High Hops

As the craft-brewing phenomenon took the country by storm, Columbus was decidedly underserved. We love craft beer, which is evident when you walk into a bar and see as many as 30, 40, or even 50 tap handles at the ready, but we just didn’t have much in the way of craft brewers.

Oh, those we had were remarkable, and one could have easily defended Columbus’ craft cred by boasting quality over quantity.

Now things are starting to change. There are new brewers in town lining up to claim their place in this proven market. Wolf’s Ridge Brewing is the latest entry, and they’re taking an ambitious approach.

First, they set up shop a stone’s throw away from Elevator’s 4th Street brewhouse. Dick Stevens accepted the challenge, and quickly opened up a taproom at the brewery. It’s friendly competition, but competition all the same.

Secondly, the brewing operation is pretty damn big. Four 45-barrel fermentation tanks are lined up along the wall in the brewery, an arsenal necessary, says owner Bob Szuter, to accomplish one of their main objectives: to not only serve the attached restaurant, but also distribute locally. With demand for brewing equipment high, and the regulatory process bogged down, it makes sense to aim high and leave room for growth, but the initial outlay for that equipment is expensive, and you still have to maintain it.

The restaurant portion of Wolf’s Ridge is even more ambitious. They have eschewed the pub content and aimed for finer fair, featuring a nuanced “new American” menu created by Chef Seth Lassak, who cut his culinary teeth in the competitive California craft scene. As an avid home brewer, he’s got a keen sense of what works with beer, and pairing suggestions are listed with each dish.

The menu includes refined takes on pub grub such as the beef and lamb burger, which seems a tad prohibitive at $14, but it lives up to the price. Instead of wings, they’ve got fried frog legs, dusted with tortilla crumbs, and served with a spicy enchilada sauce.

One item of note is the dry-aged duck breast. Dusted in pink peppercorns, and cooked to perfection, with a black currant jam cutting through the richness of the duck – it’s still a steal at $24, especially when you compare this dish with similar fine dining options.

Seared foi gras and sweetbreads are other items the chef has included that you won’t see on too many menus around town. Szuter admits that these items aren’t top sellers just yet, but he’s confident that word will get around and area foodies will make the requisite pilgrimage to Wolf’s Ridge.

Open for lunch during the week, Wolf’s Ridge is taking advantage of business traffic; the menu takes advantage of the dinner docket, with a few substitutions. Wolf’s Ridge also aspires to make its bones in the brunch scene.

The current menu will remain in place for a while, as the staff finds its groove. Seasonal tweaks will come, particularly when Ohio’s agricultural spoils are in season.

There’s a small bar in the corner, where Wolf’s Ridge offerings mingle with carefully selected guest brews. The bar is small, and the liquor selection is limited to local craft products and key premium spirits.

“We’ll gradually expand the selection,” Szuter said, “as we get a feel for the demand.”

This is not your typical brewpub bar. There’s no TV or complimentary salty snacks. The atmosphere is refined, even though the place is casual. The space is open, and sound carries a bit, so people speak in hushed tones. The layout, and perhaps even the menu, is a bit like Sage, the vaunted but recently shuttered North Campus legend.

As for beer, that is where Wolf’s Ridge will need some time to catch up to their ambition. So far, the selection is limited, with just their 3 A.M. IPA tapped shortly after opening. It’s a solid first offering that pours a bit hazy, and with a dark amber hue. Szuter noted that the recipe would be tweaked a bit as the hops weren’t quite as pronounced as they were shooting for, which accounts for the malt-forward flavor profile. It might have missed the mark they were aiming for, but the beer isn’t beyond redemption. It actually drinks a bit like a hoppy brown ale.

At any rate, the scope and scale of the Columbus’ newest micro-pub only throws more malt on the fire for the capital city’s burgeoning brew wars. I, for one, am looking forward to pulling up a stool and a pint and seeing who rises to the top. •