A few months back I received an e-mail out of the blue from a gentleman named Jim Ellison who runs a company called Columbus Brew Adventures, inviting me to go on one of his Columbus Brewery tours. What could I say, one of his tours was on my list of the top gifts for the beer lover in your life. Maybe Jim celebrates Christmas closer to Jesus’ historical birth date than the rest of us. Anyway I gladly accepted the offer and followed through this past Saturday on the Downtown Brewery Tour.
What follows is a chronological recap of my Columbus brew adventure. It will be too long for some of you so I’ll give the short and sweet review before launching into a long form first person account of the tour. If you do take the time to read the full post you will learn some interesting facts about the Columbus brewing scene that you may or may not know, including the fact that two breweries are about to undergo major expansions.
The normal cost is $55 per person and for that you get some tasty snacks at the first stop and 3-4 ounce tasters of approximately 12 beers. If you were to drive from place to place and buy the same amount of beer and food I’d estimate it would cost on the order of $30-$35 per person. For the extra $20 not only were we driven around by a sober and knowledgeable guide, we were able to meet and hear a presentation by the head brewer at three of the four breweries we visited. Everything was done very professionally. I should also say at the outset that I was invited to on the tour for free, but I don’t feel that interfered with my ability to write an objective account of the experience. I guess you can be the judge of that.
If you are thinking of taking this tour it’s important to realize that the tour is more an educational and sensory experience than it is a party. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, but its a different experience that going to a series of breweries with your buddies and drinking pints of beer. I’ve written a follow up post where I do exactly that, just to compare the two experiences. It’s a hard job but somebody has to do it.
My Saturday Columbus Brew Adventure
8:10 am – I roll over in bed and look at the clock. The cats are anxious for breakfast and upon seeing movement all three congregate around my head and stare at me until I get up and feed them. It’s not clear I’m going to be in the mood for drinking beer in less than three hours.
8:30 am – My cell phone has been missing for three days and I’m starting to have doubts it’s going to turn up in some random location in my house. The last time I remember seeing it was on the way to Zaftig Brewing to pick up a growler. Without much optimism I send an e-mail to Zaftig on the off chance that my phone abandoned me at the brewery.
8:35 am – Within a few minutes I get a response from Zaftig. They found a phone in the cushion of the couch when cleaning up on Wednesday night. They tell me I can stop by anytime today to pick it up. Things are starting to turn for the better.
10:15 am – I drive up to Zaftig to get my phone. I end up chatting with the brewers for a few minutes. They tell me they are thinking about brewing a session beer. Since they have yet to brew a beer with an abv of less than 8% I ask them how they define “sessionable.” To my surprise the answer is around 4%. Sounds interesting but I will believe it when I see it. They ask me if I’d like to be the first one to try a taste of a new as of yet unnamed IPA. It’s good, better than their Two Cans IPA in my opinion, more floral and aromatic, less malty. They ask me if I have any suggestions for a name and all I can think of is the beer I had last night, “Sweet Child of Vine” from Fulton Brewing in Minneapolis. My chance to make a tangible contribution to the Columbus brewing scene slips through my fingers like dust in the wind.
11:00 am – I arrive at Columbus Brewing Company where the tour begins. I find Jim Ellison and introduce myself. Most of the group for today’s tour is already seated. There are beer sampling trays laid out for each person and plates of food (nachos, two types of pizza, big pieces of soft pretzels with IPA mustard) distributed around the table.
11:05 am – Jim says a few things about the tour and a woman from the restaurant gives us some details on the food. I’m already pretty familiar with the concept behind nachos and pizza, so I’m kind of anxious for this part to move along quickly. My impatience is exacerbated by the fact that I only had the wisdom to eat one slice of raisin bread toast before embarking on a brewery tour. When we do start eating everyone is a bit shy about taking too much food, but the nachos and vegetarian pizza really hit the spot.
11:08 am – Jim tells us we are not going to be touring the Columbus Brewing Company itself because space is too tight for a proper tour. He starts to introduce the beers but we have a different slate of beers than usual today. The first is darker than the other two and pretty clearly their pale ale. He then introduces me as the resident beer guru and asks me to identify the two remaining beers. It won’t help my status as a “guru” if I don’t get this right. Fortunately it’s an easy call, the middle beer is the IPA and the palest one is their famous DIPA, Bodhi. Apparently it’s uncommon for Bodhi to be on tap at the CBC restaurant. So for the second time today things break my way.
