State of the Cincinnati Brewing Union

[Updated 4/19/2013 with information about Cellar Dweller Brewing – thanks Steve!]

While knocking back a number of beverages this weekend with a good beer drinking relative we began discussing the craft brewing renaissance going on in the Cincinnati region currently.  Then it hit me that nearly every local brewing entity appears to be very well positioned in the near-term to continue their approach to making better beer.  Let’s take a moment to review the field of breweries and their prospects.  Oh and you might want to grab a beer… this is a bit long-winded.

The Veterans

Christian Moerlein/Moerlein Lager House: They’ve been at it for a while now and have developed a consistent product aimed at a broad audience.  The standard lineup of CM beers are all quality, albeit, maybe a little “safe” for the beer nerds.  It is very encouraging to see their Pennsylvania contract-brewing operations being revised with some of their brewing taking place in their new OTR facility.  The Lager House (while new), in my opinion, has been a complete home-run under the tutelage of expert brewmaster Richard Dube and the Stone Creek dining folks.  They have the autonomy to create some great small-batch beers, bring in some excellent guest taps, and the food options are fantastic.  This is a thriving brewpub that does a great job of representing the city to out-of-towners.  Also, bonus points for sponsoring a series of runs with the Flying Pig group.

Mt. Carmel Brewing Company: The longest-running local craft brewing operation with a great story as owners Mike and Kathy Dewey decided to live the American dream in 2005.  They took a huge risk to move from basement brewing into a thriving and well-regarded local regional brewery.  Mt. Carmel’s regular lineup of beers are all very respectable and their snapshot series have received many praises from the often hard to impress beer nerd community.  Their growth has been managed well and approached carefully to ensure the local market had enough supply before venturing out beyond the Cincinnati area.  Their beers have the very refreshing taste of sweat equity and determination (the BJCP does not declare these to be off-flavors).  It is clear that porch sitting and drinking MCBC beers will continue for the long haul – let’s just hope those poor guys find a way to get some more space to work with!

Rivertown Brewing Company: Lockland’s finest (okay, only) brewery made a great entry into the market getting lots of bottles on shelves relatively quickly.  They came out swinging with a solid core and seasonal lineup of beers that have developed a strong following.  Although, in my experience I’ve found that their beers can be a little polarizing, a la “love ’em or hate ’em” among the beer drinking community.  Brewmaster Jason Roeper is a homebrewer’s idol as he went pro after winning a Sam Adams Longshot contest.  They were also the first locals to really tackle sour beers head-on and have produced some pretty spectacular results that continue to garner a fair amount of national attention.  There have been some grumblings about the carbonation levels in their specialty releases but to my knowledge they have always been very willing to stand by their product and replace any potentially offending bottles.  They have expanded their distribution footprint throughout Ohio and even into Tennessee which is pretty impressive given their relatively young age.  They have a solid following, strong local distribution footprint (draft available at GABP this year), and continue to make strides in the very hot sour category.  No worries about their doors closing any time soon.

Great Crescent Brewery: Great Crescent was the first modern craft brewery in Southeast Indiana and also the first in the Tri-state area to can their beers.  They have slowly grown their fan base and continue to operate as a friendly, approachable brewery.  A nice set of flagship beers are complimented by a variety of seasonals, but they are probably best know for their Coconut Porter and Cherry Ale.  Initially known by west siders that ventured over the border, they have certainly caught people’s attention in Ohio.  Most notably becoming the house brewery for the east side Brew River Gastropub.  They are in the process of installing a new canning line from Palmer Canning that will help them keep up with demand for their pint cans.  With loads of taproom events and an expanding footprint, they seem to be in great shape.

Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery: I will freely admit that I am least familiar with Rock Bottom since they operate solely as a brewpub operation and do not distribute outside of their four walls with the exception of some festivals/tastings.  That being said, they have done some damage in their time in Cincinnati and I have had some really great beers from them.  The now former head brewer, Mitch Dougherty, netted many medals in national brewing competitions (more on him later).  New brew master Gerry O’Connell hails from one of beer’s most historical homes, Ireland.  He brings more than 15 years of experience working throughout the Rock Bottom system.  Their prime real estate on the revitalized Fountain Square and strong financial backing of a national chain should ensure their continued success.

