I’ve traveled the world looking for good beer and interesting places. I’ve written about locales from Bend to Boston, from Burlington to Santa Barbara, and many points in between. I’ve journeyed to faraway places exploring the origins of beer styles such as gose (Liepzig), sahti (Helsinki), Berliner Weisse (Berlin), and pilsner (Pilsen). My travels have taken me to Japan, Edinburgh, and Brussels. Despite all that activity I’ve only visited roughly one-quarter of the nearly 400 craft breweries in my home state. So, with this post I’m launching a periodic series of expeditions around Ohio to explore the beers, people, and places of the Buckeye State.
As far as summer travel spots go, Cleveland is an attractive, if somewhat underappreciated, destination. It’s got world famous museums (Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland Museum of Art), Major League Baseball (Cleveland Guardians), Lake Erie beaches, and the world’s largest rubber stamp. They don’t set the Cuyahoga River on fire anymore, but if you travel 10-20 miles upriver you’ll find Ohio’s only National Park (Cuyahoga Valley National Park). Cleveland is home to all manner of Eastern European food specialties. If you like ground meat encased in the internal membranes of farm animals Cleveland does not disappoint. There’s even an internationally renowned hospital (Cleveland Clinic), not an insignificant consideration for an expedition that might involve consuming excessive quantities of beer. Given this long list of favorable attributes, Cleveland seems like the perfect starting point for my explorations of Ohio breweries. Sealing the deal for Cleveland was a chance to see Chris Mercerhill’s art exhibit “Paint by Robots.” So, on a near-perfect Friday in mid-August five of us – Chris, Mark, Hans, Ted, and myself – set out from Columbus on a journey to appreciate art and sample suds in Ohio’s second largest city.
Visiting a brewery or two in a day is an organic process that needs no advance planning. Sometimes you can bump it up to three without too much forethought, but as my podcast partner Mark Richards likes to say, three is the magic number. Extend your brewery hop beyond the magic number at your own peril. To visit more than three breweries you need a plan, and that plan needs to entail more than just drinking beer. Starting with food is an essential element of any good plan, starting and ending with food is even better. Throw in an activity or two that doesn’t involve alcohol and you’re onto something that might still seem like a good idea the next morning.
The Ohio Craft Brewers Association lists 47 member breweries in the greater Cleveland area, a number so large that it would take a fortnight to visit them all. There’s a brewery with an in-house butcher (Butcher and the Brewer), one with a library (Bookhouse Brewing), and one located on a university campus (The Jolly Scholar). Given this abundance we obviously need some criteria to make a reasonable selection. Location is a good place to start, after all we don’t want to spend the whole day crisscrossing Cuyahoga County. A breweries reputation and/or its uniqueness is also a useful metric. When you combine those criteria with the aforementioned elements of a good brewery hop – food and a good diversion – a plan starts to come into focus.
Fat Head’s Brewery and Beer Hall
When you think about award-winning Ohio breweries, Fat Head’s is in a league all by itself. From 2009 to 2020 they medaled every single year at the Great American Beer Festival, bringing home a total of 25 medals (10 golds, 9 silvers, 6 bronzes) over that span. No one else in Ohio is anywhere close to that mark. Great Lakes has 12 GABF medals, but the last one came in 2007. Hudepohl-Schoenling won eight medals in the 80s and 90s, but five were for the same beer, Little Kings Cream Ale, and one was for a beer called Big Jug Xtra Malt Liquor. I don’t mean to be a snob, but how can you take a beer seriously when its name starts with the descriptor Big Jug? More recently Brink Brewing in Cincinnati has received seven GABF medals, but they need to maintain that momentum for many years to catch Fat Head’s.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that a journey to Cleveland without a stop at Fat Head’s is a missed opportunity. Plus, they serve food, which makes Fat Head’s an obvious choice for our first stop of the day. The only question is which location. Should we go to the main production brewery and beer hall in Middleburg Heights, the original Ohio location in North Olmstead, or the brewpub in Canton . I suppose they all have their own appeal, but the beer hall in Middleburg Heights is right off I-71, requiring only a marginal detour from our route to the art gallery.
We arrive at 2:20 pm on a Friday afternoon ready for lunch and our first beer of the day. Upon entering we are met with the enticing smell of sweet malt emanating from a mash tun somewhere out of sight, and a cavernous space with enough seating to host the International Congress of Vexillology. There’s an assortment of stainless-steel brewing vessels on an elevated deck above the large bar. There’s a shop selling merchandise and a self-guided brewery tour. There are garage style doors that open to an outdoor patio. The beer hall is far from empty, but it’s not hard to find a table either.
