Sunday in Athens – A (Chauffeured) Walk on the Wild Side

Ohio is approaching 300 breweries, a dramatic expansion from just five years ago when I started this blog. It’s a luxury of riches that means most of us don’t have to travel very far to find tasty beer.  Just about any style you crave—hazy IPAs, high gravity malt bombs, crisp lagers, barrel aged sours—can be found inside the borders of Franklin County.  That’s not to say there aren’t breweries in other parts of the state worthy of a road trip.  Tucked away in the Appalachian foothills of Southeast Ohio, the small college town of Athens is home to two breweries that make my short list, Jackie O’s and Little Fish.  So, when Columbus Brew Adventures owner Jim Ellison asked if I would be interested in joining a special guided tour of these two breweries, plus the Athens West End Ciderworks and Distillery, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. 

Good company is one of the few things in life that beats good beer, and this trip had both in spades. The trip was organized by a group of fun-loving, beer savvy women who meet every month for what they call Girl’s Pint Out.  For genetic reasons that date back to my birth I am not part of this organization, but to fill out the 30+ available spots on the tour a few males that passed Jim’s screening were allowed to tag along.  This fortuitous set of circumstances meant that I shared the back seat of the bus with fellow beer writer Bill Babbit and Barley’s brewmaster Angelo Signorino.

Jackie Os Barrels Clean Side
Barrel aging on the clean side of the Jackie O’s production facility.

Jackie O’s

Our first stop was the Jackie O’s production facility and taproom.  For Ohio beer lovers Jackie O’s needs no introduction.  Founded in 2005 as a small brewpub, when owner Art Oestrike purchased the Union Street bar formerly known as O’Hooley’s, Jackie O’s has grown to be one of the most respected breweries in Ohio [1]. In 2013 they opened a much larger production facility on Campbell Street, just northeast of the Ohio University campus, near the Sonic Drive-In.  These days they run four batches through the 20 barrel (bbl) brewhouse every day to keep the six 120 bbl and dozen or so 40 bbl fermenters full.  During the tour I learned that while most Jackie O’s beer is sold in Ohio, some of it is sent to retail markets as far away as California and Belgium [2].

The first order of business was a tour given by brewer Evan Kreager.  We started on the clean side of the brewery, where the pale ales, IPAs, fruit beers, stouts, barley wines and many other styles are made.  This is also where the barrel aging of the big beers like Oil of Aphrodite, Dark Apparition, and Brick Kiln takes place.  Inevitably the discussion turned to how Jackie O’s is dealing with infection issues that have cropped up over the last year or so.  Evan talked us through the extensive lab testing they’ve done to try to identify the bacteria responsible for the unwanted souring of some bottles.  Nailing down the exact source of the infections, if there is a single source, has been elusive.  Adjuncts like vanilla beans and nuts are at the top of the list of suspected culprits. He then showed us the in-line pasteurizing system, and self-sterilizing bottling line, both of which were installed earlier this year.  All of the clean bottled beers that see adjuncts are now pasteurized by heating to ~180 °F prior to bottling. This seems to have solved most of the issues, but some very hardy bacteria can survive high temperatures (thermophilic bacteria), so continued vigilance is required.  

Jackie Os Pasteurizer
The new pasteurizing unit at Jackie O’s.

Next, we moved over to the sour beer facility.  While the two operations are housed in the same building, the sour beer production space is isolated from the clean side by walls and a negative pressure exhaust system.  Upon entering you see a row of stainless-steel tanks, and a large oak foeder. There are two stainless steel vessels for aging sour beer over fruit, and an abundance of oak vessels of various sizes for the long, slow fermentation process that complex sour beers require.

To me the most interesting feature of the brewery was the steel tank that contains the now 13 year-old house Berliner Weiss culture. Jackie O’s highly regarded Berliner’s are made via the solera method, whereby the vessel containing the culture is only emptied 60% of the way each time and then refilled with fresh wort.  In that way the yeast and bacteria responsible for fermentation are continually fed and never need to be repitched.

Foeder and Berliner Culture
Fermentation vessels on the sour side of the brewery.  The 25 bbl stainless-steel tank just to the left of the oak foeder is where the ever evolving Berliner Weiss culture lives.

