Soapdish: A taproom tourist surveys Cincinnati's craft beer options

Ah, January! The holidays are a fading blur in the rearview mirror, work routines have settled into mind-numbing drudgery, Seasonal Affective Depression levels spike as sunlight dwindles and the last collective glimmer of optimism fizzles in the new year’s frigid, gun-metal grey tundra.

During trying times such as this, a not-so-young Soapdish columnist’s thoughts turn to, well, beer. And here in Cincinnati we have no shortage of local beer brewing, beer culture, beer events, beeraphanalia, beer tourism, festivals, footraces and just about any other conceivable concept into which you could conceivably ram the theme of beer beer beer.

Shortly after the new year arrives, the Hoperatives calendar begins to gain momentum, highlighted by Cincinnati Beer Week Feb. 13-22 and Cincy Winter Beerfest Feb. 13-14 and culminating the first weekend in March with the almighty Bockfest, a celebration of all things both beer and bock, heralding the coming of Spring and our emergence from hibernation.

That’s right, dear readers, it’s Beer Season!

Over the course of the past decade, the demand for craft brewing in Ohio, as well as the rest of the country, has soared as national palates — relentlessly dulled by decades of corporate-brewed mediocre macrobrews — have experienced a wholesale awakening, proselytized at the altar of the almighty hop. Moreover, the proliferation of on-premises tap rooms have further pulled back the curtain on the process, often opening up unique, sometimes historic rooms devoted to the quaffing of house brews.

Cincinnati has no shortage of these craft brewing taprooms, some historic and grandiose, others utilitarian and light-industrial, from the historic brewing epicenter of Over-the-Rhine to the far-flung realms of exurbia. As an added bonus, the taprooms generally present themselves as family- and (in some cases) dog-friendly, thereby offering a guilt-free and socially acceptable environment for downing a pint or two at a casual indoor picnic table while the kids frolic in a quasi-industrial and somewhat contained environment.

What follows, then, is a highly subjective, by-no-means-exclusive sampling of what our region has to offer in the burgeoning world of craft beer and taproom tourism. This isn’t intended to be all-encompassing but rather what one car-less columnist has been able to experience with the aid of an array of automobile-driving friends (as necessary).

Our imperfect reviews will take note of such random factors as atmosphere, variety, kid-friendliness, dog-friendliness, adult-friendliness, choice in music, availability of parking and other vaguely important factors.

Ei8ht Ball Brewing (Bellevue)
First stop is Ei8ht Ball Brewing, just a hop, skip and jump across the river in Bellevue. It’s adjacent to the sprawling mega-booze/entertainment-supplies Party Source über-store, and so the promise of a taproom at the end of your party-supply shopping rainbow is the metaphorical equivalent of a pot o’gold filled with beer. A reward for a day of dollars well spent.

Brewmaster Mitch Dougherty, after winning a number of national brewing awards at Rock Bottom on Fountain Square, has relocated across the river to Ei8ht Ball, which opened in November 2014 with an impressive array of equipment and taps. Specifically, 42 taps to be precise, with the draft lineup broadcast “live” on the two large flat screen TVs above the bar.

The variety was plentiful and jarringly global — six different beers from Denmark’s Mikkeller alone — befitting of its Party Source adjacency. And based on some quick back-of-the-napkin calculations, the average ABV level approached a staunch 8 percent, with several beers pushing 13 percent.

The crowd was somewhat light and predominantly male — it was a bitterly cold Tuesday night after all — and included a couple of Rhinegeist brewery employees mingling at the end of the bar. While there’s an outdoor area, it’s somewhat lacking in overall aesthetics, sitting between what is essentially a blank warehouse wall and a blank concrete levee wall. Nevertheless, a few scattered picnic tables no doubt serve their intended purpose (hello, smokers!).

As far as kid-friendless goes, the bartender put some Curious George on the TV for my friend’s toddler. Dog-friendly is a non-starter (unless you bring your dog shopping at The Party Source, and I don’t think you do), but the free popcorn is an added bonus.

Be sure to check out their insane Sunday night special, at which a draft international pint that’s normally $7 or $8 can be had for the “tasting” price ($3-$4).

Tap & Screw Brewery (Westwood/Covedale)
Given the globetrotting, riverhopping vibe of an experience at Ei8ht Ball, it was clear that the only logical next step was, um, the West Side. Specifically, the relatively new Tap & Screw Brewery, which bills itself as “the first microbrewery on Cincinnati’s West Side.” Situated in a former sports bar between Applebee’s and Penn Station and across from O’Charley’s, its strip mall ambiance belies the craft brewing operation going on inside.

