Stepping out from the shadows – The beers of Wolf’s Ridge

Have you ever felt overshadowed by the success of a sibling, a teammate, a predecessor? What would it be like to walk a mile in the shoes of Scottie Pippen, Kenny Guiton, Ron Wood, or the new CEO of Apple, whatever his name is? In a small way that must be what it feels like to be a Wolf’s Ridge beer. In its first year of operation the restaurant at Wolf’s Ridge has garnered much praise and numerous accolades, while the beers have been asked to play the supporting role. I think that’s a little unfair, because the beer coming out of Wolf’s Ridge deserves more love than it gets from the craft beer community. This post is my humble attempt to address this miscarriage of justice.

Earlier this month I sat down with Alan Szuter, co-owner of Wolf’s Ridge, and Chris Davison, who recently moved from Columbus Brewing Company to become head brewer at Wolf’s Ridge. We were joined by my friend Mark Richards who took all of the photos you see in this post, and Melissa Petty, who handles public relations among other things at the brewery. The meeting was devoted entirely to talking beer and drinking beer.

The restaurant at Wolf's Ridge as the sun sets on a brisk November day.
The restaurant at Wolf’s Ridge as the sun sets on a brisk November day.

The Beers

As an observer to the exploding craft beer scene one of the things that interests me is how different breweries differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. Other local breweries have staked a claim to being the hoppiest (CBC), strongest (Zaftig), most German (Zauber), most Belgian (Rockmill), and most inappropriately named (Hoof Hearted), so I asked Alan what makes Wolf’s Ridge beers stand out from other Columbus area breweries. He told me that their goal is to not to make the biggest or strongest beers in central Ohio, instead they are striving to make the cleanest, highest quality beers possible. By starting out from the get go with a 15 BBL system (from Superior Mechanical Systems), and concentrating on brewing beer for consumption at the restaurant/brewery they have been able to take a slow and steady approach to brewing. This gives the yeast enough time work its magic. Having tried most of the Wolf’s Ridge beers over the past year I can attest that this is more than just talk. When I order a Wolf’s Ridge beer I know it is going to be a carefully crafted beer that is a faithful representation of the style. You won’t find off flavors or under attenuated beers here.

The 15 BBL brewkit at Wolf's Ridge as seen from the basement.
The 15 BBL brewkit at Wolf’s Ridge as seen from the basement.

As a testament to this patient approach to brewing, I learned during this visit that Wolf’s Ridge has added lagers to their repertoire. Lets be honest there are precious few lagers being brewed in central Ohio (excluding the Budwieser plant in Worthington of course), in part because they take so much longer to ferment than ales. We’re not talking your dad’s yellow fizzy lager either. While I was visiting I had the pleasure to sample their rauchbier, Buchenrauch. Rauchbiers are a German style of lager that date back to the days when the malts were roasted in wood fired ovens which imparts a smoky flavor to the malts that carries through to the finished beer. A little smoky flavor goes a long way though, and if overdone the beer can end up tasting like a campfire. I’m happy to report that Chris and Alan have hit the sweet spot with Buchenrauch. It has just enough smoky character to trigger thoughts of savory smoked meats, but not so much that it overwhelms the beer.

There are quite a few interesting styles of lager that are absent from the local beer scene, and I for one would love to see Wolf’s Ridge fill some of those holes. Chris mentioned that he was looking forward to brewing a Octoberfest next fall. Might I suggest he consider adding a Doppelbock or Maibock for spring, and a hoppy German Pilsner for summer.

Wolfs Ridge Buchenrauch

I asked Alan and Chris which one of the core Wolf Ridge beers has been the best seller. I was not too surprised to hear that it was Clear Sky, a crisp, easy drinking cream ale (5.1% abv, 13 IBU). I’ve touted Clear Sky in earlier posts, and if I was asked to make a top ten list of must try Columbus beers, Clear Sky would be on that list. Lest you think that I’m going all soft on you by putting a cream ale in the same company as Bodhi, Fat Julian, Humulus Nimbus, and Musk of the Minotaur let me explain my logic. Firstly, how many breweries make a cream ale let alone rock one? No one in central Ohio I’m pretty sure. Secondly, in a delicate beer like a cream ale there is nowhere for off-flavors to hide. I think the popularity of Clear Sky is further testament to Alan Szuter’s claim that they care about quality at Wolf’s Ridge. Given Clear Sky’s success it was interesting to learn that Alan was initially opposed to brewing a cream ale. He didn’t think anyone would buy it, but now happily admits he was wrong.

While we are on the theme of venturing where few local breweries dare to go, it’s worth mentioning their line of abbey ales. The leader of the pack, the alpha wolf if you will, is their Belgian tripel, Alpha. It’s a strong golden ale (9.3% abv, 32 IBU) full of fruity esters and peppery phenols, and as one of their core beers it’s almost always on tap at the brewery. More sporadically you can also find their dubbel, Beta, or their “single” Omega. It’s no coincidence that the brewery which houses one of the best restaurants in the city is also the one that has ventured into the world of abbey ales, because they pair well with so many foods. I’m not going to say these beers are yet at the point where they can stand head to head with the Trappist Ales, but I enjoy drinking them. If you are a fan of Westmalle, Chimay, or St. Bernardus beers I’d encourage you try them and judge for yourself.

