Does Ohio beer have its own identity?

Many great beer styles are associated with a region—pilsners with the Czech Republic, lambics with Brussels, goses with Leipzig, saisons with Wallonia, steam beer with San Francisco, and so on.  While most styles originated in Europe long ago, America has made important contributions in my lifetime. American-style pale ales and IPAs originated in the Pacific Northwest, and New England IPAs are the hottest trend in craft beer these days. It got me thinking does Ohio, or the Midwest in general, have a distinctive style?  A tall order to be sure, after all there’s nothing in the 100+ styles of beer recognized by the BJCP that suggests any association with Ohio.  Still a deep look might uncover the seed of something that could grow into a style with Ohio roots. It would be beyond cool if beer lovers planned trips to the Buckeye state to get a first-hand look at the place where _______ was born.

To get some insight on this question I contacted beer writer Rick Armon, who literally wrote the book(s) on Ohio beer (Rick’s newest book, 50 Must-Try Craft Beers of Ohio, was just released), and three of the most innovative brewers in Ohio—Sean White from Little Fish Brewing in Athens, Bret Kollmann Baker from Urban Artifact in Cincinnati, and Chris Davison from Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in Columbus.  My friend Hans Gorsuch, an innovative homebrewer and baker who got me thinking about this topic in the first place, rounds out the panel.  I’d love to say we sat down in a hop yard somewhere in Ohio whilst drinking beers spontaneously fermented with locally captured microflora, but in truth the conversation took place in a series of e-mail messages sent on fiber optic cables under the Atlantic Ocean.  The excerpts that follow capture the highlights of our virtual conversation.

Rick Armon goes in for a deep dive on aroma at last year’s King of Ohio Session Beer contest.

Let’s start with the question at its most straightforward level, is there anything that distinguishes Ohio beer from the rest of the country?

Rick: Hmmm, no. The thing that I find humorous while traveling around is that every region—with a few exceptions, of course—believes they are producing the best beer or the most innovative beer. You’re not, everybody is.

Chris: Currently I’d say in the truest sense there is not any type of regional style directly associated with Ohio or the Midwest.

I realize my question has a certain element of naivete, very few regions of the country can lay claim to a unique style of beer.  After all, most of the accepted styles were developed long ago.  Maybe the US, or even the world at large, is becoming too homogeneous for new styles with a sense of place to emerge.

Sean: It seems like the newer “regional” styles are more based off local trends, like brewers talking to other brewers, and beer drinkers’ responses to those beers, than any unique geographical features of the region.  I mean, all those older regional styles were based off things that the brewer couldn’t change: either their water, their available ingredients, their equipment, or their local microflora.  Nowadays you can pretty much get any ingredient, any yeast, anywhere.  Our equipment is fairly universal too.  We understand water chemistry and how to adjust it with osmosis or adding salts.  So pretty much the only way we could get back to a truly regional style is if brewers set limits for themselves, like using only local ingredients or local microflora.

Hans: This is what European brewers do, and most American brewers will not. I think setting these limits is part of the “craft” of craft brewing. Sometimes that limit is merely choosing one style and going deep with guiding principles you are trying to achieve.

You might argue that some styles, or at least variations on a style, developed from differences in the regional palate.  Maybe the taste preferences of Ohioans or Midwesterners in general could spur something new.

Bret: I feel the Midwest/Ohio is unique in that we love our sugary alcoholic beverages. I worked at a winery in Missouri for a while before Urban Artifact, and the number one selling wines every single year were the sweet wines. I would push for big dry reds, and they were some great wines, but none of the local wine drinkers were into dry wines. I think there are a lot of reasons for this that aren’t worth getting into right now, but this anecdotal trend applies to beer as well.

It started to really become apparent when the IPA trend first started taking off. East coast style IPAs were originally more like hopped up English IPAs using American hops. West coast went very clean, very bitter, with big hop forward aromatics and almost no malt character. With more east than west coast influence originally, the Midwest favored IPAs with big caramel malt flavors to help balance all that bitterness. Bell’s Two-Hearted is a prime example. It’s got a big malty caramel backbone to stand up to all that hop bitterness.

Hans: I think all American taste buds get calibrated to/dulled by extremes due to the widespread availability of fast food and soft drinks. We are surrounded by food and drink that is overly salty, sweet, fatty, spicy, and so on. In my opinion, this is why American IPAs took off big … we could still taste them.

Obviously, a new style isn’t going to emerge from a board meeting of the Ohio Craft Brewer’s Association, it’s going to come about because a few innovative breweries come up with something new or decide to embrace the local terroir in a way that is difficult, or at least inconvenient, for brewers in other parts of the country to replicate.  Rick, there are quite a few beers containing “weird” ingredients in your new book.  While some are in my opinion largely for shock value, like Elevator’s Ghost Scorpion Lager, others involve locally sourced ingredients.  Which ingredients and beers do you think best capture the terroir of Ohio?