After the tour we had about 45 minutes to sample the wonderful variety of beers on tap at the production facility.  While some of the 16 taps were taken up by core beers that can be found all over Ohio (Razz Wheat, Mystic Mama IPA, Chomolunga Brown Ale, …) choosing from the dozen or so sours and barrel aged stouts/barleywines was no easy task.  Over the years I’ve learned the hard way that when visiting multiple breweries it’s best not to dive into double digit abv territory right off the bat, so I stuck to the mixed-fermentation sours [3].  I started with a 4 ounce pour of a Kölsch-inspired collaboration beer with Jester King called Final Entropy.  Even if you are a Reinheitsgebot denier, you’d have to agree that a sour Kölsh stretches the notion of beer styles to the breaking point, but as a quaffable mixed-fermentation sour it was right on point.  Next, I moved to a small pour of Byrd Brain, a collaboration with Tired Hands that was brewed with lemon, salt, black pepper, egg shells and flour before aging 18 months in oak barrels. The ingredient list sounds like a baking experiment gone awry, but once again it was full of complex flavors and a pleasure to drink (don’t ask me to pinpoint the terroir of the eggshells though). I finished with a full pour of one of my favorite Jackie O’s beers, their tart saison, Pockets of Sunlight, made with honey, coriander & lemon verbena.

IMG_20181104_140248_833.jpg
The aptly named Pockets of Sunlight at the Jackie O’s taproom.

Athens West End Ciderworks and Distillery

The next stop was Athens West End Ciderworks and Distillery.  I’m no cider expert, but a visit to Southwest England this past spring opened my eyes to complexity and nuance of hand-crafted ciders.  So, I was looking forward to learning more about how Ohio ciders are made.  The production facility is run by Kelly Sauber, one of Ohio’s most experienced brewers and a long-time advocate of incorporating local ingredients [4]. Until very recently the ciders, as well as the spirits made by his sister company Fifth Element Spirits, were produced in nearby Meigs County. That’s about to change as the new, production facility, housed in a large warehouse in west Athens formerly occupied by a mining equipment manufacturer, comes online.

While brewers have year-round access to malted grains, cideries get all of their fermentables in the fall when apples are harvested.  Sauber starts pressing apples in early November and the process can last up through March. During that 4–5 month window enough cider must be made to last through the year .  After pressing apples, the juice is transferred to fermentation tanks and yeast is added.  The fermentation lasts at least 3 months, but generally 6 months or more.  Sauber’s ciders sit on their lees for 3 months before transferring to secondary stainless tanks. It is from these bulk storage tanks that he pulls straight dry cider and adds botanicals, fruit, or in some cases back-sweetens with fresh juice or cane sugar.  The cider is then kegged and stored cold, without the addition of any preservatives, such as sorbates or potassium bisulfite.

In European cider strongholds, like England’s West Country and France’s Brittany, heirloom varieties with characteristics specifically tailored to cider production are grown. In Ohio most apples are grown for eating not making cider, so Kelly has to make due with a laundry list of the sweeter varieties including the likes of Melrose, Granny Smith, Fuji, and Pink Lady.  He did indicate that a few growers are starting to add varieties like Kingston Black and Dabinett, that are grown specifically for ciders in English counties like Somerset and Dorset.  It will be interesting to see how that develops.

After the tour we headed across N. Schafer Street to the West End Cider House. A cozy bar, housed in an old red brick building, oozing with character.  The Cider House is run by Sauber’s partner, Deanna Schwartz. In addition to serving six house ciders, they offer mead, craft cocktails featuring Fifth Element Spirits, and a respectable line-up of guest beers on tap (Weasel Boy, Bells, and Urban Artifact were on when we visited),as well as packaged beer ranging from Land Grant to Duvel.  A few locals were watching the Browns game on a single television with the sound muted.  That makes sense, because sometimes it’s easier to watch the Browns with a drink in your hand and the volume turned way down. A batch of mead was quietly conditioning in a small stainless steel fermenter tucked off to the right of the U-shaped bar.  I ended up sitting at the bar and talking fermentation and distilling with Kelly and Angelo, but some of the more savvy folks in our group took their drinks out to the sheltered patio to enjoy a sunny fall day. 

Ciders at WECH
Sipping ciders at the West End Cider House; left-to-right The Sauce, Zingebier and Byard.