If they ever decide to brew a quad it will be interesting to see what they name it. None of the remaining 21 greek letters would make much sense. Perhaps Fenrir, the giant wolf in Norse mythology who is prophesized to kill Odin during the cataclysmic events of the Ragnarök, would be a fitting name.

Lest you think Wolf’s Ridge is all about unusual styles it bears mentioning that their IPA, Luck Strikes Twice (6.5%, 62 IBU), is an expressive West Coast IPA hopped with Simcoe and Mosaic hops. It finished in the upper half of 16 Central Ohio IPAs in a blind taste test I hosted earlier this year. You can also opt to tone it down a bit with their session IPA Driftwood (4.6%, 28 IBU) or go in whole hog with their imperial IPA Howling Moon (8.2% abv, 68 IBU) made with Citra and Galaxy hops. I also sampled two new seasonals while visiting: the milk stout N2 the Night (5.6% abv, 31 IBU) served on nitro, and Rosy Cheeks (7.7% abv) a winter warmer made with cranberries and orange peel for the Christmas Ale fans out there.

A wall display of the tap handles at Wolf's Ridge.

Lessons Learned and Friends Made

I’ve talked to enough brewers to know that starting a brewery is not an easy undertaking, so I asked Alan what sort of surprises he’d encountered in the first year of operation. He said the biggest one was when he called up the hop suppliers to place his first order. Without any hop contracts they just laughed at him, and without hops there is no beer. More than once he had to turn to an online homebrewing supplier, but fortunately they always came through for him. Forty pounds of hops is forty pounds of hops even if it does come wrapped in one pound packages.

The camaraderie of the craft beer community has also been a welcome surprise. Alan related a story about one long hot day last summer when they were still getting the brewery in shape to open. Tired and thirsty they were surprised to see someone enter the building holding two six-packs of beer. The figure cast a silhouette in the sunlight streaming in from the windows. Alan said at first he thought it might be a mirage or maybe an angel, but when he got a better look he saw that it was none other than Dick Stevens, owner of nearby Elevator brewing.  Anyone who has met Dick knows that he is not likely to be confused for an angel when fully illuminated. Can you imagine Bill Gates showing up at Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room with Chinese take-out food and an armload of circuit boards?  Earlier this year Alan passed on the goodwill with a similar welcoming gift for the guys at Land Grant Brewing.

The basement at Wolf's Ridge with (left to right): head brewer Chris Davison, me, and co-owner Alan Szuter.  Melissa is standing between Alan and I but cannot be seen.
The basement at Wolf’s Ridge with (left to right): head brewer Chris Davison, me, and co-owner Alan Szuter. Melissa is standing between Alan and I but cannot be seen.

A Three Step Plan

From the beginning Alan and his son Bob (co-owners of WR) have been following a three step plan for world domination, or at least for building a successful business and getting their beer into the hands of more central Ohioans. Phase one was all about establishing the restaurant and developing beers that complement the excellent food coming out of the kitchen. It’s worth noting that all of the bartenders at Wolf’s Ridge are certified cicerones. They take the food-beer interplay seriously.

Now that the restaurant is well established they can move to phase two, opening the taproom. The taproom is a large space at the back of the building that houses the restaurant. Its opening has been rumored since at least mid-summer, but like a tank of fermenting lager several months have passed by and we are still anxiously waiting for the final product. I asked Alan why it had taken so long to complete the taproom and it seems that bureaucratic delays associated with obtaining building permits are one of the biggest factors in slowing the pace.

The kitchen at Wolf's Ridge.
The kitchen at Wolf’s Ridge.

Some of you might have seen the post I wrote about the taproom preview event back in October.  Mark and I got a tour of the taproom on this visit and I’m happy to report that quite a bit of progress has taken place since early October. The cooler where the beer will be stored is framed in and the bar is coming together. It should be completed sometime in the next couple of months, although Alan would not commit to a date. My guess is January, but that’s just a guess. When it does finally open I think it will be one of the most spectacular taprooms in the city. The light pours through the tall windows that line the north and west facing walls, the brick walls give a rough but still upscale feel to the place, and judging from the taproom preview party the acoustics should be well suited for live music. Finally, let’s not forget that parking is much easier to come by on 4th street than it is at several of the High Street and Grandview breweries. When the taproom opens the goal is to have 20 beers on tap at any given time.

Once the taproom is established the third and final step would be to expand distribution to local bars and growler shops and start canning their beer. There is space on the north side of the brewery to expand.  The day when beers like Clear Sky and Alpha start to show up in the supermarket is still quite a ways off, but at Wolf’s Ridge good things come to those who wait. In the meantime you can look for a gradual and steady expansion in the availability of Wolf’s Ridge beers in growler shops, restaurants and bars around town.

The taproom preview at Wolf's Ridge.
The taproom preview at Wolf’s Ridge.

If you haven’t tried a Wolf’s Ridge beer yet what are you waiting for? They are making quality beers across a range of styles broad enough to satisfy even a group full of picky drinkers. Don’t limit your consumption of their excellent elixirs to nights on the town for a fancy meal. Go ahead and stop by the bar after work for a beer, quench your thirst after a grueling round of Christmas shopping, or hit the weekend brunch before a day of watching football. You’ll thank me.

Disclaimer – Wolf’s Ridge invited me down to visit them and let us sample some of their beers free of charge during the interview.  If you look back at older posts you’ll see that my fondness of their beer is hardly a new direction for me.

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