Style Masters: 5 Ohio Craft Breweries to Try Now
From hop heroes to lager champs, these Ohio beer-makers are doing it right. Plus, try 20 other brews we love.
The Barrel Whisperers: Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, Columbus
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in downtown Columbus takes its name from a bend on the Scioto River that historical records refer to as Wolf’s Ridge. Wolves once ran wild in Ohio, and there is certainly something untamed about this brewery’s barrel-aged beers. Head brewer Chris Davison oversees a prolific brewing program, but his biggest passion — and challenge — is the brewery’s range of barrel-aged stouts, barley wines and sour ales.
“The biggest challenge is that you can put the same beer into six different barrels from the same source on the same day, and a year later, you’ll have six very different beers,” he explains.
These variations can make blending barrels for a finished beer tricky, but also provide plenty of exciting possibilities. While fans are intimately familiar with barrel-aged versions of the brewery’s Dire Wolf Imperial Stout aged in everything from bourbon to rum to port barrels, Davison is equally devoted to his mixed-fermentation barrel-aged beers. Terre du Sauvage Green, a 6.8% mixed-fermentation ale dry-hopped with Ekuanot hops, recently won a gold medal in its category at the prestigious Festival of Barrel-Aged Beer in Chicago, where it has medaled twice previously.
While the time in barrels and the skill of blending is important, Davison is quick to emphasize the work begins with the right recipe and good brewing practices.
“If you put good beer into the barrels, you’ll get good beer out of them,” he says.
Wolf’s Ridge Brewing’s taproom is as well-known for its excellent food as it is for the beer, with a seasonal menu that regularly finds the restaurant on lists of the best fine dining in Columbus.
So, what is this oak-loving brewer’s favorite beer from his barrels?
“Over the last few years, my favorite was our Mocha Port Barrel Dire Wolf,” he says, referencing a beer brewed with ethically sourced cacao from Ethereal Confections. “It was very chocolate-forward and married well with the red fruit character of the port barrels. We started playing with port barrels very early on.” 215 N. Fourth St., Columbus 43215, 614/429-3936, wolfsridgebrewing.com
Now Try This! | Barrel-Aged
Whiskey Rebellion, Warped Wing Brewing Co., Dayton, warpedwing.com
Bourbon Barrel Brick Kiln, Jackie O’s Brewery, Athens, jackieos.com
Barrel-Aged B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher Hoppin’ Frog Brewery, Akron, hoppinfrog.com
Barrel-Aged Gold on the Ceiling, Akronym Brewing, Akron, akronymbrewing.com
The Sour Specialists
Pretentious Barrel House, Columbus
The first thing people notice when they enter Pretentious Barrel House is the smell, and that’s a good thing. This brewery on the east side of Columbus is filled with over 250 oak barrels for aging beer, and the scent of the wood and fermentation permeates the large space.
“People always say it smells so good in here,” says brewery founder Joshua Martinez.
The barrels are doing more than storing beer — they’re providing a breeding ground for various microorganisms to acidify and further ferment the brewery’s beers, adding funky complexity and sourness. Pretentious Barrel House is an all-sour brewery, and if its self-aware name isn’t fun enough, its cheeky motto is: “Making sour beers on purpose.”
And the brewery is good at it. Magnanimous, a dark sour aged in wine barrels, won best in show at the 2019 Ohio Craft Brewers Cup. Beers like Sybarite and the brewery’s anniversary beer, Cuvee de Josh, have medaled the last two years.
Martinez explains that although these sour beers undergo a standard fermentation initially, the real challenge of his craft occurs during blending, when he will taste multiple barrels to determine which vessels — and in which proportions — will be combined into a finished beer. Because the blending process is based on his sensory perception, each named beer might change somewhat year to year.
“That’s the magic of it,” he explains. “We get to make impossible beers that can’t be manufactured. I change over time, and I’m the one creating the blends, so I don’t think everything can stay exactly the same. We get to make these small blends, and I think that’s where we shine.”