The Journeymen

Listermann Brewing Company/Triple Digit Brewing Company: The original homebrew shop in Cincinnati, founded in 1991, has also been brewing beer commercially since 2008.  While this puts them ahead of some the people above, I’d say they went full force in 2012 the hiring of head brewer, Kevin Moreland, and the launch of their popular Triple Digit brand.  Since then they have put out a steady flow of bottles and even served as the brewery for the gypsy brewery known as Quaff Brothers.  They have even put out an extremely popular (albeit, single release) collaboration with fellow journeymen brewers, Blank Slate Brewing Company.  They spearheaded the first local-only craft beer Oktoberfest as well as the first local-only Starkbierfest.  With a full-time homebrew shop and taproom to support their bottle and keg operations, there is more than enough to keep them afloat and the city awash in quality local brew.  Drink. Local. Beer.

Blank Slate Brewing Company: It feels a little weird to lump BSBC into the journeymen group but with the fast-paced evolution and expansion of Cincinnati’s craft beer scene, it is a fit.  The only solo-man brewing operation in the city has been going strong for just shy of a year now.  Scott LaFollette is a great example of an award-winning homebrewer that made the leap to commercial brewing (so long secure day job) by doing it all on his own (like nearly everything from floors to framing to fermentation).  To my knowledge, he didn’t line up a boat load of random investors to raise a ton of capital.  So, not only do you have to be an extremely smart and talented individual to accomplish this, you need some serious patience and vision.  The cool thing about Blank Slate is their mission to disregard the BJCP styles that govern homebrew medals and come up with unique, excellent tasting beers that may not fall into perfect categories.  Also absent is a lineup of core brews and in its place a rotating menu of seasonal beers.  While disappointing when the one you love goes on hiatus, (I’m looking at you, Fork in the Road) it then opens up your mind/palate to try something new.  Blank Slate has also done a bang-up job on collaborations with Triple Digit and Quaff Brothers, which is fun for us beer nerds.  After initially self-distributing, it was turned over to the pros at Stagnaro which has lead to much greater access to their beers at local bars.  Bottling is in the future but delayed indefinitely while some mechanical issues with the bottling machine are worked out.  Despite all this, the beer speaks for itself and will keep Blank Slate at the top of everyone’s list.

The Rookies

MadTree Brewing Company: If you’ve read even a fraction of what I write on here, you know I have a slight man-crush (brewery-crush?) on MadTree.  I’ve been closely following their evolution from a business plan to becoming the first Ohio craft brewer to can their beers.  Not only do I really like the beers they put out but you couldn’t ask for a nicer trio of brewers, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists in Jeff, Brady, and Kenny.  They took a different approach to the rest of the group by fundraising from a large group of investors with small shares.  This enabled them to go full bore out of the gate with draft, cans, and a taproom.  It’s really hard to believe they have been in operation for a scant two months.  In that time they have created a strong following and managed to get their cans in the hands of Reds fans at Great American Ballpark – no easy feat for any brewer not named Bud, Miller, Coors.  Not that they are up and running they will likely temper their madman pace to ensure there is enough supply for the local community and focus in on the core lineup of beers while introducing a few seasonals.  Given their extremely successful start, they should be in great shape for a long time to come.  Big things will happen for these hard working guys – you heard it here first.

Fifty West Brewing Company: This group sort of jumped onto my radar from relative obscurity (not too unlike MadTree) but were making some waves in local homebrew competitions just before launching about five months ago.  Much like MadTree, it is a trio of really, really nice guys (Blake, Whit, and Bobby) that made the leap to commercial production.  However, their approach has varied a little bit.  It seems they intended to operate more so as a brewpub than a traditional production brewery distributing draft and cans/bottles.  And if you haven’t been out there, they hit it completely out-of-the-park and into the river.  They were able to secure the former home of infamous bootlegger George Remus and convert it to a start of the art brewery and the most gorgeous taproom I have ever seen.  After bringing food trucks on-site for a bit they installed a kitchen to begin serving a tapas menu.  While distribution is somewhat limited outside their four walls, they have put together a massive lineup of core and rotating beers that are all excellent.  This obviously serves them well financially and seems to be a direction they are comfortable with pursuing currently (if only I lived closer…).  Based on their often packed house, they will do just fine selling most of their product in-house and supplemental the books with food sales.  We can only hope they have plans to expand distribution in the future.

