Cleveland, despite its claims to fame – LeBron James, the house from “A Christmas Story,” and a place that makes really good bagels – seems to have so much yet so little to offer in terms of beer.
Allow me to explain. The hometown of Great Lakes Brewing, and, arguably, the most famous seasonal beer on the market, has a quantity over quality problem.
In the past couple years, Cleveland has seen a surge in brewery and brewpub openings, flooding the market with, well, beer. But it’s not all good beer. That’s what happens when one-too-many homebrewers get the wise idea to jump into the craft beer game. And for the next few years, Cleveland will undergo what many cities have gone through before, a trial-by-fire with consumers acting as the unknowing guinea pigs in a game of Survival of the Fittest: Brewery.
I’m here, on the hunt for standout brews in a haystack of mediocrity. Because, at the end of the day, there is exceptional beer in Cleveland, you just have to know where to find it.
First things first: Carbs. Or, more specifically, carbs infused with beer.
Brewnuts earned a cult following since founders Shelley Fasulko and John Pippin decided that the already delicious donut would be improved upon with the addition of beer. It’s not just any beer they are pouring into the dough, but exclusively local beer paired with matching glaze. Recently, the opened “Cleveland's first and only donut bar.”
It’s here where I fuel up with a mini half-dozen, complete with a donut glazed in Jackie O’s Razz Wheat Ale and Fruity Pebbles infused milk, as well as chocolate and Hoppin’ Frog’s Boris the Crusher Oatmeal Imperial Stout ganache covered donut.
It’s easy to write off a beer-infused donut as a gimmick, but these little rings of joy are no joke. Their signature donut is a light-as-air yeast raised specimen made with Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Dortumder Gold. The beer adds to the pastry’s maltiness, while vanilla-blueberry lager glaze adds sweetness. If you must get beer into your system before 10 a.m., this is the way to do it.
One of the many newcomers to the Cleveland beer scene makes its home in a former car dealership. The 300 seat Masthead Brewing boasts a sprawling bar, and garage doors that turn the picnic table filled spaces into a breezy indoor / outdoor beer garden. The brew house occupies the back, while a wood-fired oven sits behind a counter where guests can order prosciutto and fresh mozzarella pizza. Overall, not the worst place to throw back the first few pints of the weekend.
A menu of nameless beers offers a 101 course in craft beer drinking: IPA, Wit, Stout, Pilsner. A Few Good Acers Pale Ale is the only beer that earns a name, because it’s made with locally grown hops. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel by any means,” says general manager Jeff Draeger. “ We’re trying to make good beer and be stylistically true to that.”
The beers, while true-to-style and refreshing, are nearly as forgettable as their non-names. I sip on a clean Pilsner, with light hops and subtle floral notes, while wondering if these beers – satisfying in that they were, in fact, beer, while leaving so much to be desired – are all I have to look forward to in the next two days.
Butcher and The Brewer
No trip to Cleveland is complete without a trip to Fourth Street. It’s home to Jonathan Sawyer’s Greenhouse Tavern and Michael Symon’s Mabel’s BBQ, which boast impressive bottle and draft lists, respectively. At night, strings of lights zig-zag from one building to another over the brick road. The street is closed to traffic, so visitors are free to wander from restaurant to restaurant, or just relax on one of the many patios and take in the bustle. It’s also the home to Butcher and the Brewer.
The multifunctional spot contains a brewery, restaurant, and butcher shop slash specialty food store in two side by side spaces. It’s a big and beautiful, with high ceilings and Edison bulb-filled light fixtures. Concrete walls and wood communal tables contrast aesthetically, but play second fiddle to the shining brewhouse in the rear of the space.
However, I’m here to drink, not gawk, and drink I did. Their Farmhouse sung in this farm to table concept, with the Farmer’s Daughter acting as the Prima Donna with earthy and floral notes. It paired well house- and hop-cured bresola, plus some pierogi flatbread, for good measure.
Brick and Barrel
If Fourth Street is Cleveland’s future, then the riverfront industrial park under a bascule bridge, where Brick and Barrel is located, is a capsule of its past. The working class bar looks like your father’s garage. If your father had a serious passion for homebrewing and off-season Christmas lights.
I sit down just at the right moment to overhear a woman offer to flash the bartender in exchange for a gratis pint. He declines the offer. “She’s not even Cleveland hot,” one man seated at the bar comments to another. “She’s like middle of Indiana hot.” So, here I am, narrowly avoiding staring down a pair of middle-aged breasts and, luckily, staring down a flight of beer that was made ten feet away.
Brick and Barrel is known for their cask and classic offerings. They range from the Bitter Chief IPA to Pinot Blonde infused with wine must. The cask ale of the moment Scottish ale, with strong malt and tobacco notes plus a hint of fig and chocolate. It’s almost a dessert beer. The room temperature and lack of carbonation due to the cask system only enhance that experience.
