Barley’s Celebrates 30 Years of Brewing at Friday’s Christmas Ale Tapping

One of my favorite beer events of the year, Barley’s Christmas Ale tapping, will take place at 7:30 pm this coming Friday (Nov 11, 2022). This year’s celebration is particularly sweet as it will mark 30 years of brewing at the iconic High Street brewpub. To the best of my knowledge Great Lakes Brewing and Columbus Brewing Company are the only independent breweries in Ohio that have been around longer.

The anniversary gives me an opportunity to jump in the way back machine and remember what things were like 30 years ago. State law forbid beer stronger than 7.5% abv (6% alcohol by weight), the internet was in its infancy, there were no major league sports teams in Columbus, and the mayor was a republican (former Buckeye tight end, Greg Lashutka). When Barley’s opened in 1992 it was the third brewery in the capital city, following Columbus Brewing Company and Hoster’s, which had opened in 1989 and 1991, respectively. A reality that may be hard to fathom now that we’ve grown accustomed to a world where Central Ohio boasts more than 50 breweries. Sadly, Hoster’s is long shuttered, but thankfully brewmaster Victor Ecimovich is once again brewing in Central Ohio (at Edison Brewing in Gahanna). Of course, CBC is still around and thriving, but I think it’s fair to say that the modern-day incarnation is unrecognizable from the CBC of the early 1990s. In contrast, the dark wood paneling, sauerkraut balls, and Scottish Ale at Barley’s are a direct throughline to early 1990s. More importantly, brewmaster Angelo Signorino is still brewing on the cramped basement brew system with the same house yeast strain. I don’t mean they’ve been ordering the same yeast (Wyeast London ESB 1968) for three decades, rather they’ve been repitching and lovingly nurturing the descendants of that original pitch for all this time.

The Barley’s Christmas Ale is one of the progenitors of the Midwest Winter Warmer style (click here if you are interested in my attempt to track down the origins of this ubiquitous style), and unlike its better-known Cleveland counterpart it’s still a small batch beer at Barley’s. In addition to the Christmas Ale, this year Angelo has brewed a his first ever Doppelbock—ThirtyYearsLator—in honor of the big Anniversary. I asked Angelo to describe his approach to this rare Barley’s lager.

The mash consisted of Weyermann Pilsner Malt, a lot of Munich Type 1 and Type 2, a little Caramunich Type 3, and Carafa Special Type 2. In the interest of doing my own take on the flavor of a decoction, I scorched the first 20 gallons or so of sweet wort like I have been doing for our Scottish Ale for 29 years. I think that the over 1,000 pounds of great German malt would have been just fine without that additional step, but it’s a dramatic process that I find notable. One addition of German Perle hops was used for balance, and no aroma hops were harmed in the brewing of this beer. I brewed it in September to allow for six weeks of lagering. I’m not sure if more time would benefit it but tying up a tank for that long is a luxury that we can barely afford.

Having had the pleasure of tasting many of Angelo’s strong malty beers I have no doubt this is going to be a special treat.

Angelo in front of one of the fermenters in the basement brewhouse of Barley’s Alehouse #1.

To commemorate this special anniversary, I leave you with some notable events from Barley’s long downtown residency.

1993 – Notable for the use of a highly unusual brewing technique, MacLenny’s Scottish Ale debuted in the autumn of 1993. Angelo’s approach to this smooth drinking beer is to bring the empty brewing vessel up to scorching hot temperatures before adding 20 gallons of wort. Over the next 30 minutes the sugary wort carmelizes to give the beer its dark amber color and sweet caramel notes.

1993 – Barley’s didn’t wait long to get the party started, releasing their iconic Christmas ale with a tapping by Mayor Greg Lashutka no less. Angelo and Scott Francis took a measured approach to spices, starting with honey and zested orange peel the first year. The next year they added ginger to the mix, and finally in 1995 cinnamon sticks from the nearby North Market were included. They’ve stuck with that combination ever since. 

1994 – In response to a shortage of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, Angelo concocts the first of many tasty Barley’s IPAs. At 7.5% abv and 70 IBUs his Centennial IPA was ahead of its time and must have seemed an extreme beer to many a convention goer.

1996 – In another first for Columbus, Barley’s installs a beer engine and launches a cask conditioning program.

1997 – The Barley’s homebrew competition begins. With a judging panel that includes Angelo, Scott Francis, and Lenny Kolada from Barley’s, Ben Pridgeon from Columbus Brewing Company, and Victor Ecimovich from Hoster’s, all three Columbus-area microbreweries are represented at the innagural Afternoon with the Brewers event.

2001 – Auld Curiosity, an Old Ale brewed with black treacle, is chosen as the Best American-Style Ale at the Real Ale festival in Chicago. To receive a best in show recognition at the now defunct North American equivalent of the Great British Beer Festival, was a big deal.

2003 – Jay Wince’s Anastasia Russian Imperial Stout wins the Barley’s Homebrew Festival. Later Wince would open Weasel Boy Brewing in Zanesville and Anastasia would go onto win a gold and a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

2009 – After 17 years in the business Barley’s releases their tenth IPA, Blurry Bike IPA. Nowadays it would seem rather pedestrian for a brewery to roll out 10 different IPAs in a single calendar year.  

2010 – Lloyd Cicetti’s Blood Thirst Wheat wins the Barley’s Homebrew Festival. The beer, made with the zest and puree of Sicilian blood oranges has subsequently become a staple at Barley’s.

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