Visitors to the Pretentious Barrel House taproom get to sit and sip their beer surrounded by the vessels that hold this magic, and Martinez hopes to add even more barrels soon.
“The taproom has more of a winery feel,” he says. “There are just stacks and stacks and stacks of oak. It’s a very nuanced experience.” 745 Taylor Ave., Columbus 43219, 614/887-7687, pretentiousbarrelhouse.com
Now Try This! | Sours
The Gadget, Urban Artifact, Cincinnati, artifactbeer.com
Maker of Things, Little Fish Brewing Co., Athens, littlefishbrewing.com
Alex Fox, Noble Creature Cask House, Youngstown, noblecreaturebeer.com
Gingkyo, Antiques on High, Columbus, antiquesonhigh.com
The Lager Champs
Noble Beast Brewing Co., Cleveland
There is a common misconception among beer drinkers that because lagers tend to be simpler, easier-drinking beers than many craft-ale styles, they must be easier and cheaper to brew. The exact opposite is true. Just ask Shaun Yasaki, founder and brewer at Noble Beast Brewing Co., located a block from Lake Erie in downtown Cleveland.
“What appeals to me about lagers as a brewer is they’re very technical,” he explains. “There’s a lot more process to them than ales. They’re such transparent beers that everything you do is evident.”
Lagers are brewed with a different species of yeast than ales, and condition for longer before they’re ready to release. The fact they’re often simpler in flavor makes it harder to hide flaws, and brewers must be on their game to brew them well. Yasaki uses traditional (and laborious) techniques and equipment such as decoction mashing and horizontal lagering tanks to ensure beers like Union Pils and Embers Only Smoked Helles showcase that skill.
The effort has paid off not only with popularity among fans but with national award recognition. The brewery’s Murder Ballads Baltic Porter, a strong and dark lager (other porter styles are brewed with ale yeast), has medaled twice at the Great American Beer Festival, the nation’s most prestigious beer competition.
“Brewing these beers stems from what I love to drink,” says Yasaki, explaining that these beers have proven quite popular with drinkers in this working-class city. “Cleveland has a well-established beer scene that appreciates these classic styles.”
Lagers can be great with food, and Noble Beast Brewing Co. is becoming well known for its upscale, seasonal food menu served in an airy but cozy taproom full of hanging plants.
“Everyone on our talented kitchen staff has a fine dining background,” Yasaki says. “We have such a great space for enjoying it, with an atmosphere that is going to pull you in immediately.” 1470 Lakeside Ave. E., Cleveland 44114, 216/417-8588, noblebeastbeer.com
Now Try This! | Lagers
Dortmunder Gold, Great Lakes Brewing Co., Cleveland, greatlakesbrewing.com
Progress Pilsner, Market Garden Brewery, Cleveland, marketgardenbrewery.com
Dankel Munich Dunkel, Devil Wind Brewing, Xenia, devilwindbrewing.com
Rustic Helles, Wooly Pig Farm Brewery, Fresno, woolypigfarmbrewery.com
The Hop Heroes
Columbus Brewing Co., Columbus
Since opening in 1988, Columbus Brewing Co. has been one of the most prolific and respected breweries in the state, and it has made its name with IPAs loaded with hops. These include Insane Wanderer, which showcases a different single hop variety with each release; Columbus IPA, the brewery’s flagship beer; and numerous seasonal and special releases, like Yakima Fresh Wet Hop IPA released each fall. The brewery is perhaps best known for Bodhi, one of the the top-selling Double IPAs in Ohio.
“Everybody has a story about Bodhi because it drinks so smooth,” says Columbus Brewing Co. vice president of marketing Evan Magliocca.
The beer highlights the bright citrus and tropical aromas and flavors of the Citra hop variety and has previously medaled at the Great American Beer Festival.
