Hopping Down the Columbus Ale Trail

Land Grant Brewing on West Town Street inthe Franklinton area of Columbus.

Americans love their beer. This is a country where a Belgium-based megabrewer renames its beer “America,” and the people lap it up.

But if you want true American spirit, it can be found fermenting in the nation’s microbreweries. These startups — many launched by home brewers turned entrepreneurs seeking the American dream — are banking on Americans’ thirst for craft beer, those unique brews crafted in small batches and often dubbed with bizarre names.

The craft beer boom is in full swing in Columbus, which boasts a Columbus Ale Trail — complete with a tour book that can be stamped and redeemed for prizes — a Brewers’ Row, a Brewery District, the Columbus Brew Adventures tours, the Pedal Wagon Brewery Cruise (bring your own beer on board as your group of up to 15 pedals between breweries), an annual homebrew competition and Craft Beer Week in early May.

“We’ve seen the craft beer trend nationally, and particularly in Columbus it has really grown exponentially,” said Megumi Robinson with Experience Columbus, the capital city’s visitors’ bureau. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the city was home to only three breweries. By the 2000s, there were about a dozen. Now there are 37.

“Columbus is really receptive to new craft breweries” — no doubt owing in large part to being home to one of the largest universities in the country, Ohio State. But craft beer enthusiasts can be found in generation X and among baby boomers, too, Robinson noted.

North High Brewing on North High Street in Columbus.

“I think people are really craving these different, unique experiences,” she said.

The Ale Trail campaign was launched two years ago during Columbus Craft Beer Week. The idea hatched after local brewers noted the success of Experience Columbus’ Coffee Trail, which began in 2014 and is still going strong. (There’s also a Made In Cbus Trail featuring local products, from spirits to soaps to home decor and jewelry.)

“Members of the craft brewers association approached us and said ‘We have a great product to offer, too.’ It made a lot of sense. We have now seen thousands of people come through with Ale Trail books to redeem for incentives,” Robinson said.

On a recent Sunday, which happened to be my birthday, my brew-loving husband, Dave, and I (Gen-Xers, for the record) decided to take a little trip of our own down the Columbus Ale Trail.

We limited ourselves to breweries within walking distance of our hotel, the magnificent Hotel LeVeque located in LeVeque Tower in the heart of downtown. Even so, there were nearly a dozen we could have tried. We settled for five but spent too much time at the first two and had to eliminate one.

A Pedal Wagon makes its way through downtown Columbus, powered by beer-drinking patrons.

Two of the four we visited — Barley’s and Wolf’s Ridge — are on what’s unofficially called Brewers’ Row, centrally located near the Greater Columbus Convention Center and served by the free CBUS circulator. One, Gordon Biersch, is technically a microbrewery but on a much larger scale and is located next to Nationwide Arena. Our last stop was Rockmill Tavern, located in the Brewery District next to German Village.

With an unassuming exterior, Barley’s is in a prime spot, smack in between the convention center and trendy North Market. It is one of the three original Columbus modern-day craft breweries, founded in 1992 by brewmaster Scott Francis, the “godfather of microbrewing” in Columbus, and Lenny Kolada, a home brewer who dreamed of opening a brewpub. Francis had been brewmaster at the city’s first microbrewery, Columbus Brewing Co., founded in 1988. (The third brewery, Hoster, closed in the early 2000s and was the only one of the three that had roots in the original Columbus brewing scene of the late 1800s.)

We spent entirely too much time at Barley’s, the first hour tasting and learning from longtime Barley’s bartender Mark Huffman, who introduced me to the second India Pale Ale I ever liked. (The first was made by Wheeling’s own Kevin Ayres, owner of Brew Keepers, when he was still a home brewer.) It was Tour du Bike, a double IPA — which means it has more alcohol by volume. The key to a good IPA, Huffman said, is to balance the hops with malt, which Tour du Bike does.

The second hour, we headed to the upstairs bar, Brewcadia, which features Barley’s and other craft beers on tap and is lined with retro arcade games and pinball machines, from Ms. Pacman to Frogger to Mortal Kombat — all free for the playing.

Also taking place upstairs that afternoon was the 22nd annual Afternoon With the Brewers, a craft beer celebration where local brewers named a new homebrew champion while last year’s winning brew was commercially available on tap for the first time. The 2016 winner was a saison brut by Chris Sipko and Bob Milewsky (A saison, we learned, is a sour “farmhouse” ale laced with spices and fruit.) The 2017 champ is longtime Columbus home brewer A.J. Zanyk’s Baltic porter. (For a great explanation of the event and interviews with Zanyk and Barley’s brewmaster Angelo Signorino, hop onto Pat’s Pints blog, http://patspints.com)

Brews from Barley's Brewery Co. on North High Street.

After we played a few rounds of pinball and all my Ms. Pacman lives were eliminated, twice, we left Barley’s and made our way to Wolf’s Ridge Brewing on North Fourth Street. A bright dining room greets dinner guests while down the hall in the back is the taproom — a large, window- and brick-lined garage space with cement floors. A singer with a guitar performed in one spacious corner while people drank at long tables and at the bar. An outdoor patio was inaccessible because of impending rain.

