses with affordable rent. You could do something that was a little bit more niche and not have to worry about such a serious overhead. Whereas like on Colley Avenue (in Ghent), that would be a little bit harder. You’d have to appeal more to the everyday crowd.
Well, it is booming over there now with Smartmouth, Benchtop Brewing, Torch Bistro, Chelsea Bakery and Tortilla West. What’s new for that area?AdvertisementPauseUnmuteLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%Remaining Time-0:28Fullscreen
Well, there’s a dog park, Dog Town’s new place. It’s gonna be right next to The Birch. It’s going to be an indoor dog park for people to come and hang out with their dogs, but also have refreshments and snacks and stuff.
The Birch has been incredibly popular, so why open a high-end restaurant and bed-and-breakfast? Why not just open another Birch?
I already have a Birch. I wanted a new challenge, something different. I think The Birch is unique enough where it is that I don’t think it could be duplicated somewhere else. A lot of businesses open second locations and they’re just not quite the same.
What really started the whole Four Eleven York project was a trip to Charleston. My partner in this new endeavor and I stayed at a boutique hotel there called Zero George; it was really cool. It is a beautiful old home, has several homes on the same property, and it has a very serious food component to it. It was cool how it had fine dining, great cocktails, and a beautiful veranda. I think what I loved the most about it was that the public could also come in and have a drink and go to dinner. You didn’t have to be staying there to enjoy the property.
What are the biggest challenges opening a business like that?
Two renovations going on at the same time! That’s probably been the most difficult. I’ve done a restaurant renovation before, and I actually did it with the same contractor as the build-out with The Birch, so that was kind of fun. It was like getting the family back together. He let us help with a lot of the work. I was here every day, you know, helping them with whatever. So you learn a lot, but home renovation I’ve not done. It’s a whole different kind of thing. It’s tiling, it’s redoing plumbing fixtures, patching walls, drywall work. So that was a little bit different than what I was used to, but doing them both at the same time ended up being kind of a lot. And that’s where we decided, okay, pause on the inn. Let’s get the restaurant open and then we’ll pick up on the bed-and-breakfast.
When do you expect the B&B to be finished?
Well, we’re hoping before the holidays, there’s really not that much work left in there collectively. It’s mostly just patchwork. The floors have been refinished. The bathrooms are pretty close to done, and they’ve all been tiled, all new fixtures are in. So it’s close.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Sleep is a high priority these days. I’m pretty much working all the time, but I enjoy it. There’s definitely certain things I do here that I enjoy doing and like to do that in my spare time. I like doing the design work for the new menu or working on the website or thinking of our social media or taking pictures, things like that. My partner and I go out to dinner and talk about the business and just hang out. I think food is probably one of my favorite pastimes, for sure.
Tell me something that most people don’t know about you?
Alright. So, going back to kind of what got me into graphic design in general. I was a huge fan of (singer) Michelle Branch when I was in middle school and high school. I had a fan site dedicated to her, when you searched her name on Google it was the number five option that came up. I learned a lot of HTML coding, and I did all the layouts. I would change the layout probably once a month. I used a lot of the layout of the website for my portfolio to get into Savannah College of Art and Design.