Although arguably best known for their IPAs, Fat Head’s is much more than a one trick pony. The gamut of styles represented on the tap list is impressive. Yes, there are 8-10 beers that might fairly be labeled hop-forward, including Head Hunter and Hop Juju, but there’s also a hefeweizen (Goggle Fogger), an Oktoberfest (G’Suffa!) and a märzen (Little Red Rooster). With both an altbier and a kölsch they aren’t taking sides in the centuries-old rivalry between the north-Rhineland cities of Dusseldorf and Köln (more on altbier later). There’s a Czech pilsner and to my surprise a tmave pivo (Czech dark lager), a beer style that might be described as a dunkel’s first cousin.. As I often do on this kind of day, I make a pledge to order lower abv beers at each stop. Based on past experiences it’s far from certain that I will be able to stick to this plan, but it helps to narrow the list. It’s still hard to choose, but the rarity of the tmave is too much to pass up. Hans also orders a tmave and gives me a knowing look that this isn’t something you find every day. It’s a smooth, flavorful beer, deep mahogany in color with a taste akin to freshly baked bread infused with dried cocoa. The initial impression is one of sweetness, but there’s just enough bitterness at the finish to keep you coming back for the next sip. There’s a bit more roasty malt character than I would expect from the style, but it’s a treat nonetheless to find a tmave in the wild.
Glancing at the food menu I’m immediately drawn to the Cleveland Club. It’s got Cleveland in the name, and on this voyage of discovery I feel obligated to try out the local specialties. Unfortunately, once my food arrives, I can only conclude that the good people of Cleveland (actually Middleburg Heights) don’t know how to make a proper club sandwich. It has the right ingredients – turkey, ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheese, mayo – but that’s the only thing it has in common with a club sandwich. It’s served on a thick hoagie bun, not three pieces of thinly sliced, toasted bread. The unfortunate choice of bread also makes it impossible to cut the bread into the triangular pieces that are the signature feature of a club sandwich. To add insult to injury the sandwich comes sans toothpicks of any kind, let alone festive toothpicks with colorful plastic banners on one end. I will say the exceptionally good French fries partially offset the deficiencies of the sandwich.
Our next stop, Gallery 202, is the feature activity for the day. Located on the second floor of the 78th Street Studios, an old warehouse that has been converted to space for art galleries, art studios, and performance spaces.
Our companion and guide for this leg of the trip, Chris Mercerhill, is the featured artist at Gallery 202 through September 5, 2022. As an artist, Chris is best known for his photo quilts. To create these Chris takes photographs (printed on photo paper like in the old days), cuts them into various geometrical patterns, and sews them together into a quilt, resulting in a unique art form. In fact, a Mercerhill-commissioned photoquilt, depicting family travels in Europe, adorns a wall in my living room. For this exhibit Chris branched out in a new direction he calls generative art. In short, Chris programs a robot to draw various patterns, but he embeds an element of randomness in the program. Design elements such as the colors used, the choice of shape (circles, squares, diamonds, etc.), and/or the location of those shapes are all chosen using probabilities. Chris doesn’t know exactly what the painting is going to look like until the robot finishes. This is a blog about beer not art, but I would encourage you to check out Chris’ art on either his website or for the most up to date images his Instagram account.
There are many art galleries in the 78th Street Building (over 60 according to their website). We took the time to visit two other galleries while in the building, and I very much enjoyed the art on display. Art aficionados should take note that on the third Friday of the month the galleries throw a big open house.
Our next stop, Terrestrial Brewing, is only a half-mile from the 78th Street Building and as such was added to the itinerary without hesitation. This brewery was not previously on my radar, so I read what I could find online, an exercise that allowed me to draw a few conclusions. (1) The brewery was founded in 2017. (2) It is located close to Lake Erie. (3) If there was a 1-10 scale for rating a brewery’s canine-friendly factor, Terrestrial would be an 11. In fact, while discussing our planned itinerary with one of the owners at Gallery 202, she commented that when heading to Terrestrial she sometimes feels the urge to borrow a dog.
Terrestrial is housed in an old industrial building featuring an imposing brick smokestack. There are large red letters running vertically down the smokestack that spell out Battery Park. I later learned the neighborhood is called Battery Park, because this is where the alkaline battery was invented in 1957. At the time the facility was owned by Union Carbide, but later it became Eveready, and eventually Energizer. I didn’t realize I was about to have a beer in building where such an important invention was made and sadly Terrestrial does not advertise this interesting aspect of their location. Maybe they should consider beer names based on alliterations of battery terms (Positive Potential Porter, Cathode Kölsch, …), or commission a statue of a pink bunny beating a drum, or build a battery powered electric fence around the patio to keep underage dogs out.