The family-owned and operated Wolf’s Ridge was started by a corporate-traveler turned homebrewing dad whose unique brews have won many national awards. Clear Sky, a cream ale (nearly clear in color), won gold in the Best Craft Beer Awards this year and silver in the 2016 San Diego International Beer Competition. Clear Sky Daybreak is a remarkable combination of the Clear Sky paired with coffee and vanilla flavors; it won gold in the 2016 Indiana Brewers’ Cup and just took the silver medal at the San Diego competition.

It smells like coffee. It tastes like coffee, although not hot. But it has 5 percent alcohol by volume.

“It’s confusing, right?” said our bartender, Eddie. He said it’s their top seller.

The Dire Wolf imperial stout has a variety of incarnations, including the Dire Wolf Yub Nub with coffee and cinnamon (yum!) and Dire Wolf Canis Mexicanis with ancho chilis. Here you’ll also find a coconut IPA and a grapefruit IPA, a hefeweizen with notes of banana, and a creamsicle nitro — a smooth orange and vanilla cream ale. The Dysfunctionale American pale ale, is a collaboration with Columbus Brewing Co.

Taps at Barley's Brewery Co. on North High Street.

After stamping our Ale Trail passport with a wolf, Eddie said they get a lot of people in with the passports. It’s a great marketing tool because of the prizes that are offered. “It just gives everyone an incentive to drink,” he said. As if we needed one.

The prizes are cool, though — after hitting up four breweries, you get an Ohio-made tasting glass emblazoned with “Columbus Ale Trail.” At four more intervals you continue to collect glasses, and when you have all five glasses and all 37 stamps, you get a flight tray, locally crafted with reclaimed wood. Books can be redeemed at the Experience Columbus visitor center in the Arena District, inside the convention center or at the Ohio Taproom on West Third Avenue.

After Wolf’s Ridge, we dodged fat raindrops on our way to Gordon Biersch, a grand centerpiece of the Arena District next to Nationwide Arena. On this Sunday afternoon, the spacious interior was sparsely populated, but we could easily see how packed it would be after a Blue Jackets game. Of the four breweries we visited, this one was the most established looking. After all, the California-based brewery has 32 restaurant locations from coast to coast, including one in Hawaii.

On tap in Columbus are about 10 of GB’s German-style beers, brewed in small batches on site and “crafted to the exacting standards of the Reinheitsgebot or German Purity Law,” according to the website. Dan Gordon, the company’s co-founder and brewmaster, graduated from the five-year brewing program at the world-renowned Technical University of Munich in Weihenstephan, Germany, and also is a talented chef, whose trademarked Garlic Fries are wildly popular.

At this point, Dave and I realized we would have to forego Land Grant Brewing Co., which is located in a reclaimed factory near the Scioto Mile in Franklinton, and skip down to Rockmill Tavern. But Google Maps said it was a half-hour walk, and our dinner reservation was in 15 minutes. Uber to the rescue. Google Maps hooked us up with our first (and not last) incredible Uber experience. Within a couple minutes of signing up and requesting a ride, we were safe and dry in Timothy’s Honda Pilot, zooming toward Rockmill. We were on time.

Wolf's Ridge Brewing on North Fourth Street in downtown Columbus.

Rockmill Brewery, featuring creative Belgian-style farmhouse ales, opened on a former horse farm near Lancaster, 30 minutes from Columbus. The tasting room is located in the farmhouse, where patrons can bring in their own food or buy from the featured food truck, Backcountry Barbecue, on the weekends. We, however, were dining in style at its urban satellite, Rockmill Tavern, which features a trendy and tasty menu in a barn-like atmosphere with walls made of large all-natural, Ohio-sourced wooden beams, high ceilings and a second-floor loft for additional seating.

Here, I found another IPA I liked (what’s happening?). They have a variety of creative saisons, stouts and ales, including a tripel aged in Columbus microdistillery Middle West Spirits’ whiskey barrels. The Urban Cowboy is a Belgian-style stout featuring “raisins dipped in molasses,” brewed in collaboration with Columbus’ Seventh Son Brewing.

Seventh Son is another downtown brewery that is on our short list for a return trip, along with Land Grant, North High, Elevator, Lineage and Zauber.

The various beer collaborations among breweries, as well as events such as Barley’s Afternoon with the Brewers, point to the community-mindedness of the local breweries.

“They believe in, what’s the saying? ‘A rising tide raises all boats,'” Robinson said. The collaborative spirit is one of the reasons British beermaker BrewDog chose the Columbus area to open its U.S. operations in February, she said.

“The felt so warmly welcomed by the craft brewers.” BrewDog is located in Canal Winchester and is on the Ale Trail.

Columbus Ale Trail passports are available at any participating brewery or at the Experience Columbus Visitors Center in the Arena District or inside the Greater Columbus Convention Center. For more information, visit CbusAleTrail.com.

Shown is a spicy chicken sandwich with bread-and-butter zucchini and a side of carmelized Brussels sprouts at Rockmill Tavern in downtown Columbus.