Columbus Brewing Company Spreads its Wings

Let’s start this story about Columbus Brewing Company (CBC) with some indisputable facts.  Fact #1: Founded in 1988, CBC is Ohio’s second oldest craft brewery. Only Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing is more venerable, and not by much.  Fact #2: CBC is Central Ohio’s second largest craft brewery (only trailing BrewDog), producing 26,840 bbl in 2019.  Fact #3: With four medals from the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and two from the World Beer Cup (WBC), CBC is easily Central Ohio’s most successful brewery at the competitions that matter the most. Fact #4: In an industry where experimentation rules, where on-premise sales are critical to the bottom line, where the barrier to opening a taproom is comparable to launching a food truck, CBC was for many years one of the few Ohio breweries that didn’t have a taproom.

For these reasons, and many others, I’ve been wanting to take a look behind the scenes at the enigma that is Columbus Brewing Company for a long time. This feeling was only heightened when CBC finally opened a taproom last September. So, I was thrilled when I finally managed to nail down a tour and interview with CBCs Director of Innovation, Tony Corder.  In the story that follows I share some of what I learned.

CBC Derailed Meeting Green Background

Taproom ushers in a new era at CBC

CBC opened their long awaited taproom to the public this past September, more than three years after moving into the old Hill Distributing Facility on Columbus’ west side [1]. Given the long gestation period and CBCs sterling reputation, I think it’s fair to say expectations were high.  I’ve made no less than 5 trips out to Harrison Road, all for the sake of research of course, and I’m happy to say the final product lives up to the hype.  Open 7 days a week, you’ll find 24 CBC beers on tap, available in pours that range from 400 mL (13.5 oz) to 100 mL (3.4 oz), across a spectrum of styles that touch on all colors of the craft beer rainbow.

The taproom vibe is best described as upscale industrial.  The floors are concrete as is the bartop. The walls are painted in bright colors, featuring fantastical beasts that appear on the labels of various CBC beers.  There’s a large L-shaped bar with seats for a couple dozen patrons. If you don’t want to belly up to the bar, there’s ample table seating, including a small back patio when the weather is nice.  There are no trendy restaurants, art galleries, or bars in the immediate vicinity. In fact the closest place of interest might be Sideswipe Brewing, which is 500 feet as the crow flies but 1.5 miles if traveling by car [2].  Abundant, free parking is one upside to a location in the industrial hinterlands of west Columbus. The taproom is not far off the bike trail either, a trip I hope to take once spring rolls around. Like many brewery taprooms CBC doesn’t serve food, but there’s a rotating schedule of food trucks that set up shop in the parking lot (you can see the foodtruck schedule on the CBC website).

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you can get exceptional hop forward ales at the taproom, including the iconic duo of Bodhi (2014 GABF American IPA bronze medalist) and Creeper (2014 GABF Imperial IPA gold medalist).  The homage to hops doesn’t stop there.  Thunderlips features Mosaic and Idaho 7 hops and boasts an aroma that is reminiscent of a sipping on a pineapple smoothie while shopping in a dispensary. I’m not sure that my more conservative childhood friends are aware of the tantalizingly sinful hops being grown in the Gem State these days.  Amarillo Deutsch, a pale ale made exclusively with German grown Amarillo hops, delivers a surprising stone fruit punch.  If you want to experience old world – new world cross pollination in the first person, this beer is a great place to start.  Finally, there’s Uncle Rusty, the 2014 WBC gold medalist in the Imperial Red Ale category [3].  Except for Bodhi the schedule rotates, but you can rest assured you’ll have a wider selection of hop forward ales than most people can sample in a single visit.

While CBC is best known for their IPAs, they have continually demonstrated that they are much more than a one trick pony. GABF medals for Summer Teeth (2010 Bronze in the Kellerbier/Zwickelbier category) and Melk Stout (2018 Bronze in the Sweet or Cream Stout category) and a WBC medal for Crocodile Tongue (2018 Bronze in the Mixed Culture Brett category) are proof of this claim.  Despite these accolades, until recently the lack of a taproom severely limited their ability to flex their brewing chops.  Now that those shackles have been lifted, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t try a lager or a barrel aged sour on your next visit to the taproom.  The highlight of my first few visits was the pilsner, served in a dimpled mug and topped with a big creamy head, courtesy of a Czech side-pour faucet. On my most recent visit the pilsner had been replaced by a Helles lager that was every bit its equal.  There’s no question in my mind that lagers are CBC’s most underrated beers.