While hanging out at the West End Cider House I sampled three ciders.  Byard is the house dry cider, back sweetened with a bit of cane sugar to push it into the semi-sweet category.  Zingebier is another semi-sweet cider infused with ginger and lemon.  I’m a big fan of this spice combination, and it works well in this cider.  My favorite of the day was simply called, The Sauce; a semi-dry cider infused with hibiscus and Thai chilies that add a spicy kick to the finish.  If you’ve only tried ciders from larger producers like Angry Orchard or even Rhinegeist, the small batch craft ciders here will be a revelation for your senses.

I asked Kelly about the history of the building that houses the West End Ciderhouse.  He sent me the following description:

The Cider house has been a bar for many decades. The back bar was made by the “Bryan Show Case Company” in Bryan Ohio, who knows what year. The front bar was originally the Pageville Ohio Post Office counter. The building was built around 1872. Originally I believe it was a dry goods general store and later a grocery. We had to replace a lot of bricks and repoint a lot of joints but tried to keep it cozy. We took over the space in 2013 after it sat vacant for 10 years apparently due to tax issues and tenant/landlord lawsuits.

Because it’s a little off the beaten track (not necessarily a bad thing in Athens when the students are in town) it was completely off my radar, but no longer.  I’ll definitely be putting the West End Cider House on the A-list of places to hit up when visiting Athens. When the production facility is up and running, which Sauber predicted would happen before the end of 2018, there will be a taproom in that facility as well, offering two different ambiances for enjoying cider on Athen’s west end.

West End Cider House Bricks
A few of the interesting bricks laid outside the West End Cider House.

Little Fish

Our third and final stop, Little Fish Brewing, is one of my personal favorites.  The three-year old brewery is located on 2+ acres of green space, roughly 2 miles west of downtown Athens.  Their beer garden overlooks the Hocking River and is easily one of the best outdoor spots for enjoying a beer in Ohio. Despite their youth, Little Fish has garnered several accolades for their mixed fermentation/sour ales.  They’ve been recognized with a gold medal at the 2016 World Beer Cup for a barrel aged version of their bierre de garde, Woodthrush in the Belgian and French ale category, and a bronze medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup for Petite Poisson in the barrel aged sour category.  Little Fish has embraced sustainability and the use of Ohio-made ingredients in a way few breweries in Ohio can match.  Their base malts are sourced almost exclusively from Haus Malts in Cleveland.  They’ve used a cornucopia of Ohio grown ingredients, including hops, unmalted grains, fruits, trees, bread, and yeast harvested from their property. They’ve installed solar panels at the brewery that provide roughly one-third of their electricity needs.

I’ve written about Little Fish in the past, and anyone looking for details of their inception and philosophy should refer to my earlier post or give a listen to the Pat’s Pints Podcast recorded with owners Jimmy Stockwell and Sean White back in 2016.  In this story I’m going to focus primarily on an exciting development in their evolution, the installation of a coolship on the second floor of the brewery addition.  For those not in the know, a coolship is a shallow metal pan where wort is sent to cool.  Centuries ago coolships were used extensively to cool the wort to temperatures where it was safe for yeast to begin fermentation. In the modern context, coolships are largely the domain of brewers pursuing the unpredictable, romantic practice of spontaneous fermentation, whereby yeast and bacteria that drift in with the night air inoculate the wort initiating the fermentation process.  The Lambic brewers of Belgium, such as Cantillon, Boon, Tilquin, Drie Fontenein, are most the most famous practitioners of spontaneous fermentation (click here to read about my adventures in Lambic-land).

Details of how the coolship would be used were a bit vague during the tour, so afterward I reached out to owner and head brewer Sean White to get some more information.  Sean told me that they will be producing beer following the principles outlined in the Methode Traditionelle developed by American breweries that make beer following the traditions used by Belgium’s Lambic brewers.  Those 20 principles include using a grist that is a mixture of pale malted barley and unmalted wheat, a 3–4 hour boil, turbid mashing, spontaneous fermentation, barrel aging, and the use of aged hops.  The initial plan is to brew three 10 bbl batches of wild ale in the Lambic vein per year.  After wort has been inoculated it will be transferred to oak puncheons for the long slow fermentation process.  Each batch should provide enough beer to fill two 500 L puncheons.  White expects a big learning curve, but he is clearly excited about entering this next phase of Little Fish’s evolution.  Given their track record with barrel aged, mixed fermentation sours I feel there is considerable reason for optimism.