The first floor of the building is divided into two halves. We initially enter the west side of establishment and discover a small restaurant with a cocktail bar. After establishing that we are here just for beer, the hostess directs us through an unmarked door to the eastern half of the building where the brewery taproom is located. The decor leans hard into the industrial vibe with brick walls, ceilings with exposed rafters and ducting, and of course Edison lights. We walk past a row of stainless-steel fermentation tanks to the relatively small bar in the back where the beers are poured. It’s a little after 4 pm when we arrive, and while not overly crowded, the number of patrons steadily grows over the course of our visit. I’m relieved to see that dogs do not outnumber patrons, but even during this relatively casual time there are 4-5 dogs on premise.
Not surprisingly the beer list here is more limited than Fat Head’s, with about a dozen styles on offer. What they lack in quantity they make up for in variety. There’s a hazy IPA, and two west coast IPAs, three different lagers, a fruited sour, a witbier, a porter, and two variants of an imperial stout. Since I went traditional at Fat Head’s, here I go for something decidedly 21st century – the Space Chimp Wit Earl Grey Edition, a witbier with black tea, bergamot, cornflowers, and vanilla beans added to the beer while conditioning (dry tea’d so to speak).
Given the location close to Lake Erie, it’s not surprising to find patios on three sides of the building. In principle the patio on the north side of the building offers the possibility of a lake view, but you must stand to get a glimpse of the lake over the vegetation. After exploring the options, we settle into a table on the east-side patio because it is shaded from the late afternoon sun. Sipping tasty beer on the patio while cooled by a breeze off the lake makes for an idyllic setting. Judging from the newish apartments and condos that surround the brewery on three sides, the neighborhood looks as though it was gentrified in the not-too-distant past. That affluent millennials sip IPAs while walking their dog in a building that used to make batteries at a time when we need batteries more than ever, says something about the USA in the 21st century. What exactly it means I’m not sure, I leave it to you to ponder the question.
The Earl Grey Wit is a revelation. The citrus flavors of the bergamot tea and the sweetness of the vanilla make for a synergistic combination, and the wheat base of the wit is a good canvas for the two. Using unconventional ingredients – foods, nuts, herbs, spices – can lead to spectacular beers, but if the balance is wrong it can make the now demolished Cleveland Municipal stadium seem like a good idea. I’m happy to report that Terrestrial got it right with this beer. Both Ted and Chris go for the Imperial Mexican Hot Chocolate Morning Halp, a 10% stout brewed with cocoa, vanilla, cinnamon, and chiles de Árbol. A bold choice for the second stop of the day. Here also it seems like the adjuncts are well chosen to blend synergistically with the base beer. The result is rich and decadent, with just a touch of heat from the peppers in the background. Hans joins me with a glass of the Earl Grey Wit and our half-designated driver, Mark, opts for a half-pint of the schwartzbier.
Upon leaving Terrestrial our adventure takes an unexpected detour. Ted grew up in Michigan and has a fondness for the Great Lakes. The prospect of coming this close to Lake Erie without dipping his toes in the water doesn’t sit well with him. While not far from Lake Erie there is a rather busy four lane highway between us and the water. After a bit of scouting Ted finds a tunnel that goes under the road and leads us to a wide sandy beach on the lake. Kids are building sandcastles, people of all ages are frolicking in the water. We’ve slipped from afternoon into early evening and the temperature is hovering around 80 °F. I’m sure in early January when the cold arctic winds bring lake effect snows this can be a harsh place, but today it’s as close as you get to paradise in Northern Ohio. Before you know it shoes and socks have been stripped off and we are wading in the shallow waters of Lake Erie. If you are visiting Cleveland with companions who might grow tired of visiting one brewery after another a trip to Edgewater Beach could be a valuable ace in the hole.
Feeling relaxed and revived from our impromptu trip to the beach, we pile back into Mark’s Subaru and head for downtown. This might be a good time to point out that my role in this group is to suggest things that a neutral observer might not deem prudent. The original plan was to visit four breweries, but since the effects of the first two can hardly be felt maybe a five-brewery day is not out of reach. It just so happens that three breweries in downtown Cleveland – Butcher and the Brewer, Noble Beast, and Masthead – all seem like attractive options and are in reasonable walking distance from one another. Mark, our driver and decision maker for the rest of the trip, concedes that three more stops might be feasible if we (really just me) agree to limit ourselves to one beer at each stop. So, we set course for Butcher and the Brewer, which is the westernmost of the three. We soon discover that Butcher and the Brewer is located in the heart of the entertainment district not far from the public square. Finding parking near the brewery on a Friday night is no easy feat (at least for this group of out of towners). That the Guardians have a home game tonight doesn’t help, so we change plans on the fly and look for a parking spot in between Masthead and Noble Beast. This turns out to be a good call, as street parking is easy to find and free (after 6 pm).
