It’s like falling off the edge of this world, and landing on a strange new planet—a flat one, populated with silos and steeples.
One minute you’re driving through the rolling hills northwest of Columbus near Bellefontaine, (pronounced “Bell Fountain” in these parts, thank you very much), the next minute, the hills are gone and the world just rolls on forever before you.
Maria Stein barely qualifies as a town. A couple of small roads intersect amid corn fields in this Land of Cross-tipped Churches, and they named it after an Abbey in Switzerland, because, well that’s what Catholics do. It’s fortunate that this area was populated by a prolific number of German Catholics because normally areas saturated with so many churches abhor alcohol, and that would be a bad thing for Nick Moeller, the founder of Moeller Brew Barn.
It was a gamble, even in 2015, because places like Maria Stein aren’t seen as craft beer meccas. The whole “buy local” concept doesn’t always fly in places where you have to drive 20 miles to buy bread, but Nick rolled the dice and his brewery has grown exponentially, with a weekend tap room business that leaves the brewery scrambling to get beer back in kegs for the next rush.
Moeller’s beers can be found around Columbus on occasion. They don’t draw rave reviews, but that’s because the beers are being brewed to win over the people in Mercer County. They’re a little more malt forward and easy drinking than the beers that dominate Columbus.
Up the road a bit, Coldwater boasts a historic dairy barn that’s been converted into a brewery. Here you’ll find some IPAs that are a little more hop forward, but the locals love Tailspin’s 3 GZ Blonde Ale. That’s probably because it doesn’t aggressively challenge a palate that has yet to venture beyond the safety of a PBR Tallboy, but as tastes develop, they’ll have options. Founder Jack Waite is a veteran Air Force pilot who fell in love with the communal aspect of small German breweries, so he brought the concept back to Coldwater, thinking that the little town just a bit Southwest of Grand Lake Saint Mary’s could use something like that.
In Columbus, people in craft brewing circles often talk about “the bubble.” It seemed like it started leaking a bit when much ado was made over sluggish industry growth in 2016. Yes, growth did slow, and the trend continued in 2017, but there was still growth, and the inside story was that small, local breweries were experiencing robust growth while the national craft brewers took a hit. It makes sense, of course. If you can buy a great beer made a few miles from home, that’s the beer you buy, and nobody in the craft beer business—even the bigger brewers who had to tighten their belts will tell you otherwise. With local brewers popping up everywhere, there’s less of a national market. It’s no surprise to see a great little brewer like Three Tigers pop up in Granville, but the attached kitchen is easily one of the best brewery kitchens in the state. The place is a triple threat, offering great beer, exciting food, and fantastic cocktails. It’s a bit of a surprise that, until the last few months, Newark’s only brewery (with a taproom) was Homestead. Now Dankhouse has opened, Buck’s finally has a taproom, and Trek Brewing is putting the final touches on their taproom.
You’d expect to see craft beer find success in Athens, but there are three breweries thriving, and Athens is home to our state’s Craft Beer Week. Jackie O’s is known nationally for it’s barrel-aged beers and sour program, but Little Fish might actually be better at the weird stuff. Meanwhile, Devil’s Kettle is going after more of a traditional craft market by brewing beers that are more entry level than those offered by their neighbors.
These brewers out in the sticks are taking a bite out of the macro brewers’ last slice of the pie. It’s a big slice, but analysts at AB InBev would have never suspected craft brewing would pop up in places like Jackson. Enter Sixth Sense Brewing and Burritos, founded in early 2017. The taproom is a gathering place that features live music, and a great social hub. People will occasionally walk in asking for Bud Light, which is disheartening, but Sixth Sense is brewing excellent beer and they are developing the palates of a populace that has been overlooked for far too long.
Maple Lawn Brewing in Pomeroy brings their water into the downtown brewery from a spring on the family farm. Now, downtown Pomeroy is basically two streets and an alley running parallel to the Ohio, between the bank and a rather steep escarpment. As such, it’s a village that runs lengthwise, which makes it hard to find the town’s hub, but the corner of Mulberry and 2nd, where the taproom is situated, just might be it. Maple Lawn is also growing, investing in taproom renovations, and an expanding beer portfolio. Their top seller is an easy to drink golden ale, but they offer more robust selections for visitors and locals who want to see what the fuss is about. Some of their beers can be had on tap just around the corner at the Court Street Grill, which competes as gathering place, but the two businesses have a special synergy, and a common partner. Both embrace the concepts of fresh, local, and in-house preparation.
Brewery 33, in Logan makes sense when you consider the influx of visitors to Hocking Hills, but they’re cultivating a local following that keeps the place busy when tourism is light. A bit down Route 33, you’ll find Multiple Brewing Company in Nelsonville. It’s a tiny operation that’s a bit rough around the edges, but they’re steadily winning over the community by brewing beers that the people enjoy.
Weaselboy once had Zanesville all to itself, but Y Bridge Brewing opened last year and the two brewers are already talking about how they can collaborate to raise Zanesville’s craft beer game. The list goes on, with new breweries opening all the time.
It wasn’t long ago, craft beer drinkers knew they had to venture into these areas with their own supply of libations, otherwise they’d be forced to drink macro-swill. Now, it’s an adventure to travel out into these rural areas to try the different beers, and meet people just starting their craft beer journeys. It makes you wonder where it all began. Maybe it was 30 minutes outside of Columbus. Buckeye Lake used to make drinking macro beers a contact sport. Twenty-four packs of beer emblazoned with variations of the word “light” were everywhere, but Buckeye Lake Brewery opened quietly in 2012. They quickly built up a local following, while attracting day trippers from Columbus who just wanted to try the beer. Maybe their success, in a macro-brew stronghold, gave brewers in other “podunk” towns something to believe in.
Whatever the case, it’s inspiring to see small communities rally around their local breweries. •