Rick: Terroir?! Why are you breaking out big-ass post-doctoral words with me? I am now leafing through the dictionary to look up terrier. Oops, that’s a dog. Oh wait, you mean terroir. Come on! I’m not sure there are specific ingredients or specific beers that represent or should represent Ohio. Why would you want to be defined by a style or beer? Sorry, New England.  If there’s an ingredient, I guess it would be the pawpaw fruit, which is native to the state. It’s always cool to taste Ohio beers using pawpaw. There’s even an Ohio Pawpaw Festival, with brewers making special beers using the fruit.

Chris: I agree, pawpaw beer might really be the closest thing to an Ohio flavor or exclusive style—though it’s a small subset within the state and it’s not very accessible outside of the state.

Paw paws grow wild in the understory of the forests throughout the state, particularly in the hills of Southeast Ohio.

OK let’s go back to the core ingredients.  Touching on a point Sean made earlier, styles as diverse as English IPA, Irish Stout, and Czech Pilsner are what they are in large part to limitations of the local water supply.  Maybe there’s something in Ohio water that could influence beer made here.  Bret you’ve discussed the importance of water on the Urban Artifact blog, is there anything about the water in Cincinnati or Ohio in general that might give clues to what characteristics an Ohio style of beer might possess?

Brett: Ohio is defined by two major water systems, the Ohio River and Lake Erie. This really changes what your water is like depending on where you are in the state. The mitigating factor however is that 90% of all breweries strip their water down to as little as possible and build it back up. This removes any sense of terroir you may have gotten from your water. It is for this very reason that the only thing we do to our water is remove the chlorine via carbon filtration. We will then use that water as is with some minor adjustments to the pH in order to hit proper brewing ranges. We will adjust chloride (Cl) or sulfate (SO42−) concentrations if we really want to push a soft or sharp finish respectively but those are minor adjustments. Water is sadly no longer a real differentiator of geographic style, at least in the United States.

Advances in malting barley led to the birth of pilsner in the 19th century, and greatly expanded the popularity of porters in the 18th century.  Perhaps the nascent malting industry in Ohio might play a role, though it may be an overstatement to call two businesses, Haus Malts in Cleveland and Rustic Brew Farms in Marysville, an industry.  No one uses more Ohio malts than Little Fish, so I asked Sean if Ohio malts have a distinctive character?

Sean: Malts grown in Ohio have about the same in flavor as other malts, in my opinion.  But I do think spelt grows really well here, and there is some talk of kernza, another ancient grain, that is actually a perennial, I believe.

You can’t drive very far in Ohio without coming across a field of corn.  Obviously, it’s closely associated with North America, but its reputation as a malted grain has traditionally been limited to Cream Ales, Malt Liquors, and of course the oft dismissed American lager.  I know Founder’s made a barrel aged malt liquor earlier this year. Is it conceivable that some sort of corn inspired beer might catch on?

Sean: I haven’t personally used corn to brew outside of pre-prohibition pilsner beer.  We use malted corn from Hausmalts.  That’s a good product for us because we don’t have access to a local, “flaked” corn product.  Corn needs to be malted or pre-gelatinized before the mash.  The gelatinization temperature is higher for corn than it is for barley or wheat.  So you have to use either a flaked (steamed and rolled) or malted product, or conduct a complicated cereal mash.  We use 20% corn in our Shagbark Pilsner.  We used to use organic corn grits, but the process to use them was insane.  We had to pre-gelatinize them in boiling water in the boil kettle, then move them to the mash tun by hand.  Our first brew using the malted corn should be on draft in late September.  We are just happy that this will allow us to brew Shagbark Pilsner more regularly, because we really like that beer!

RBF_Malt Bag

It’s well documented that hop aroma and flavor are dependent upon where they are grown.  Saaz hops grown in Oregon aren’t the same as Saaz hops grown in the Czech Republic.  Maybe there are hop breeds that might emerge in Ohio with different characteristics than they would have when grown elsewhere?

Sean: If an Ohio-centric beer were to emerge I think it would definitely be led by the available hop varieties and how they manifest a terroir here.  For instance, everyone who is growing Chinook in Ohio (which grows like crazy here) is getting big time peach or other fruit notes off of it.  Definitely a different character than Chinook from out west.  Currently some of the hardiest hops for our soil are Chinook, Cascade, and Zeus.  Cashmere is showing a lot of promise too.  I’ve got some Riwaka growing here at Little Fish that harvests late, but is really healthy and nice.  I’m hoping we can get some Citra, Mosaic, and other trademarked hops growing here and see how they turn out.  But all of this is going to take time.

Bret: We use as many Ohio hops as we can get right now, which isn’t much. We are working with a local farmer in Maineville, OH and buying all he is producing.  Hopefully in half a decade’s time he can be supplying something like 25% of our hop needs, but for now we use what we can get when we can get it.

