Beertown, USA

They used to call us “Cowtown.”

Lots of places have been saddled with that nickname, but it really had some traction when it came to Columbus. The city’s leaders weren’t keen on it, and a lot of effort went in to shaking the moniker. It would appear that we were successful. Not so much in the efforts to come up with a cool nickname, but organically, the capital city has brewed up a new identity for itself. We’re a little Beertown now.

Until a few years ago, Columbus languished in a pretty big gap of the beer brewing timeline. With the “Brewery District” home to more luxury condos and office buildings than barrel houses, the statue of King Gambrinus, erected at the site of the old Columbus Gambrinus Brewing Company (1906-1919), now looks more like a greeter for the Kroger parking lot.

What we lacked in numbers we made up for in quality, but we were still well below the curve for a city our size. And then, slowly, a new revolution started bubbling up.
Sure, we had Eric Bean and the boys at Columbus Brewing Co. holding it down on the production end; there were two killer brewpubs flying under the Barley’s flag; and Elevator was eagerly beefing up its production capacity, in addition to combining fine dining with the microbrew concept. What we lacked in numbers we made up for in quality, but we were still well below the curve for a city our size. Especially when you consider how much money we spend on craft beer.

And then, slowly, a new revolution started bubbling up.

Four String Brewing Co. was the first out of the gate in 2012, peddling IPAs from a small Grandview production facility, followed closely by brewpubs from Seventh Son and North High, and then more recently Actual Brewing Co. came online, and Zauber found a permanent home for its German-style beer park in the old Reed Arts space. Hoof Hearted (see page 88) kept a close watch on the brewing scene from Marengo, infiltrating Columbus and earning approval from seasoned beer veterans.

Today, Four String has expanded its reach, gaining strength and shelf space for cans of Brass Knuckle by signing on with Superior Distributing. Zauber invested heavily in a bigger brewing operation and added a killer taproom. North High is blasting off, too, moving production capacity from 100 kegs per month to 2,000; they’ve proved to be more than just a brew-on-premises facility, pumping out creative seasonal beers in small batches at an impressive pace.

Now that Actual is actually brewing, they’re also dabbling in a very ambitious aspect of the brewing industry: science. Their facility off James Road has a lab where they do everything from growing yeast to testing for residual sugars.
Now, only a few years after Columbus more than doubled its brewers, Beertown is gaining even more residents.

There’s Sideswipe, a brewery founded by a professional kickboxer who more or less crept into Columbus like a ninja and delivered a roundhouse The focus there is strictly production. There’s not a lot of fluff here, just beer on the shelves and a guy with a black belt who says he wants your honest opinion.

We’re changing the culture of brewing. We don’t want to be defined as mircobrews, or craft beers. It’s just beer.
Wolf’s Ridge Brewery also opened up shop just a short stroll over from Elevator’s Brewhouse, embracing a concept that departs from bar-centric brewpub and focusing on a neo-American approach to dining – with beer along for the ride. They hope to expand their brand with a production-grade brewing set-up. Zaftig opened just earlier this year in Worthington, winning chalkboard space at the city’s most discerning growler shops – which have also sprouted up with a quickness. Joints opening up like Savor Growl, Daily Growler, Growl, and the Ohio Taproom are now standard for the market.

In addition, there is a new freshman class of brewers forming, too, with Land-Grant Brewery and Temperance Row eyeing 2014 openings.

Of course, the heavy hitter in this town is still CBC, which would like it if everybody stopped asking when Bodhi will be in bottles. Until their brewhouse gets knocked up by another brew house and has a litter of brewhouses, you’re going to have to be satisfied with occasional growler fills and an ample supply of their splendid IPA on the shelves. Still, they’re cranking out mad volume (for a tiny craft brewer) and more and more people outside of 270 are taking note. They’ve been doing this for a long time.

Now when people look to Columbus they’re going to see a hell of a lot more breweries. CBC’s Tony Corder welcomes the competition.

“We’re changing the culture of brewing,” he said. “We don’t want to be defined as mircobrews, or craft beers. It’s just beer.”

The distinction, he says, is really up to the consumer. Do you prefer American adjunct lagers, or something more? Columbus, it seems, is trending toward something more. It’s barely making a dent in the industry, but high up in the corporate offices of your average brewing conglomerate, somebody is obsessing about it, and in a town like Columbus, where thousands of impressionable college students are developing a taste for beer, it’s a big deal.

Quantity, however, isn’t everything. Angelo Signorino, the revered brewmaster at Barley’s Brew Pub and Smokehouse Brewing, enjoys the competition and describes some of the efforts as interesting. He carefully assesses the landscape before offering, “Good beer is good for Columbus.”

It would seem that most of the beer Columbus is offering is good. Very good, and the market is well versed enough to know what isn’t. We seem to be heading in the right direction. A nuanced balance between quantity and quality. 
Is it enough to earn us a new nickname? Time will tell. •