11:15 am – With the exception of yours truly today’s tour group seems to consist entirely of couples. There is a group of three couples from Dublin (Ohio not Ireland) who are obviously together. I’m told later that the tour is a birthday present for one of the men in the group. I introduce myself to a younger couple seated next to me, Emily and David, who are from Bowling Green. She seems very much into beer but he doesn’t drink, or at least he didn’t that day. The last two guests have not yet arrived which means that someone else (possibly me) would end up drinking their samples of hoplicious CBC beer. It’s not clear if drinking nine samples at the first stop on the tour is something that a “beer guru” would do, but mentally I’m rooting for the last two guests to be no-shows.
11:20 am – The last two guests arrive, two women dressed in t-shirts and adorned with more tattoos than everyone else in the group put together, which is to say some tattoos. They appear to be partners, and I’d say there is a 50-50 chance at least one of them has played roller derby at some point in her life. To avoid starting off on a bad foot with toughest people in the group I abandon my plan to nonchalantly slide the last two glasses of Bodhi over to my tasting paddle. The tattooed, roller derby girls turn out to be pretty fun and more knowledgeable about beer than most people on the tour.
11:45 am – We all pile into the van and head over to Seventh Son brewing. I end up sitting next to two blonde women from the Dublin group. One of them seems more impressed than she really should be that I write a beer blog. I think she is confusing me for someone who actually gets paid to write about beer, but I don’t go out of my way to correct her misconception.
11:55 am – We arrive at Seventh Son and head brewer Colin Vent takes us out to the brewing area and gives a short lecture on how beer is made. As a beer geek I don’t learn many new things, but for someone who is interested in but not overly familiar with the ingredients and process of making beer it’s a clear and accessible presentation. We get to taste a few different malt grains (Pale, Crystal and Chocolate) and he passes around two jars of hops, one containing Sorachi and the other Galaxy hops. It’s cool and completely consistent with my experiences with Seventh Son beers that both types of hops are somewhat exotic.
12:20 pm – We move into one of the back rooms of Seventh Son for our samples of beer. We each get three beers. The first two, Stone Fort Oat Brown Ale and Golden Ratio IPA, are staples at Seventh Son. I learn that a small amount of smoked malts are used in Stone Fort, which explains the unusual taste that I’d not previously been able to identify in that beer. I also learn that the main hop strain in Golden Ratio (marketed somewhat vaguely as containing Southern Hemisphere hops) is the Galaxy hop from Australia. The final beer is a one-time release called Galloway Tale, a stout made with heather flowers like those that grow wild in Scotland. I like the last beer quite a bit. It has caramel and a bit of dark chocolate from the roasted malts, some floral notes and a touch of grape at the finish, not so heavy that you want to avoid it on a hot summer day. Colin says it is a pain in the ass to make that beer because the heather clogs everything up. If you want to try it you better get there before this batch runs out.
12:45 pm – We get back in the van and head over to North High Brewing. Upon arriving they are already setting out tasting glasses of beer for us. Here we get four samples of beer—Hefeweizen, Milk Stout, Saison, and OH-IPA. Co-owner Gavin Meyers starts to tell us a little about these styles of beer, North High Brewing, and the building in which it is housed. My favorite part is the wall of old time post office boxes from post-Katrina New Orleans, where regulars store their mugs. It’s a little hard to hear because the song Zombie by the Cranberries is playing in the background and several customers at the bar are singing at the top of their lungs. It seems a little early in the day for such enthusiasm, but it is Saturday of Comfest weekend. IMO North High has the coolest space in town. If you haven’t been there don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.
1:00 pm – We move into the back area where the beer is made. Unlike other local breweries customers can sign up for a kettle and brew batches of their own beer. Gavin says they took their inspiration from The Brew Kettle in Strongsville, OH (maker of one of my favorite beers, White Rajah). There are eight 15 gallon brew kettles arranged in a circular fashion so the customers can interact with each other when brewing. The room is lit by 21 bulbs to signify the 21st amendment. Gavin said it takes about 3 hours to brew a 15 gallon batch (that’s one keg or roughly 140 12 oz bottles) for a price that’s approximately $200.