Double Barrel Brewery: Stop me if you’ve heard this story before:  a couple of friends who homebrewed decided to go pro.  Yeah, it’s a common theme but a completely valid path since there are still relatively few traditional education paths to get into brewing.  Anyways, Charles is in charge (get it?) of the brewing operations while Sean tends to the business of running a brewery.  Like most start-ups they faced a fair amount of delays before getting their first batch of Irish Red, Bad Tom Ale (Sean’s distant relative, great story), rolled out to the Cincy Winter Beerfest.  Since then, it seems their distribution has been somewhat limited to a handful of east side restaurants and bars.  You can also stop by the brewery to hit up their taproom on Sundays from noon to 5pm.  This is the only brewery that makes me question their solidarity but it is probably most attributable to my unfamiliarity with their beer.  We’ll have to see how things play out for this group.

Cellar Dweller Brewing: I accidentally missed this group when originally posting this update. However, this is a group that is really starting to pick up steam even without being in the “Cincinnati-proper.”  For those unfamiliar, they are located in Morrow on the grounds of Valley Vineyards.  They have been open for just over a year and already blew away their initial year-one projections for production.  In fact, they are in process of setting up a 10bbl brewhouse, fermenter, and bright tank setup to accommodate demand.  You can currently find their beers in about a dozen locations around the area and on-site at the brewery.  Expansion plans include distribution in cans or bottles soon, as well as installing brewpub style taproom on-site to open in July.  I’ve heard some very good things about their IPA and given the winery backbone, they should be well positioned to continue operations.  Keep an eye on this group!

In Development

Rhinegeist Brewing: I can’t even begin to convey my sheer enthusiasm for this brewery to get up and running.  You can read this post to learn about their plans and background but I will summarize what excites me most.  Head brewer Jim Matt is a mad scientist that has worked successfully in great commercial craft breweries and knows his beer down to the specific chemical compounds.  He also share the same affinity for a few great commercially brewed beers from the west coast.  Bryant Goulding has sold beer for major craft breweries on both the east and west coast and is extremely excited to have voluntarily moved to Cincinnati.  Bob Bonder brings his knowledge of OTR and the local beverage market  to ensure it is well positioned.  They have purchased a great brewhouse and are in the process of putting the pieces together currently.  They already plan to can their beers in addition to operating a taproom in their awesome OTR building (former pre-prohibition Moerlein bottling facility) which has lots of room for expansion.  Their beers will focus on flavor with some hop-flavor-forward west coast styles and a variety of sessionable ones.  These guys are going to be awesome, period.  They hope to be up and running this fall.

Eight Ball Brewing: This is the new brewery project being built-out as a part of The Party Source’s new expansion (as well as micro-distillery).  Remember Mitch Dougherty from Rock Bottom a few paragraphs back?  Well this is where he migrated after giving up his post at Fountain Square.  We already know Quaff Brothers’ Danny Gold and collaborating breweries make some really excellent and unique beers.  Now they will have a permanent home along with a dedicated head brewer.  I fully expect them to be extremely successful and poised to win some major brewing awards.  I salivate as I await their official launch.

Esoteric Brewing Company: I don’t have a whole lot of information on this group and their intentions.  They first gained attention after winning last summer’s Beer and Sweat competition with their The Awakening saison.  This was brewed at Blank Slate and first poured at Cincy Winter Beerfest.  They have set up an LLC and were recently sourcing spruce tips for an experimental batch.  I believe their intention is to open a commercial brewery but I just don’t know yet.  This is a developing situation.

Brewery X:  I have even less to go on with this group that apparently intends to open a brewery in Eden Park’s old water pump station.  They are attempting to secure government funds to aid in the restoration and renovation of the facility but it seems like it will be an awfully steep price tag for a small craft brewery.  That’s all I’ve got on this group so I’ll be following developments closely.

…And I’m spent…

Looking back, we have a pretty explosive craft beer scene here in Cincinnati that rivals or tops many, many other larger metropolitan areas.  Given our history with brewing it should create a deep sense of pride within our citizens and be used as a beacon to attract others to our fair city.  I think beer tourism is getting very close to becoming a reality.

I think I have captured everything going on with beer made in our area (and sometimes outside of it).  Please feel free to comment on anything I have missed or gotten wrong!  CHEERS!

Mike Stuart

Craft beer enthusiast and hombrew dabbler. Part-time writer, sometimes funny.

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