The party doesn’t stop at lagers, mixed fermentation sours, and IPAs either. As Tony and I talked his enthusiasm for brewing less popular styles was palpable.  We talked about English Milds, Belgian Tripels, and German Schwartzbiers.  I tried a very quaffable 3.8% Belgian Patersbier, and finished with Derailed Meeting, a sinfully decadent 10.5% Imperial Brown ale aged in Weller Bourbon Barrels.  Tony told me to look for a dry Irish stout on a nitro pour as St Patrick’s day gets closer. If I had a driver to get me home, I would have been tempted by the wonderful coffee-infused Sohio Stout or Steel Dawn, a bourbon barrel aged stout with Madagascar vanilla beans and Brioso coffee [4].

 

CBC Helles and Patersbier
Small pours of the patersbier (left) and helles lager (right) at the CBC taproom. The voluptuous head on the helles is a product of the Czech side pour faucet.

Cans are Coming

CBC and Great Lakes both go back to the late 1980s, but Ohio’s two oldest craft breweries have taken very different paths to where they are today.  While Great Lakes grew to be one of the largest regional breweries in the Midwest [5], CBC wasn’t sold outside of Columbus for many years. In his 2011 book Ohio Breweries, Rick Armon lists an annual production volume of 3200 bbl, and provides the following quote from owner Eric Bean, “We’re trying to grow into a statewide brand and that’s our focus.”  Nine years later that ambition has become a reality. One that became attainable in 2016 when they from their cramped quarters in German Village to a spacious facility on Columbus’ West Side.  Nowadays they turn the four vessel, 30 bbl German brewhouse 4-6 times a day, to feed the forest of stainless steel fermentors, many that hold 120 bbl.

Throughout most of the state, including Columbus, CBC has partnered with distributors, but interestingly in the Cincinnati market CBC self distributes. Speaking of distribution, CBC is on the verge of switching over to cans for their two biggest sellers, IPA and Bodhi, which together account for 75% of CBC sales.  Installation of a new high speed canning line was imminent when I visited, and Corder told me that he expects cans to hit the shelves by the end of February. Those who are looking to reduce their reliance on plastic will be happy to hear that CBC cans will come in boxed 6 packs. The IPA will also be available in 12 packs.  For the remaining CBC beers, the change to cans may take longer.  Tony, who might fairly be described as outspoken, told me they aren’t happy with the look you get with a wraparound label that many breweries use, but at the same time it’s hard to justify a truckload of preprinted cans for the smaller batch beers. Based on our conversation I wouldn’t be surprised to see a mixture of cans and bottles for some time to come.

CBC Brewhouse
The semi-automated 30 bbl, four vessel BrauKon brewhouse at CBC was manufactured in Bavaria.

A Commitment to Quality

CBC has a vigorous quality control program, with beers going through lab and sensory tests at multiple steps in the production process. Each batch goes through a minimum of three staff sensory panels: one post fermentation, one before the beer is transferred to a bright tank, and one just before packaging. On top of that analytical tests include spectrophotometric testing, yeast plating, and Q-PCR are used to quantify the beer’s evolution by measuring parameters such as abv and ibu, concentrations of molecules that can lead to off flavors, dissolved oxygen levels, and various other attributes. This applies to beers brewed on both the production and pilot systems. They’re not afraid to dump beer that doesn’t meet specs either.  The most notable being the last fall’s batch of Yakima Fresh Hop beer, due to an issue with the yeast generating unwanted acetaldehyde levels.  A painful pill to swallow given the fact that freshly picked hops were flown in from the Yakima valley to make that beer.  Perhaps spurred by that event CBC is in the process of installing a state-of-the-art yeast propagation system.

CBC Lab
Day’s end in the testing lab, always time for one more sensory test.

Wild Ales on the West Side

Segregated from the rest of the brewery, in a back room with a loading bay, are two stainless steel open fermentors and roughly 140 oak barrels full of beer that has been aging anywhere from a few weeks to three years.  Victor Pool, Director of Brewing Operations (who oversees the sour program in his spare time), pulled a few samples of beer for my informal tour. We started with the base golden sour Domestique, which undergoes primary fermentation with two strains of Brett in open fermentors before going into barrels where lactobacillus and/or pediococcus are added.  From there we tried a red ale aged over Montmorency cherries from Michigan that was reminiscent of Rodenbach Alexander in many ways. We finished with an intriguing, delicious beer inspired by a cocktail called Paper Plane (equal parts bourbon, amaro, aperol, and lemon juice) and aged in Amaro barrels.  In all of the beers the acidity was kept in check, more than tart but not a danger to your tooth enamel. The flavors were complex and nuanced, a real treat for those of us who enjoy mixed fermentation sours.

CBC Barrels
For a brewery that’s yet to release a packaged sour beer, the collection of barrels in the wild ale program at CBC is impressive.