1104181603_HDR.jpg
The brand new coolship at Little Fish.

Those readers familiar with Lambic production know that the beer must age 1 to 3 years before it’s ready for release.  Those who don’t have infinite patience will be pleased to hear that the coolship will be put to other uses on some of the 362 days per year when it is not needed for making spontaneously fermented wild ales.  White told me they plan to start brewing their Saison du Poisson using the coolship.  For this beer hot wort will be sent to the coolship where it will be exposed to airborne bugs, just like the Methode Traditionelle beer, but once the wort cools saison yeast will be pitched and primary (open) fermentation will occur in the coolship.  Afterward the beer will be transferred to a 30 bbl stainless steel tank.  Taking a playbook from Jackie O’s they will be using a solera approach for secondary fermentation and conditioning, draining off about 1/3 of the tank for packaging before refilling with a fresh 10 bbl batch from the coolship. The combination of open fermentation and the solera method is not something I’ve encountered before. I’m intrigued to see how it plays out.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the beers I tried while hanging out at Little Fish after our tour ended.  The Kvass Home Skillet was arguably the most interesting. Kvass is a low abv beer (a table beer) that emerged in Russia as a way to salvage old bread.  Home Skillet was inspired by a Finnish farmhouse ale even more exotic than Sahti [5].  The recipe employs malts smoked on site over the staves of spent oak barrels. It also involves adding over 100 loaves of bread from Athens-based Village Bakery to the mash.  The fermentation, which lasted approximately 2 weeks, was carried out by a sourdough culture.  For a beer that was only 3% abv the complexity of this beer was truly impressive.  I hope they keep this one on a regular rotation.  I finished a great day by sharing the excellent Lay and Love (a Flander’s Red aged on blackberries) with some old friends and new ones I’d made with the Girl’s Pint Out group. Fortuitously Jim Ellison came through with a much needed pizza pie from Avalanche Pizza.  At that point in the day it tasted like manna from heaven.  A superb end to an exceptional day.

Closing Thoughts

Athens may be small, but with the combination of Jackie O’s, Little Fish and the West End Cider House, not to mention Devil’s Kettle brewery, it punches well above it’s weight.  I would advise anyone looking for a beer getaway, either for the day or for the weekend, to give Athens a serious look.  Kudo’s to Jim for organizing another stellar Columbus Brew Adventures tour.  I’ve been on several of his outings, and I never fail to have a great time while learning something new.  With the holidays approaching a Columbus Brew Adventures tour would be an excellent gift for the beer lover in your life.  (Note: I paid full price for this tour and it was worth every penny).

Footnotes

[1] Jackie O’s is one of only two Ohio breweries to make the RateBeer.com list [https://www.ratebeer.com/ratebeerbest/BestBrewers-World2018.asp] of the top 100 breweries in the World (the other is Akron’s Hoppin’ Frog).

[2] The stuff that gets shipped long distances is drawn largely from the sour program.

[3] I did try a sip of Bill’s Iron Furnace. A 13.5% abv barleywine aged in bourbon barrel maple syrup barrels, with brown sugar added to up the ante, it’s an 11 on the decadence scale.  Very tasty but 2 or 3 sips might be enough to trigger type-II diabetes.

[4] Sauber started homebrewing in 1991.  He completed the Craft Brewers Preparation Program at Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology in 1996. After a brief stint at a brew-on-premises facility in Cincinnati called Brew Masters, The Personnal Brewing Company, he moved to Marietta Brewing Company, where he was the head brewer from 1998 to 2010.  While at Marietta Brewing he created what I believe is Ohio’s first Paw Paw beer, Paw Paw Wheat in 2001.

[5] Sean told me the name of this style, but I didn’t write it down and now it’s slipped my mind.  It’s a long word, with far too many consonants.

Here are a few more photos worth sharing.

Jackie Os Menu Board
The second half of the menu board at Jackie O’s.
Jackie Os To Do List
As this photo attests the work at Jackie O’s is never truly done (at least that’s what Seth, Chris and Tim are hoping for).
Jackie Os Crafted in Ohio
Sustainability and the use of local ingredients are core principles of the Athens institutions we visited.

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