The modern era of brewing in Columbus starts in 1989 when Scott Francis started brewing beer in a small space on South Front Street that today houses the Double Happiness Nightclub. Thirty-three years and two moves later Columbus Brewing Company is still alive and prospering, though the modern incarnation bears little resemblance to the upstart brewery making British ales from malt extract in the late 1980s. Over the next ten years Hoster (1991), Barley’s (1992), Smokehouse (1998, an expansion of Barley’s at the time), and Elevator (1999) joined the fray. In 2001 Hoster closed and Gordon Biersch opened, a change that mirrored the fortunes of the brewery and arena districts at that time. Over the first decade of the twenty-first century the number of local breweries held more or less constant and could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
In 2010 Rockmill, a fledgling brewery located on a horse farm near Lancaster, entered the market with Belgian-style beers in cork and cage bottles. In 2011 the bass guitar logo of Four String started appearing on tap handles around Columbus. The two new additions could not have been more different in the beer styles, packaging, and marketing approaches they adopted. In the two years that followed the floodgates opened with the addition of seven new breweries—Neil House, Zauber, North High, Seventh Son, Actual, Sideswipe, and Wolf’s Ridge. Over this pivotal two-year period the number of new brewery openings matched the total from the previous two decades. Fast forward to the present day and the number of Central Ohio breweries has grown to somewhere between 50 and 60, depending on how you count. It’s been quite the run and I think it’s safe to say the growth spurt that kicked off in 2012 will not be duplicated in the foreseeable future.
Of course, not all of the above-mentioned breweries are still with us. Neil House existed for such a short time that you can be forgiven if they’ve faded from your memory entirely. In 2017 Zauber changed owners and their Grandview location was rechristened as Endeavor. Four String first expanded into a large production brewery and then closed abruptly in 2018. Their production facility on Hague Avenue is now operated by Wolf’s Ridge. Actual died of self-inflicted wounds in 2019, shortly after opening a taproom in Clintonville that now houses Derive Brewing. Subsequently Elevator and Gordon Biersch closed. Their spaces are now the Columbus outposts of Jackie O’s and Goodwood, respectively. Earlier this year Rockmill was put up for sale, which makes for a cloudy future at best. In a society that hungers for novelty keeping a brewery healthy year after year, decade after decade is no small feat. All the more reason to marvel at the long-term success of institutions like Columbus Brewing Company and Barley’s.
Ten years ago today, North High Brewing opened to the public on the corner of North High Street and Sixth Avenue. A few weeks ago, news broke that North High Brewing would not renew the lease on their original Short North location, which means that today is the last chance you’ll have to enjoy a beer in their handsome taproom. As a brewery North High is not going away. The beers are now made at a production facility less than a mile east of the original taproom. With eight locations spread across Ohio and Indiana, and a spacious new location slated to open this summer in Westerville, they have embraced a delocalized brewpub model with gusto. Nevertheless, the closure of their namesake location was sad news for those of us with many good memories associated with that spot.
Last night I made the journey down to the North High taproom to pay my last respects. I was joined by a small cadre of friends that included Gavin Meyers, co-founder and co-owner of North High, Angelo Signorino, brewmaster at Barley’s, Jim Ellison who ran Columbus Brew Adventures for the better part of the 2010s, Ralph Wolfe and John Dean, both experienced Columbus Brew Adventure guides. As we shared pints, pizza, and stories throughout the evening it hit me that the last hurrah of the North High taproom marks an end to an unprecedented decade in Columbus brewing history.
The taproom that co-founders Gavin Meyers and Tim Ward built out of a former car dealership is a truly unique space. Dark wood features prominently in the décor, much of it salvaged from historic campus and community buildings, In fact, wood paneling was once the central design element on cans of North High beer. There is a wall of post office boxes from post-Katrina New Orleans that hold the mugs of regulars, and a 100+ year old train rail serves as the footrest for patrons who belly up to the bar. If you have time on your hands this evening it’s worth one last look. I do hope that the next occupant of the building will retain some elements of the space.
As a business North High has gone through many evolutions and reinventions over the past decade. A brew on premise facility was a central component of their business model for many years. Many people, this writer included, have tried their hand at a guided homebrewing experience in the comfy confines of the North High taproom. In the early days they even operated a small homebrew supply store out of the taproom. That was abandoned fairly early on, because as Gavin Meyers told me it wasn’t worth the hassle. After a few years the brew on premise capacity was downsized to create more space at the taproom, and eventually the Corona virus pandemic killed off that aspect of the business entirely. In retrospect that type of operation might be better suited to a strip mall in the suburbs than to a high-rent downtown location.