When I visited boxes of recently filled 500 mL cork and cage bottles of Crocodile Tongue were taking up a good bit of floor space in the mixed fermentation room.  Tony and Victor were not willing to commit to a release date, but at some point in the not too distant future look for a bottle release at the taproom.  Once the packaged beers start coming out look for CBC to release new bottles every month or two. If CBCs history is any guide, it can take a while for them to deliver on a promise, but when they do its done to a high standard.  I for one am very much looking forward to being able to take home a bottle of CBC wild ale.  In the meantime if you want to satisfy your wild side there are usually two sour beers on draft at the taproom.  Currently Domestique and Somethin’ Tequila, a margarita inspired treat, aged in tequila barrels with lime and grapefruit peel.

That’s enough for now, but keep an eye out for a follow up story on the evolution of Bodhi, a topic that still arouses strong opinions in Central Ohio’s craft beer community.

CBC Croc Tongue Bottles
Unlabeled cork and cage bottles of Crocodile Tongue lie in wait. When this beer received a bronze medal at the 2018 World Beer Cup it was known simply as TBD Peach Sour., which gives you some idea how nascent the sour ale program was 2 years ago.  The medal served as impetus for CBC to take barrel-aged sours seriously.

Footnotes

[1] In article I wrote in April 2017 after my first visit to the CBC taproom I made the following prediction, “I would be surprised if the taproom opens earlier than late 2017.” Apparently even that generous estimate was far too ambitious.

[2] I’ve suggested to both breweries that a lagering tunnel connecting the two taprooms would be in everyone’s interest.  Thus far this suggestion has not generated a lot of interest.

[3] During my last visit, Rusty Jones the namesake of the award winning ale, was sitting at the bar. True to form he was downing a glass of Uncle Rusty.

[4] At the Studio 35 Dudeathon CBC beer tasting I did indulge myself in both Steel Dawn and Sohio Stout, with a follow up pint of the latter.  It took a while to recover from that experience, but it was worth it.

[5] According to statistics from 2018 the Craft Brewers Association lists Great Lakes as the 20th largest craft brewery in the US.

6 thoughts on “Columbus Brewing Company Spreads its Wings

Add yours

  1. I was there when the taproom opened. I was amazed at the magnitude of the iineup. And the spectrum of styles. I had 3, maybe 4 flights that evening. All clean and flavorful. But that is to be expected from a former G.B. troubleshooter. Cheers Eric.

  2. Meant to add, we have a pal in Columbus who regularly sends us beer packages featuring CBC, Rheingeist, Fat Head’s, North High et al, while I send him brews that he can’t get in C-Bus. It’s a handy arrangement when it comes to Pumpkin Ales in the Autumn as SD breweries have no concept about that particular style!

  3. Excellent article, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. My wife and I would really hone in on CBC at the various Columbus beer fests before we moved to San Diego in 2015. As we were driving out of Columbus for our drive out west, we stopped off at Whole Foods in Dublin for a final brew or two, to get us on our way, which happened to be…Bodhi!

    1. CBC brings some great stuff to beer festivals and for all those years when there was no taproom they would often bring great beers you couldn’t find anywhere else.

      While I’m sure you miss CBC, San Diego isnt a bad place for a beer lover to land. In fact, Tony Corder of CBC got his start in brewing at Pizza Port in Solana Beach.

      1. Tony Corder might want to come back and give Pizza Port in Solana Beach a hand, as their Triple IPA scored low at last week’s Triple IPA Blind Tasting Challenge at Hamilton’s Tavern. Over three hours we blind-tasted and rated 18 Triple IPA’s. Pliny the Younger ended up in 4th place; I had it rated 9th, my wife 11th and the beer writer for the San Diego Tribune put it in 13th place! I had the TIPA from Pizza Port in Carlsbad in 5th place.

        It surely is a beer mecca in these parts, but the problem is saturation – the general opinion is about a third of the breweries in San Diego County are just not up to scratch. When Ballast Point sold to Constellation Brands for $1 Billion, a proliferation of small breweries suddenly showed up, many with their eyes on a huge sellout.

        It didn’t happen and probably won’t ever happen again. Constellation realized their costly mistake and recently sold Ballast Point for an undisclosed loss to the tiny Kings & Convicts brewery, out of IL.

        There are breweries we spend time at and other breweries we wouldn’t touch with a barge pole.

        The most notable name is Pure Project. Their owners learnt their brewing craft in Costa Rica and everything is about using organic products and sustainable practices. They have two taprooms (one is connected to the brewery) in San Diego and their support borders on fanatical. We spend more time at Pure Project than anywhere else. http://www.purebrewing.org.
        Cheers!

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