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Photo by J.R. McMillan
Photo by J.R. McMillan

Something’s Brewing in Westgate

The most exclusive watering hole on the west side isn’t a trendy bar or cocktail lounge filled with fake swag and fake laughs. There’s no Yelp review or neon sign. It doesn’t even have a name. That’s because it’s an invitation-only, semi-regular soirée of Westgate’s homebrewers — folks whose passion for potent potables created an ad hoc excuse to raise a pint with friends in a neighborhood rich in community, but short on gathering places. “A few Christmases ago, my wife gave me a homebrewing kit. I enjoy new beers and knew people who brewed their own, so figured I’d try it and see what happened,” noted Nick Bates, one of the group’s initial organizers. “Then I met other people in the neighborhood who were also homebrewing and experimenting in their kitchens.” What began as a one-time event has become a rotating ritual featuring a handful of bona fide microbrews. Brewers bring enough of their latest competitive concoctions to share, and everyone judges the entries in a blind taste test. These are just “flights” of beer, not enough for a sloppy lush– but definitely enough to provide social lubricant.

There’s even a trophy, the “Westgate Wort Award”. No one gets to keep it though. It too rotates around from winner to winner, kind of like the Stanley Cup. “Wort is basically unfermented beer. All beer starts as water, then you add your hops and malts,” Bates explained. “That sweet, initial product you have, in the brewing world, is called wort.” But beer wasn’t what drew Bates and his wife to the neighborhood from Harrison West. “We were debating about continuing to rent versus buying a home, and saw Westgate as an affordable place to live,” he said. “Though we didn’t have any kids at the time, we were planning to start growing a family. There’s a culture here that just fit.”

Robyn Mathews-Danforth echoed the sentiment. She and husband Andy Danforth were the hosts for the evening’s competition– and that new trophy was also his handiwork.

“Anything that promotes Westgate, that brings people into the community, is part of why we’re here,” she explained. Originally from Arizona, the unseasonable chill in autumn air didn’t seem to dull her spirits. “I’m still in Ohio because of this neighborhood.”

“I’m a pastry chef, so I came to brewing from a culinary background, where I’m used to looking scientifically at ingredients,” she noted. Her first foray into fermentation also started with a homebrewing kit from her spouse. “Not having been a serious beer drinker before, I really wanted to see what happens when you add cranberries, what happens when you add blueberries.” Westgate’s homebrewing community is more than just one night of bottles and ballots, with a spread that could hold its own against the best tailgate or cocktail party. “We actually started a Facebook group so we could share our experiences– when something goes well, and when something goes wrong,” she said. “I wanted a resource group for ingredients and where to find them, to ask, ‘Does anyone have a lagering system?’” Homebrewing is chemistry you can drink.

A lagering system isn’t quite as common a request as asking a neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar or a snow blower. But there’s more than beer brewing in Westgate. It’s a different kind of community, one that only evolves when folks are forced to look inward because their surroundings fall short. A common complaint of suburban sprawl is that it has everything except community. Sure, you get your pick of grocery stores, fast food, and drycleaners. But homogenized housing tends to discourage neighbors from ever becoming more than strangers on the same street, quietly complaining about each other’s lawns.

That’s why a growing number of boomers and busters are following the millennial lead by abandoning the suburbs in favor of emerging, inner city neighborhoods written off until just recently. Victorian Village and German Village were once desolate and dilapidated too. But now Italian Village and Merion Village hope to follow in their footsteps.  Olde Towne East has been a work-in-progress for decades, with immaculate restorations surrounded by sketchy side streets. It’s a bit like Detroit– investing or living there is still a block-by-block proposition. But being minutes from downtown, bumpered by historic homes and an enormous park, is a tempting offer for anyone whose aversion to the suburbs has led them to look for something more authentic than big boxes and busybodies.

But these better-known neighborhoods aren’t the only destination for those handy with a hammer looking for something real. Westgate is what was once called a “streetcar suburb” back when mass transit held mass appeal. Just four miles down Broad Street on the other side of Franklinton is an unexpected enclave of homes that could easily pass for parts of Grandview or Clintonville. That’s no accident either.

On the grounds of what used to be a Confederate prisoner of war camp, then sold off in the interim to an ambitious colony of Quakers after the Civil War, are streets and houses built by some of the same urban planners and architects behind two of the city’s more famous, family-friendly communities. Unlike Grandview and Clintonville, years of struggle in the surrounding area and an absence of economic development left Westgate residents lacking a lot of the robust retail and name recognition their sister settlements offered. But instead of selling out, Westgate residents dug in. No curated grocery stores or food co-ops? They started their own farmers market. Stagnant restaurant scene? They created a rotating food truck schedule. Slipping real estate sales? They started an annual Home & Garden tour. Left out of the Columbus festival craze? They organized Summer Jam, a free day-long arts event featuring local music, food, and crafts. Seriously, just ask anyone who lives here. Where else in Columbus can young couples with kids buy a Craftsman-era home for a bargain, in a community that is proudly working class, diverse, and creative– all built around 50 acres of parks and playgrounds, only minutes from downtown? Westgate is essentially Sesame Street with backyards instead of brownstones. That’s what brought Seth VanHorn back to the capital city after a decade of moves through some of the country’s more notable neighborhoods. “I was drawn back to Columbus by some of the cool things going on here, the low cost of living, and neighborhoods like this,” VanHorn noted. “I liked Austin’s vibrant downtown scene, it’s a college town — you know ‘Keep Austin Weird’. But in the ten years that I was gone, Columbus has really grown up from a small Midwestern town to a city with so much more to offer.”

“I looked at several neighborhoods near the core of downtown– Weinland Park, Olde Towne East, Merion Village– but Westgate won out,” he explained. “I’ve done some homebrewing myself and am really impressed with the quality of the beer, and the welcoming vibe of the event and the people who live here.”

That close-knit community won over Eric VanOrder, who returned to the West side after a stint in the Navy.

“There’s a renewed camaraderie bringing together people who have lived in Westgate for years,” he noted. VanOrder was the winner of the first Westgate Wort Award, but wasn’t competing this evening. Any endeavor dependent on just the right time and temperature doesn’t always turn out as planned. “I ended up brewing a beer only a father could love, so I decided I’d stick to judging this time.” A little daring didn’t deter John Salvage, a homebrewer with 15 years of experience entering the competition for the first time. “I’ve mostly just brewed for my own enjoyment, and giving beer to friends for Christmas has been a tradition,” Salvage said. “I brewed a ‘butter beer’, which is obviously inspired by Harry Potter. I’m more of a malt fan, but I put in some butterscotch candies and added some lactose for more mouth feel, so it’s smooth going down.”

The evening happened to coincide with Land Grant’s second anniversary party. So while most had their fill, after the trophy was awarded and the last of the entries were imbibed, some headed toward downtown for one more round — and surely some inspiration for their next batch of backyard brew.

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