As the craft beer scene exploded North High took several steps to expand their operation. In 2014 they purchased a 20 bbl brewing system and opened a production facility near the corner of Cleveland and Fifth. In 2015, Jason McKibben, joined the team and took helm of brewing operations. Jason’s brewing chops, honed over years working for Anheuser Busch and Anchor Brewing, were invaluable for elevating the quality of North High beers. As evidence of that transformation, their Pale Ale (now known as Five) took home a silver medal from the World Beer Cup in 2016. In that same year they added an in-house canning line and through a partnership with Premium Beverage their distribution footprint expanded to cover much of the Buckeye state. In the summer of 2020, during the height of the pandemic, they opened a second Central Ohio location in the old Brazenhead on North High Street in Dublin. Around that time they entered what has been a mutually beneficial partnership with COhatch, a company that specializes in creating shared office and meeting spaces for small businesses. In fact, most of the eight North High locations are spaces that are either shared or linked with COhatch.
Expansion from humble downtown roots is a trait shared by several surviving members of the class of 2012−2013. Seventh Son built a large production facility adjacent to their Fourth Street location, opened Antiques on High in German Village in 2018, and Getaway in Dublin in 2021. Wolf’s Ridge now makes most of their beer at the former Four String production facility on the west side of Columbus, and operates Understory on Neil Avenue just north of the OSU campus. The venerable Columbus Brewing Company moved out of their cramped space in the Brewery District to a large facility on the west side some years ago, and in 2023 they will be opening what looks like a spectacular new facility in a former trolley hub near the Franklin Park Conservatory. The expansion mindset is driven in no small part by the intense competition for shelf space and tap handles. The larger margins associated with on-premise sales undoubtedly plays an important role as well. Of the old guard only Barley’s, Smokehouse, and Sideswipe have remained relatively constant. Although Smokehouse did have a go at expansion when they launched Commonhouse Ales in 2016 in the Brewery District space vacated by Columbus Brewing Company. Unfortunately, Commonhouse had a limited run and closed for good in 2021.
Downtown Columbus, here arbitrarily defined as the area bounded by the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers on the west, I-70 on the south, and I-71 on the east, will be home to ten “breweries” once North High leaves the neighborhood. That seems like a fairly high concentration of breweries, however, many of the newer taprooms/brewpubs in the neighborhood are selling beer made elsewhere. The list of what are effectively satellite taprooms/brewpubs includes BrewDog, Saucy, and Zaftig. If anything this makes Seventh Son’s expansion all the more remarkable. The trend toward outdoor patios and family friendly taprooms, doesn’t translate well to the dark, characterful bars and pubs that were once the norm in the Short North. When I asked Gavin what factors figured into the decision to close the taproom, the conversation kept coming back to the lack of a proper space for a patio and the hassle of parking downtown. If you look at Columbus Underground’s annual survey of the top Columbus breweries, it’s no accident that Land Grant and Seventh Son have held down the top two spots for the past three years. Both breweries have extensive beer gardens, albeit an elevated space with a closeable roof at Seventh Son, and popular food trucks that appeal to the modern consumer. The same can be said for Nocterra, which has risen to the number three spot. It’s nearly impossible to match that kind of space when located on High Street, hence the decision to move into the suburbs where land is more readily available.
Of course, the transformation of the Short North is not limited to breweries. These days there are more shops selling ice cream than live music venues, and while I don’t have anything against frozen dairy products, the trend is not everyone’s idea of progress. North High’s departure seems to be one more step in the transformation of the Short North into a downtown version of Easton Town Center.
With this I bid a bittersweet goodbye to North High’s original location and wish the team all the best for success in their future ventures. I was shown a 3D preview of the plans for the Westerville location, set to open in the summer. It looks amazing and since it will be right off the Ohio to Erie bike trail I’m anticipating some enjoyable two-wheeled outings to new location come late summer. For those interested in more North High nostalgia, feel free to check out one or more of my previous posts below.
- All Things Beer Episode 31 – A White Christmas with Jason McKibben
- All Things Beer Episode 33 – Milk, Oatmeal and Oyster Stouts
- The Reinvention of North High Brewing
- Ohio-Brewed Double IPA Blind Taste Test
- Beer Review – Grapefruit Walleye by North High Brewing