Ohio, it’s one of America’s great flyover states. We turn to it when we need an election decided, but it’s not often we put a microscope over Ohio. When we do, we see a state with a rich history.
I’m talking about a brewing history, of course. In Cincinnati, that history started in the early 1800s, when German immigrants flooded the city and brought one of their favorite beverages with them. Today, the beer scene is more diverse, with notable purveyors ranging from a church of wild fermentation to a high-tech beer bar.
If anything, Cincinnati’s story is one of reinvention. It reinvented its waterfront by dotting it with stadiums and museums. It reinvented its historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood by turning it into a dining, shopping, and entertainment district rich with Italianate architecture. And, across the river, nearby Covington, Kentucky is taking a cue from its neighbor and becoming a destination in its own right.
A weekend isn’t enough to experience the breadth of Cincinnati’s beer scene, but I tried.
21c Museum Hotel
As far a boutique hotels go, 21c has found a winning formula in the Midwest. Each contains a small, but eye-catching museum of modern art – think a beach cruiser pike holding a tower of Vietnamese flags – and an assortment of oversized penguins that occasionally pop up in the elevator or in front of your hotel room door. But what sets 21c apart is its ability to showcase local fare. In Louisville it’s a chef with an affinity for used bourbon barrels – offering up the likes bourbon barrel sauerkraut on salmon pastrami. In Cincinnati, it’s a package highlighting Queen City brews.
Get the weekend started with snack from 21c’s chic, contemporary American restaurant Metropole. Then they will stick you on a streetcar with a map of the city’s breweries. Or, follow my lead and just camp out the bar for a drinkable tour of Cincinnati’s beer history. Start with Christian Moerlein Third Wave IPA, from one of the city’s oldest breweries that was recently resurrected along the Ohio River. Then sample Hoppy Amber Ale from Cincinnati’s pioneer craft brewery MadTree or a more experimental entry from Rivertown.
Taft’s Ale House
The story goes that during the 19th Century, Over-the-Rhine had a church on every block, to serve the population of German immigrants. Most of these once-stately establishments didn’t make it to the 21st century and those that did were repurposed, such as St. Paul’s German Evangelical Church.
Now the former church acts as the skeleton for one of Cincinnati’s most awarded craft breweries, Taft’s Ale House. The brewhouse sits on the alter and wooden tables sit in the place of pews at this house of worship. A hand-carved bar was made by local craftsmen as well as 300 new spindles that guard the balcony.
But it’s not regarded as one of the city’s best breweries because of its looks, although they don’t hurt. Taft’s selection of house brews on any given day is extensive. There’s Maverick, a porter made with local dark chocolate that might fall into the unfortunate new category of pastry stouts; the popular Nellie’s Caribbean Key Lime Ale, which taste like a tropical vacation; and Gourd to Death, a take on pumpkin ale that’s made with maple syrup and chicory root. Throw in an order of smoked wings and there’s very little reason to leave this place of hoppy worship.
Rheinegist has become synonymous with Cincinnati brewing, and for good reason. To understand Rinegeist’s significance, you need to understand the history Over-the-Rhine, a historic neighborhood that has seen a recent resurgence thanks to local entrepreneurs such as the founders of Rhinegeist.
In the late 1800s, Over-the-Rhine – named because it sits across the former Erie Canal, known as the Rhine – was once not only an magnet for immigrants, but also breweries, maintaining nearly 40 breweries in the years leading up to prohibition. The crown jewel of these was 300,000 barrel Christian Moerlein Brewing Company. Flash forward to 2013 and there is once again beer being made in the hilltop facility, leading the way for another Over-the-Rhine beer surge.
Inside, a cavernous warehouse sets the stage for a rainbow of beers enjoyed on picnic tables and next to cornhole boards. Case and point, the bright purple Berliner Weisse that was poured for me at the rear bar. Press Tart, as the name suggests, starts with a burst of tart berry flavor, but finishes clean. Weather permitting, a covered rooftop beer garden offers a tempting alternative to the taproom. It’s so tempting, I almost abandoned the rest of my agenda to enjoy pint after pint of Gose in the sunshine.
Fortunately, my next stop was next door.
As far as I know, Rheingeist's neighboring restaurant is the first to tackle delicate French cuisine in an equally elegant brasserie under the same rood as an industrial brewery. It’s called Sartre and if you walked into the leather-and-marble establishment off the street, you would have no idea that a bunch of brewers – and a chef from SPQR – are behind it.