Tap & Screw has only been open since December, so they’re slowly developing their offerings (and their West Side clientele’s palate) and currently have four or five beers brewed in house: an India pale ale, kolsch, ale, porter and a Belgium. These were complemented by a variety of other drafts, including locals like Mad Tree and Mt. Carmel. There’s a full menu of food, including their “famous” Goetta Balls.

As far as the atmosphere, I will say it’s a long time since I heard the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia” on the taproom soundtrack, but the space filled up pretty quickly on an early Saturday eve, with families (kid friendly: check!) and large tables of folks drinking Bud Light out of bottles (well, you know). That said, a good crowd congregated at the bar, and many were sampling and enjoying the Tap & Screw fare. I myself found the “Dr. Kool’s IPA” (6.8 percent) to be perfectly satisfying.

It was unclear if the space was dog-friendly, but there did seem to be a large outdoor patio facing the expansive HH Gregg parking lot. Didn’t see any popcorn machine, but there was a “Beer Pong” game, which I suppose is like a Golden Tee for the craft beer set.

Mad Tree Brewing (Pleasant Ridge/Kennedy Heights)
Next up was a brief jaunt up I-71 to a morass of freeway interchanges, big box stores and the Kennedy Connector boondoggle to the light industrial space housing Mad Tree Brewing, which has experienced explosive growth since opening two years ago. To wit, the parking lot on this particular Wednesday night was jammed at happy hour. Curiously enough, I even saw a taxi dropping people off (beer tourists!).

Of course, part of the draw on Wednesdays is the Pop Up Dinner event, and we were fortunate enough on this occasion to sample the Babushka Pierogis, a perfect compliment to some of the more hefty beers on tap. The Mad Tree seemed to be a combo of beeranistas seeking it out as a destination and folks stopping off for a tipple or two on the way home.

The variety of Mad Tree offerings on tap is far more extensive than you’ll see outside of the taproom, with 18 different Mad Trees in all, including a boysenberry lime wit and a lemon basil blonde. The space is a fairly utilitarian warehouse, although they’re working on a new wood-fired oven kitchen, Catch-A-Fire Cafe, to open soon. There's a token outdoor space, and while I didn’t see a lot of evidence of child-friendliness (more like sullen teens waiting on dad), I can successfully report that dog-friendliness was in full force and effect.

Mad Tree is gearing up for the Winter Bonanza megabash Jan. 31 to celebrate its anniversary, with proceeds to benefit City Link Center, Cincinnati Community Toolbank, Green Umbrella and Starfire.

Rivertown Brewery (Lockland)
From Mad Tree, our beer divining rod pulled us slightly west, down a dark road in Lockland and into an industrial array of warehouses, junkyards and the like until we found Rivertown Brewery. Surprisingly, after seeing little signs of life (and getting a little lost in the process), a packed parking lot signified that we had indeed come to the right place, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Rivertown’s taproom is smaller than Mad Tree’s but had ample space for an array of 1980s-era arcade games (free play), including Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat. Be sure to bring your ID, however, as they are sticklers, as both my photographer and I found out. Not dog-friendly, although there is allegedly a brewery cat. As far as kid friendly, we didn’t really see any, although my teenage son — initially mortified at being a tagalong on his father’s “research trip” — warmed up after pummeling me in a few games of Street Fighter 2.

Blank Slate Pour House (East End)
Rivertown’s taproom falls into the category of the slightly smaller but still light industrial category, not unlike the atmosphere at the Blank Slate Pour House, located off of Eastern Avenue near Lunken Airport. Initially operating as a draft-only operation with distribution to local bars and restaurants, Blank Slate opened their taproom this past Thanksgiving.

The space adheres to the more cozy warehouse-conversion model with a contained seating area and seven offerings on tap. The vibe at the small Blank Slate tap room is a congenial one, and you’re likely to find Scott LaFollette — the “Proprietor, Janitor, and Yeast Farmer” — holding court behind the bar. We didn’t see any child-friendliness cues, and the vibe when I was there exuded more East-Side middle-aged guys escaping the house for a few quick pints than anything else. They don’t allow dogs.

Bad Tom Smith Brewing (East End)
Just minutes away from Blank Slate is Bad Tom Smith Brewing, a modest little operation just down Eastern Avenue from Terry’s Turf Club and Bella Luna. Bad Tom’s taproom had a bar with 10 or so stools as well as a couple of picnic tables at which to congregate. Bonus points for the free popcorn and play-it-yourself record player as well as “Sam,” the black labrador brewdog (so yes, dog friendly).

Bad Tom’s had 10 beers on tap, and the vibe was similar to Blank Slate, although the guys at the bar seemed closer to retirement age. Child-friendly is a thumbs up, as there was a baby situated in a car seat at our picnic table quietly enjoying the scenery. One note regarding parking: Be careful not to park in any spots marked “Reserved” for Terry’s Turf Club lest ye be harassed in the lot by Terry himself.