Noble Beast opened in 2017. The name is an amalgam of two different approaches to brewing. Noble is a nod to the delicate hops and the traditional beers of Europe, and Beast refers to the innovation and irreverence of American craft brewing. In keeping with the day’s theme it’s located in an old industrial building on Lakeside Avenue across from the FBI office. Upon entering I’m immediately impressed with the vibe. The rustic character of the building comes through in spades. The feel is neither chic nor dilapidated, describing the space as comfy yet eclectic come closer to the mark. The layout is very open with a long bar on the right and the brewing equipment on the left. Green plants hang down from a rectangular skylight in the center of the taproom. Sun from the skylight diffuses the space with ambient light. Felt banners, like you might see at a high school gymnasium, hang behind the bar celebrating past triumphs at various beer competitions. I’m happy to see a banner commemorating a 2nd place finish for Evil Motives IPA at the 2019 King of Ohio contest (a competition I helped launch, organize, and judge for several years, although Rick Armon deserves most of the credit for the King of Ohio competitions). It hangs next to a deservedly much larger banner celebrating a bronze medal for Murder Ballads Baltic Porter at the 2019 GABF.
If you have a device with the internet handy, stop for a minute and look up Noble Beast on Google Maps. If you do so, you’ll see that their name comes up not as Noble Beast, or Noble Beast Brewing, but as Noble Beast Brewing Doesn’t Take Reservations . That observation suggests a certain level of popularity, so it was perhaps predictable to find no open tables upon our arrival. Instead, we order a round of beers and head out to a narrow, but handsome back patio. The bartender gives us a buzzer and puts us on the waiting list for a table. As it turns out we enjoy the back patio so much that an indoor table isn’t necessary. As a bonus, the playlist is made up of songs from twentieth century, punk-leaning bands fronted by female singers. The volume level on the back patio is loud enough to enjoy but soft enough to talk over.
The size of the taplist at Noble Beast is similar to Terrestrial but leans a little more toward classic European styles. There are 3-4 IPAs to choose from, but also two pilsners, a helles, a hefeweizen, and a grisette. Once again Hans and I are in lock step with one another, both choosing the Bohemian pilsner. Pilsner is not a complicated beer style. In its classic formulation pilsner is made from a single malt, 1-2 hop varieties, and no extraneous ingredients. Don’t undersell the power of presentation either. It’s no coincidence that pilsners rose to popularity in the 19th century at the same time transparent glassware began to displace opaque ceramic mugs. In my book, getting 2-3 fingers of thick white foam on top is an essential part of the perfect pilsner. At Noble Beast they serve the Bohemian pilsner in a dimpled mug, poured from a side-pour faucet, added touches that elevate your sensory experience. While writing this story I learned that the brewing system at Noble Beast is set up for decoctions, an old practice still used extensively throughout the Czech Republic. Another nod to authenticity that sets Noble Beast apart. A brewery’s pilsner is a good litmus test and Noble Beast passes the test with flying colors.
Noble Beast is such a fun spot and the beer is so good that it seems a pity to leave after one round. So, we scale the itinerary back to four breweries, which was the original plan anyway, and order another round of beer. The banners behind the bar persuade me to order the Evil Motives IPA, and Ted follows suit. I can see why this beer has received multiple accolades. Bold, citrus-forward, dare I say juicy, American hops are supported by a sweet malt backbone, with bitterness that lands squarely in the Goldilocks zone. Ted sums it up nicely when he says, this is exactly how I want my IPA to taste. It’s a throwback to beers that used to be more celebrated in this part of the country before hazies became all the rage (Bell’s Two Hearted, Brew Kettle White Rajah, …). It’s good to know that those beers are still out there if you look for them.
Before we go any further let’s stop for a quick round of Cleveland trivia.
Question 1 – Where does the name Cleveland come from?
Answer – The city is named after General Moses Cleaveland, who founded a settlement here while exploring the strip of land claimed by Connecticut as its “western reserve”
Question 2 – Why is the modern spelling Cleveland and not Cleaveland?
Answer – In 1831 the town’s second newspaper, the Cleaveland Advertiser, chose a typeface for their masthead sufficiently large that the paper’s name didn’t quite fit on the page. After discovering their blunder, the resourceful editors decided to change the name of the town rather than the name of the paper. By that time Moses had returned to Connecticut proper (and was quite possibly dead), so there were no strong objections and the shortened name stuck.