1:05 pm – We move onto the climate controlled fermentation room. The room is chock full of blue keg sized barrels stacked on shelves that go up to the ceiling. CO2 steadily bubbles up through the trap on each barrel. What a contrast to Seventh Son where everything is done in large stainless steel tanks. I learn that North High Brewing is in the process of a big expansion and a new 20 BBL (roughly 600 gallon) facility at the corner of 5th and Cleveland Avenues will soon be operational. They’ve also hired Jason McKibben who was formerly production manager at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco to run the brewing operation (see Columbus Business First article for more details). This is great news for Central Ohio beer lovers.
1:15 pm – We move back out into the brewery. The Brazil-Chile world cup match is playing on the television. Fred scores what looks to be the go ahead goal, but it is disallowed when the referee calls a hand ball. Fred is not happy and is shown a yellow card. The referee keeps a wary eye on Hulk.
1:18 pm – I tell Roller derby girl #1 about the Wildcard English Ale, brewed with vanilla beans and served on nitro. In my opinion it’s North High’s signature beer. We go up to the bar and order two sample size glasses. The nitro bubble cascade is particularly vigorous in a smallish tasting glass.
1:25 pm – Jim introduces me to Gavin and we talk for a few minutes. He gives me a sample of a single hop IPA made with Pride hops from Australia and brewed for Pride Week. He tells me that once this runs out they will be serving a single hop beer made with Citra hops. I vow to come back and try it when it comes out.
1:30 pm – We get back in the van and head over to Zauber brewing. I’m the last one in so I sit up front with Jim this time. I learn that he grew up in Clintonville and will soon be moving back. He is involved in several blogs himself including CMH Gourmand and Taco Trucks Columbus among others. He’s a nice guy who knows a lot about the history and current status of the brewing scene in Columbus.
1:45 pm – Everyone piles out and we go into Zauber, which is a sleek, modern take on an old style German beer hall. There are a handful of people scattered around the bar watching the World Cup match. Unlike North High and Seventh Son the volume on the match is being piped through the sound system here. We head to the back where the beer is brewed and owner/brewmaster Geoff Towne emerges from a small room where he is working on a batch of beer, wearing a Milwaukee Brewers baseball cap appropriately enough.
1:55 pm – Geoff tells us about Zauber’s philosophy of Americanizing German and Belgian styles of beer, which I interpret as dialing up the flavors in those styles of beer. The brewing area is full of just purchased brewing equipment that will greatly expand Zauber’s capacity. Geoff says that he expects by early August they will be scaled up to the point where they will be able to serve their beers seven days a week at the brewery and start distributing elsewhere around town. That’s another piece of great news because at the present time the small batch size means that one has to visit the brewery on Thursdays to be sure of getting a Zauber brewed beer. Periodically Geoff has to cut out to attend to the batch of beer he is brewing, but Jim has heard the talk so many times he can pick up where Geoff leaves off. We learn that Geoff studied fermentation science at UC Davis and formerly worked for both Great Lakes Brewing and Boston Beer Company in Cincinnati.
2:10 pm – We head over to a small tap room near the entrance to the brewery where Geoff tells us a little more about their beers. He pulls out two 32 oz half-growler bottles from the refrigerator that contain two beers that he has saved from this Thursday’s release, Buxom Blonde and Myopic Red. The Buxom Blonde is a hazy, golden colored Belgian Blonde that has a Hefeweizen-like array of fruity flavors. The Myopic Red, which is named for the way locals view the activities of the OSU football program, is a German Alt Bier. It’s only the third time I’ve had a chance to sample Zauber beers so that’s a bonus. Geoff tells us about Berserker, which is a hopped up version of the Buxom Blonde. I make a mental note to try Berserker when the chance arises.
2:25 pm – By now the Brazil-Chile match is in the waning moments of extra time. A wicked strike by Chile hits the crossbar and the hosts are inches away from being bounced out of the World Cup. The match goes to penalty kids. I’m standing next to Geoff who tells me that his philosophy on penalty kicks is to decide where you are going to hit it before you even walk up to the ball. The players don’t seem to share his conviction on this point as shots are being saved/missed en-masse by both teams. Brazil eventually make 3 PKs to survive the challenge from Chile.
2:35 pm – We get back in the van and head back to CBC where Jim drops us off. I thank him for what was an educational and thoroughly enjoyable tour.
Don’t forget to tune back in for the next post where I contrast this experience with a spontaneous, self-organized, unguided tour of four Columbus breweries.