By Nicolene Schwartz
If you like your beer local, it’s a really good time to be in Central Ohio. Against the backdrop of Columbus’s three long-standing local breweries, Elevator Brewery, Columbus Brewing Company and Barley’s Brewing Company, which for years represented the whole of the city’s (well-loved) local beer scene, an impressive new crop of independent breweries is taking root. In a remarkably short span, the successes of operations like Seventh Son Brewing, Four String Brewing Company, North High Brewing, Rockmill Brewery and Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery—and numerous excellent others—have established the quality of their products within a region of increasingly interested and adventurous beer drinkers.
While Columbus boasts a formidable pro-local mindset across a range of industries, when Ohio Craft Brewers Association executive director Mary Martineau describes the culture surrounding and contributing to Columbus’s newly robust craft beer offerings, it begins to illustrate how well the collective dynamic of these breweries fits within a city that takes pride in supporting products made close to home.
“There is definitely a level of excitement and openness [surrounding craft beer], as evidenced by the birth of businesses like Columbus Brew Adventures, who will load you and a passel of friends into a cargo van and introduce you to brewers around the city,” she explained.
Although an excellent way to engage customers, too, this culture of accessibility tends to be deeply rooted in the operations of many smaller breweries, whose successes in gaining a following are often achieved quite literally one customer at a time: Dan Cochran of Four String Brewery in Grandview, distributed his first production out of the back of his SUV; Matthew Barbee, owner of Lancaster’s Rockmill Brewery, still delivers each bottle of his farmhouse-style ales in person; and until the recent opening of their tap room, Zauber Brewing Company offered very popular evening and weekend growler-filling opportunities for their customers.
Collectively, these opportunities for face-to-face interaction with the person brewing your beer, have, not surprisingly, helped to develop a sizable section of Central Ohio’s beer drinking community that is interested not just in supporting their particular favorite brewery, but in supporting craft beer in general. And so far, Central Ohio’s craft beer boom of recent years, by the numbers, is still creating far more demand than it can satisfy—which, according to Seventh Son head brewer Colin Vent, sets the stage for even better beer-making and beer-drinking.
“Our per-capita production [of craft beer] is way under per-capita consumption,” Colin explained . “That’s nice for everyone involved because it fosters less competition on the craft level—there’s room for all of us right now.”
And while an environment of less-than-stringent competition may seem a counterintuitive route to top-quality products, in the beer world, creativity and camaraderie tend to handily fill that void. “Numerous [craft] brewers like to push the boundaries of what is considered a certain style and exercise their creativity to explore options far beyond the standard categories,” Mary said. “Just when you think you’ve had the most awesome, unusual, outrageous beer, someone goes and creates something that blows craft beer lovers’ minds.”
Colin noted that smaller production offers more flexibility to brewers who want to stray from the beaten path with the styles and flavor profiles of their beers—a hallmark of craft breweries generally—and the ability to experiment on a small scale can mean more agility in maintaining fresh, interesting offerings. While success for much larger breweries may depend on their staple products—a yearly Oktoberfest, or the reliable flavor of a top-selling lager, for example—craft beer drinkers tend to seek out precisely the kind of unique experience the brewers take such care in developing and delivering; it’s a culture that gravitates toward the unexpected.
A look at the kinds of beer being produced by local breweries underscores that notion: While a sense of commitment to local products might be enough to encourage consumers to forgo a standard pilsner for one made nearby, Columbus beer drinkers are making extremely popular items out of less predictable choices. Seventh Son has based its robust success on the commitment to making beers with unique and interesting flavor profiles, illustrated by their first couple of brews out of the gate—a strong ale and a stout, each a couple of tasty clicks off of a standard presentation. Similarly, Rockmill’s stable of farmhouse-style ales is uniformly, enthusiastically well-received; Four Strings Brewery’s popular offerings have included less-standard varieties like a white IPA, a red ale and a vanilla porter.
When I ask Chris Anthony, head chef at Arch City and avid home brewer, for some insight into Columbus’s craft beer scene, he tells me without hesitation that Central Ohio is where the notable beer city, San Diego, was maybe eight or 10 years ago, and it’s clear from his delivery that the comparison is a profound compliment.
“We aren’t just accepting craft beer here, but we’re expecting and demanding it,” he said. And we’re being well rewarded for our efforts.