Our hop farmer is very open to experimentation and has been playing around with a lot of different hop varieties to see what grows best around here with the best flavor. Currently he is big into New Zealand varieties. I think there is a big market here potentially for hop varieties that are otherwise unremarkable but when grown in our climate produce something truly unique and exciting. This really has some potential, especially in our IPA heavy market, to make a splash in regards to terroir.

cascade hops at rustic brew farms
Cascade hop cones and bines growing at Rustic Brew Farms outside of Marysville.

Finally, we turn to yeast, which is arguably the most distinctive ingredient in the brewer’s arsenal.  Just think what Belgian beers would taste like if you replaced their magical, expressive yeast strains with Chico Ale yeast.  Urban Artifact and Little Fish are among a very small subset of Ohio breweries that capture wild yeast, so I asked Bret and Sean to expand on how they use yeast at their respective breweries.

Bret: We use a lot of local yeast and bacteria. All of our souring is done with a locally caught “house” lactobacillus. This is truly unique to our brewery. After the beer is sour it is handled in a couple different ways. For our main “flagship” and seasonal beers, we will finish fermenting the beer with regular brewers yeast that any ol’ brewery can buy. If the beer is destined for long term aging in oak, we will then blend it with a mixed culture of locally caught yeast and bacteria. I believe there is a blog post detailing that process much more (see Bret’s post on capturing wild yeasts for more information). We use as much local and wild yeast/bacteria that we can while doing our best to maintain consistency batch to batch.

Sean: We are experimenting with brewing our farmhouse ales with a saccharomyces strain that we isolated here from our green space, as well as two cultured strains of Brettanomyces blended in.  I was really digging our previous farmhouse blend with a more traditional saison strain as the base, but if this doesn’t work out as well, we can always go back to the old blend.

Bret: The next big shake-up I see in the industry is decades away when designer yeast starts to catch on.

Saison du Poisson BA
Saison du Poisson is now made with 100% Ohio-grown ingredients, and produced year round.

Let me finish by asking if there are already recognized styles that Ohio brewers have adopted and perfected.  After all American IPAs were born in Oregon and Northern California, but that didn’t stop San Diego from becoming a mecca for the style, and by all accounts there are more authentic Berliner Weisses being produced in the US than in Germany these days.

Rick: Ohio definitely punches above its weight when it comes to IPAs. I wrote a piece last year noting all the accolades coming to Ohio breweries for their IPAs (Ohio producing the best IPAs in the country).  Many beer geeks around the country called me stupid for making that argument, but the point was that Ohio is making some of the best IPAs in the nation—not necessarily that we are better than everywhere else (see my first comment). The Buckeye State can at least be part of the conversation thanks to all the awards that have come to Ohio breweries.

Chris: I feel like the Midwest is definitely known for its Stouts. In Ohio alone we have Jackie O’s, Thirsty Dog, Hoppin’ Frog, Listermann, (Wolf’s Ridge?), playing on a somewhat recognized field with the quality of our stouts. To go full Midwest there’s a plethora of other super sought after stouts. I’d also say Ohio is greatly recognized but maybe underappreciated at the quality of our clean, West Coast style IPAs. Though again, definitely nothing here suggesting any regionality or uniqueness. But who knows, maybe flavored Cream Ales will become a national concern five years from now.

Bret: What I do see starting to gain some traction in the Midwest, and it will be interesting to see how this proliferates, are these heavily fruited beers that are popping up across Southwest Ohio and Wisconsin. The Midwest Fruit Tart is actually the style being pushed and it is identified by its intensely fruit forward flavor, which I think will play into the fact that people in the Midwest generally like sweeter drinks. It’ll be fun to watch this style grow in the coming year or two.

Hans: I think the differences between American and European attitudes make it difficult for Ohio or any other region of the country to excel at a specific style. The best art comes from working within restrictions. It is an American attitude that there is always new territory to explore, always pushing west. There’s relatively more emphasis on discovery, new for the sake of new, than mastery and fine-tuning. To use a metaphor, American brewers feel more accomplished digging lots of shallow wells while looking for water, instead of one or two deep ones – trying to brew every style instead of concentrating on one (Rockmill comes to mind as an exception to this generalization). It’s hard for mastery of one or a few styles to emerge within this ethos.

That’s a wrap.  Thanks to Rick, Sean, Bret, Chris, and Hans for taking time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions.  If you liked this story look for more commentary from these four as well as other Ohio brewers in upcoming posts on the dominance of IPAs in America, and the rise of neighborhood breweries.

For those of you who live in Columbus let me also point out that Rick is going to be at The Ohio Taproom on Sunday, October 8 to answer questions and sign copies of his new book, 50 Must-Try Craft Beers of Ohio.

2 thoughts on “Does Ohio beer have its own identity?

Add yours

    1. I’m glad you liked it. The point about hops is an interesting one. I guess that’s one of the big reasons why brewers still buy specific hop types from specific locations.

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