Dishes such as yellowfin tartare, spooned over a savory crepe, and chunks of crispy mistake mushrooms over nutty farro spotted with pistachios, take the place of the ubiquitous baked pretzel with beer cheese.
Here, beer takes a backseat to cocktails and wine, but it’s worth taking note of the exclusive Rhinegeist brew called Being. This is a French Grisette, a farmhouse-style beer with a bit of funk, inspired by the restaurants namesake Jean-Paul Sartre. It goes without saying that this light yet intriguing beer is well matched with the cuisine.
After a long day of drinking beers in the shadow of massive steel tanks, sometimes you need a quiet bar that specializes in curing meats. Enter Panino, where a deli counter filled with local good and hanging salumi gives way to a long, wooden bar.
It’s here where I check off a Cincinnati must: Chili dogs. Unlike the kind you can find every few block in this city, mine was made in house, slathered with also housemade chili and a mountain of freshly grated cheese. The beer list isn’t half-bad either, with a strong Ohio presence thanks to beers from Rockmill and Jackie O’s.
Braxton Brewing Company
Think of it as a two-for-one. Visit one of Ohio’s up-and-coming cities and throw in one of Kentucky’s for free. Covington, Kentucky is located across the Ohio River and is becoming a drinking destination in its own right. There’s a boutique hotel with a secret courtyard where you can eat buffalo cauliflower sandwiches and drink Cidergeist rosé. Meanwhile, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar is considered one of the best whiskey bars in the area, after all, we are in Kentucky now.
Leading the way is Braxton Brewing Company, a garage-brewery that moved into, well, a bigger garage in 2015, with better lighting and furnishing. One of the more memorable beers is its collaboration with Graeter’s. The seasonal release creates a beer that mimics one of the creamery’s ice cream flavors. The most recent is a blue berry pie beer, which, for better or worse, taste like blueberry and pie batter mixed into brown ale. Its heart is in the right place, with proceeds benefiting he Cure Starts Now and its mission to find a cure for pediatric brain cancer. Some of their more conventional, and drinkable, beers include a golden cream ale called Storm and an aptly named unfiltered Hefeweizen called Haven.
Urban Artifact is touted as Cincinnati’s premiere wild brewery. Located inside St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, its stately exterior gives way to a less striking basement filled with plastic folding chairs and a stage that hosts nightly live entertainment.
My companions debate leaving, but I assure them not to judge this brewery by its crumbling taproom. Each of Urban Artifacts beers relies on locally caught wild yeast, bacteria or mixed cultures of both. This philosophy does not limit the array of beer styles brewed on its 30-barrel brewhouse. The draft list boasts a New England IPA using Ohio-grown hops and malt, Witbeer, and gose.
We hit the cornhole boards, while sipping on the rainbow flights of fruit and wild ales. The most interesting of the bunch is Phrenology, a wild IPA made with Brettanomyces that adds an extra splash of earthiness as well as bright citrus flavors. Other truly noteworthy beers are Whirlygig, a Midwest fruit tart that delivers a mouthful of blueberries with every sip as well as a delightful vanilla essence, and Finn, the brewery’s flagship Berliner pale ale. The latter is adorned with a Viking on the can, although the beer is much less menacing.
Needleless to say, for a sour fan, it’s difficult to go wrong at this funky brewery.
In my version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka’s wonderland isn’t filled with sweet treats, but instead it’s covered in beer. Enter Higher Gravity.
One of the newest additions to Cincinnati’s beer scene sits is a developing strip of Northside, steps from Urban Artifact. It’s smartly designed with a coffee shop meets artisan market feel. Except, instead of coffee, the bar offers MadTree’s espresso-laced brown ale. Instead of goods, the shelves and coolers are filled with a global selection of beer.
High Gravity’s extensive selection can be navigated on iPads that are loaded with the entire draft, can and bottle list. A quick scroll reveals three varieties of Mikkeller’s Hallo Ich Bin and bottles of Crooked Stave sours. For me, it acted as a one-stop-shop where I could sample entries from the breweries I wasn’t able to visit on this particular trip – beers such as Woodburn’s chocolate cherry stout.
As for any other ones I missed, well those will have to wait until I come back. And I will come back.