Moerlein and Rhinegeist (Over-the-Rhine)
Of course, no beer tour would be complete without visits to the Moerlein and Rhinegeist breweries in Over-the-Rhine, two of the bigger players on our local brewing scene and within walking distance of each other (and my home). What these two have in common is that the historic structures in which they’re housed were both brewery-related and there’s an incomparable cache in having historic brewery architecture as a backdrop to your shiny kettles. They’re both exceedingly large spaces, with an array of activities and diversions offered up for your beer-drinking amusement.

The Moerlein Malt House is almost like an arcade of beer-related fun, beginning with a much appreciated indoor bike rack and followed by Wiesnkoenig, a stylish German clothing emporium for only the finest in hip lederhosen and dirndls. Unlike many of the other taprooms, the Malt House has the oft-critical component of food courtesy of Mike’s Frankfurtary. They’ve also introduced a new “Fowling” league that meets every Wednesday night (fowling, for the uninitiated, is a cheeky combination of football and bowling); trivia on Thursdays; open mic Sundays; and free brewery tours every Friday through Sunday. The Malt House usually has 12 or so beers on tap, and, in addition to Fowling, activities include darts, pool, foosball and giant Jenga.

In short, when you combine that with the historic architecture and underground “beeracombs,” there’s plenty of diversions at Moerlein for even the cranky, non-beer loving, out-of-town mother-in-law along for the ride.

In a similar vein, Rhinegeist and its 25,000-square-foot facility offers more than enough room for activities ranging from cornhole and foosball to wiffle ball and ping pong. In fact, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League meets here every Thursday night at 7 p.m. for spirited beer league play on the three available tables.

Given the vast space and plentiful tables, Rhinegeist is a go-to spot for large groups, office parties, birthdays and the like, often accommodating several at the same time. Although no dogs are allowed, it is child-friendly (at times on weekends it seems like a day care center with beer), though you must be 21-plus after 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. There are currently 12 or so Rhinegeist beers on tap as well as some guest taps and wine by the glass (for those not beer-inclined).

Rhinegeist recently acquired the 112,000-square-foot complex at 1910 Elm (three buildings in all) for $4.5 million, so suffice to say they plan on anchoring that particular sector of Over-the-Rhine for a long time. It doesn’t hurt that they'll have a streetcar stop at the front door. Future plans for the facility are currently being finalized and will be announced in several weeks, and recent chatter of a roof deck sounds promising.

Others worth trying, plus even more to come
While general notions of word counts, column length and overall editorial parameters do not allow me to prattle on ad nauseum, there are indeed other breweries that warrant a visit: Mt. Carmel Brewing, 50 West Brewing and Listermann/Triple Digit immediately come to mind. In addition, we have new breweries being announced and coming online every day, including Braxton Brewing in Covington, Wiedemann's in Newport, Urban Artifact (formerly Grayscale) in Northside, Nine Giant in Pleasant Ridge, Bircus Beer in Ludlow and Brewery X in the old Eden Park pump station (two of which were announced in just the past few weeks alone).

I recently had a chance to visit Taft’s Ale House, an ambitious $8 million project which is hoping to open April 6, Opening Day, and is housed in the gorgeous former St. Paulus Kirche at 15th and Race in Over-the-Rhine. Taft’s 15,000 square feet will have bars on three levels, including Nellie’s Tap Room on the ground floor with 34 beers on tap, including eight rotating taps from outside local breweries. Additional bars will be on the main and mezzanine levels, with the former steeple retrofitted as a private dining area. Production is targeted at 6,000 barrels per year for this dining and drinking hall, which will only accelerate the dining and brewery surge (tsunami?) in Over-the-Rhine.

So, yeah, it seems like beer in Cincinnati, to quote Ron Burgundy, “is kind of a big deal.” True to Cincinnati’s rich brewing heritage, this resurgence of breweries makes perfect sense, and — as my sampling tour makes clear — there is no shortage of options at which to slake your thirst.

The rest of the country is taking notice as well. Rhinegeist was just featured in Food & Wine’s “10 Amazing Breweries That You’re Excited About This Year, and OTR’s Half Cut was featured on the January cover of Draft magazine in its coverage of “America’s 100 Best Beer Bars.” Beer tourism in Cincinnati is now a growth industry, and it bears mentioning that Craft Connection and Cincy Brew Bus — new beer-oriented local tour group operators — are well-equipped to shuttle you to any and all of your favorite tap rooms.

It may be Beer Season right now, as I noted at the beginning, but let’s be honest: Beer season is pretty much year round in Cincinnati. The local calendar simply bridges from one big beer event to the next — it just depends on how many other “seasons” are competing for your time.


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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.