You might be wondering how this trivia sidebar is relevant to our story. Well, it turns out that our fourth and final stop of the day, Masthead Brewing, took their name from this typesetting miscue. Their logo is a rolled-up newspaper, the “a” in Masthead is even underlined to underscore the point. Like Terrestrial and Noble Beast, Masthead opened its doors to the public in 2017. By their own admission they are best known for New England IPAs and barrel aged beers. Although with gold (2018), silver (2021), and bronze (2017) medals at the GABF, the Midwest Red IPA is surely their most celebrated beer. Masthead beers can be found on the shelves in Columbus, so I’m going to assume they have a reasonably large distribution footprint.
Masthead is located on Superior Avenue just a few blocks northeast of Cleveland Public Square. They occupy a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places that was once an auto dealership. The spacious, open layout of the taproom feels like an auto showroom, with communal tables taking the place of automobiles. The taproom boasts seating for 300 and a 100 foot long bar. What they call the “patio” is just a cordoned off space on the rather wide sidewalk in front of the building with tables and chairs.
On the night of our visit the beer menu features two triple IPAs and three double IPAs, five of the six New England style hazies. There’s an imperial stout, an imperial Baltic porter, and a barleywine, all barrel aged and strong enough to be illegal back in the days when beer in Ohio couldn’t exceed 12% abv. There’s the celebrated Midwest Red IPA, a standard American IPA, an Oktoberfest, and a pumpkin beer. For those who lean toward Belgian-style beers there’s a witbier, a saison, and Belgian golden strong. There’s a schwartzbier, a Japanese-style rice lager, and a German pilsner. (In fact, all four breweries we visited had a pilsner on tap, a welcome trend that I hope is here to stay.) In short, there is something for everyone to like amongst the extensive beer offerings at Masthead. Except for the barrel-aged beers, all pints are either $5 or $6, which in the present day I find pretty reasonable for an urban brewery.
Given the range of beers on offer, it shouldn’t surprise me to see an altbier (Fachwerkhaus) on the menu, but it does. This isn’t our first altbier spotting of the day either. Fat Head’s was also pouring an altbier, and the internet tells me that Noble Beast brews an altbier from time to time. Altbier is what they drink in Dusseldorf, almost to the exclusion of any other beer style, but good luck finding an altbier anywhere else in Germany. Although brewed with an ale yeast, altbiers are fermented cool and then lagered (i.e. stored) at cool temperatures for an extended period of time to minimize any flavor contribution from the yeast. Hops are added early in the boil to maximize their bitterness and minimize their flavor and aroma. The crystal clear, copper-hued color makes for a handsome beer, but let’s just say that minimizing fruity flavors while accentuating bitterness seems anathema to modern-day American tastes. Even the name, which translates as “old beer” seems to run counter to modern sensibilities. Despite all of this, or perhaps because all of this, both Mark and Chris order the altbier and enjoy it very much. Who knows maybe altbier is gaining an improbable foothold in
As this is the last stop of the evening, naturally I have two beers instead of one. Both are of the Belgian persuasion. The Say Yes Saison is fermented with saccharomyces yeast and two different strains of Brett, and the Battle Axe Belgian Golden Strong is flavorful yet mercifully restrained in heft, coming in at only 6.2% abv. Both beers are very quaffable, but truth be told I’m not taking notes by this point of the evening. Our lunch at Fat Head’s is now a distant memory, so we order two wood-fired Neapolitan style pizzas. They are delicious, with thin, crispy crust and fresh toppings. The pizzas are devoured faster than you can say Svartalfheim Schwartzbier, and soon someone goes to order another. In the joy of the moment, I lose track of how many pizzas we ate, but it’s somewhere in the vicinity of five. They are the perfect food for the moment, easily the culinary highlight of the day.
That’s a wrap on the day. If there’s a beercation or even a weekend field trip in your future I’d encourage you to give Cleveland a close look. We had a glorious day, and there’s a lot more to offer than we could cover in a single half-day trip. The breweries of Ohio City, the Flats, and the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame are all obvious destinations that go beyond our wanderings. I plan to continue the Ohio Beer Trek series with more outings. If you’ve got a suggestion for a future journey leave a comment here or send me a message.
 The original Fat Head’s is in Pittsburgh, but they don’t brew beer at the original location. It’s only in 2009 when they opened the North Olmstead location that Matt Cole came on board and they started brewing beer. The business has been on a sharp upward trajectory ever since.
 Like reservations, dogs are also verboten at Noble Beast.