Columbus Brewing Co. was making great IPAs long before the current popularity of hazy IPAs, and the brewery took its time getting the style right before releasing Endless Haze, a new year-round offering. For co-founder Beth Bean, new IPAs provide the chance to celebrate ongoing advances in the world of hops.
“The evolution of hops is happening so fast, and that’s really exciting,” she says. “New breeds and varieties with such vastly different profiles give us the ability to innovate and experiment with new ideas.”
While hops run the show here, Magliocca points out that the 24 taps in the Columbus Brewing Co. taproom pour a wide variety of beers, from lagers to barrel-aged sours.
“We’re known as a hop-forward brewery, but our taproom is the opportunity to experience the rest of what we do,” he says. “For us, it’s a beer wonderland.”
The taproom also serves Sicilian-style pizza, wings with house-made sauces and other excellent food options.
While Bean celebrates innovation in the world of IPAs and other hop-forward beers, at the end of the day she has a special fondness for her brewery’s classic brand.
“Columbus IPA is the beer I always come back to,” she says. “It’s just the perfect expression of what an IPA should be.” 2555 Harrison Rd., Columbus 43204, 614/224-3626, columbusbrewing.com
Now Try This! | Hops
Head Hunter, Fat Head's Brewery, Cleveland, fatheads.com
Midwest Red IPA, Masthead Brewing Co., Cleveland, mastheadbrewingco.com
Citra High, MadTree Brewing, Cincinnati, madtreebrewing.com
The Final Countdown, North High Brewing, Columbus, northhighbrewing.com
The Stout Masters
Third Eye Brewing Co., Sharonville
When Third Eye Brewing Co. won gold for its Higher Purpose Milk Stout at the 2021 Great American Beer Festival, head brewer Kelly Montgomery was certainly excited. However, it wasn’t his first time winning the top prize in the category at the nation’s biggest beer competition. Or his second. Or third. A Montgomery-brewed beer has been chosen as the best milk stout in the country an astonishing four straight years, stretching back to his time at Brink Brewing Co. across town, where his Moozie Milk Stout won gold in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
After leaving to start Third Eye Brewing Co., Montgomery could have just taken the recipe he wrote with him, but he decided to make things even harder for himself.
“Coming to a new brewery, I already had a pretty good milk stout at Brink, and formulating a brand new milk stout was a challenge,” he says.
He clearly met the challenge, as he’s now brewed two different milk stouts that have both earned gold on craft beer’s biggest stage.
“There were a lot of tweaks I wanted to make on Moozie, but when I was winning it didn’t feel right making them,” he says. “Higher Purpose has a bit more caramel and richer flavor.”
Milk stout isn’t the only roasty style where Montgomery shines. Third Eye Double Astral medaled at the 2021 Ohio Craft Brewers Cup, along with its coffee variant.
“It’s this monstrous chocolate oatmeal stout, and I put about a $1,000 worth of cocoa nibs from Cincinnati’s Maverick Chocolate in it. It’s super rich but not as crazy sweet as some pastry stouts,” he explains. “The accountant flipped when he saw the bill for the cocoa.”
Third Eye Brewing Co. is also becoming known for its upscale food menu, regularly hosting steak dinners, low country shrimp boils and other events. Despite his past success with the classic milk stout, Montgomery is in love with his most recent creation.
“I think Double Astral is my favorite I’ve brewed,” he says. “It’s certainly the most expensive beer we’ve ever brewed.” 11276 Chester Rd., Sharonville 45246, 513/771-2739, thirdeyebrewingco.com
Now Try This! | Stouts
Fox in the Stout, Seventh Son Brewing Co., Columbus, seventhsonbrewing.com
Campfire Candle, Branch & Bone Artisan Ales, Dayton, branchandboneales.com
Fresh Pots, Modern Methods Brewing Co., Warren, modernmethodsbrew.com
Ebony Prince, Black Frog Brewery, Holland, blackfrogbrewery.com