The whole thing is an experience that embodies, what I believe, is the heart of Cleveland’s craft brew center: Industrious, scrappy yet welcoming brewers carving out their corner of a market. Despite this observation, I draw the Chicago Cubs’ logo on the chalkboard bar, covered it with a menu and promptly call it a night.
West Side Market
Day two and it’s time to break into the good stuff. And by good stuff, I mean just about everything in Ohio City. The once downtrodden neighborhood was home to the city’s historic public market and crime. Now, it is still home to the popular market as well as Cleveland’s trendiest restaurants and bars. West Side Market is where you can get a freshly filled cannoli, locally roasted coffee, and a basket of strawberries under the same roof.
I start my day navigating the crowded aisles and peering into glass cases filled with fresh pastries, regional specialties, and at least three different kinds of Great Lakes Christmas Ale bacon. Grab a crepe filled with brie and make your way to the second floor balcony, where you can eat while watching the action below. Gawk at the brick arches and antique clocks of the building that dates back to 1912. The market itself has even more impressive origins in 1840, when it was an open-air affair.
Can’t linger for too long, though, because there’s beer nearby.
Market Garden Brewery
It would be unfair to credit one man, one establishment to Ohio City’s revival. However, Sam McNulty comes close to earning this claim.
He is behind five of the neighborhood’s best places to grab a pint, including the 12-year-old Belgian beer bar that kicked off 25th Street’s development, Bier Mrkt. Since then, he’s added a restaurant next door, brewpub across the street and, most recently, a production brewery.
Market Garden Brewery sits next to West Side Market, in a converted chicken processing facility. You can still see faded poultry sign on its rear exterior wall. Inside is a classier affair, with exposed brick, a curved wooden bar and dozens of chandeliers.
As far as beer goes, Market Garden Stakes its claim, and also its distribution, on Citramax IPA, Progress Pilsner, and Prosperity Wheat, but you can drink those just about anywhere in Cleveland. The brewpub offers more lauded options. I opted for the Mole Stout, which is made with cocoa nibs and chipotle peppers. It’s worth mentioning their Cap-Lifter Quad, which celebrats the state’s recently raised alcohol by volume limit and pushes the boundaries at 15.5%. For even more off the cuff brews, venture next door to Nano Brew, where a pilot system churns out more experimental brews, such as a wheat IPA and ginger-laced porter.
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Before there was Market Garden, and pretty much every other brewery in Cleveland, there was Great Lakes Brewing Co. Its beer is still served in a historic Ohio City brewpub. Grab an Edmund Fitzgerald porter or go downstairs and drink barrel-aged barleywine in the cellar. Here, you can peek at the fermenters and small-batch barrel-aging operation. Next door, tours are offered of the larger brewery.
Great Lakes not only remains the undisputed gold standard of Cleveland beer, but also helped catalyze the city’s brewing scene as a whole. Since its inception in 1988, brewers from Market Garden to newcomer Goldhorn can trace their roots back to the corner of 26th and Market. Its alumni don’t forget this fact and Great Lakes remains a coveted and respected producer.
Alright, friends, it’s feeding time. And after a solid – I don’t know how many – hours of drinking, it sounds appealing to head to a place with an eye for design, that makes its own kielbasa, and also happens to have a couple coolers filled with beer.
That’s Banter. It’s beer store slash counter service restaurant offering two things: Sausage and poutine. I go for both, because of my former statement, and was disappointed by neither. Sausages – all made in-house – range from the classic hot dog to elaborate Ohio maple and sorghum bratwurst. Meanwhile, the poutine selection is equally eclectic, including one with local lamb stroganoff and another with wild mushrooms and truffle cream.
Equally awe-inspiring and drool-inducing is the beer. Around the corner from the sleek, white bar and seating area are two smaller rooms with tables and walls lined with coolers. You can take an entire tour of Ohio’s beer offerings in one sitting, from Cincinnati’s Rhinegeist to Cleveland’s Platform, although we would not recommend that. Instead pick up a bottle to pair with the poutine – there’s a small corkage fee – a couple cans to bring home.
Prosperity Social Club
A good dive bar – whether it’s down the street from your home or in an unfamiliar city – is essential in any city. It’s important to know where you can go for a Hamm’s while gazing at taxidermy deer salvaged from some grandma’s basement. In Cleveland, that place is Property Social Club.
Beloved during last call and weekend brunch alike, it’s where I choose to spend my final morning in Ohio. From under the glow of vintage neon signs, I sipped on a Rust Belt Shandy. As the name suggests, it’s Miller High Life spiked with ginger syrup and OJ. It’s an adept alternative to a mimosa, especially when you’ve spent the past two days drinking your way through one of the Midwest’s sudsiest cities.
It’s important to note that of the seven drinking establishment that made it into this account, there were just as many that did not. One of which – Portside – made off-flavored beers and even less palatable rum, and has since closed since my visit.
However, there is great beer to be found in Cleveland and, more importantly, intrepid brewers looking to further advance the beer scene while eliminating some of the stigmas that devolved during its rapid boom. It’s those brewers who, eventually, will put this city on the map.