It’s easy to overlook places close to home. Maryanne’s dad used to lament how many people who grew up just a short bus or train ride from New York City and never visited the Statue of Liberty or the observation deck atop the Empire State Building. The same goes for beer traveling. With the soaring cost of gasoline and travel these days, it’s a perfect time to explore the obvious.
And in that spirit, we recently spent a few days in neighboring Ohio. Although the state line is barely fifty miles from our home, for many years it was someplace we passed through on our way to the East Coast. Now, as the old saying goes, we’ve seen the error of our ways and are happy to report that art of craft brewing is alive, well and thriving in the Buckeye State. So, don your scarlet and gray apparel and buckeye nut necklace, and join us in visiting a few of the wonderful Cleveland establishments that serve fine brew.
Our first stop is the Buckeye Beer Engine in the west-side suburb of Lakewood (15315 Madison Avenue). It’s also the tasting room for the Buckeye Brewing Co., which opened its doors in early 2007. (And yes, many of you remember correctly: there was an iconic Buckeye Brewing Co. with the same name that operated in Toledo until 1972.)
The building has had several previous existences, most recently a white-tablecloth restaurant. With its dark wood paneling, it feels like a cozy neighborhood hangout where you want to join your friends while watching the big game. One look at the breweriana and you know you’re in a place for serious beer lovers. One look at the blackboard and you know you’ve found heaven—or at least a turnpike exit leading to the Pearly Gates.
In addition to the house brews there are 20 guest taps. The menu lists them all with a unique zero-to-five bitterness rating. You can even assemble your own sampler; the price of each glass varies according to the alcohol and hop content. There are also several cask selections and a range of bottled beers—more than a hundred strong, including multiple vintages of J.W. Lees Ale. Most are available at reasonable prices for carry-out, too.
The western suburbs are also home to Rocky River Brewing (21290 Center Ridge Road, Rocky River). A large sign in the front makes it easy to find. As you enter, you get a sense of the dramatic as you’re surrounded by the Century System brewing equipment on either side, proudly on display behind glass.
Once in the door, you’ll be looking straight at a large and majestic dark-wood back bar topped by a clock. The handiwork is something to behold, down to insets where, if you look closely—and we think you should—you’ll see the old-timey “RR” logo. There’s a further reminder that beer is brewed here: the windows behind the bar offer you a bird’s eye view of the serving tanks. Draped from the back bar are pennants marking the awards won by the house beers; and opposite the hostess stand is a display of GABF and WBC medals Rocky River has brought home.
We asked our server if he knew whether the bar had a history. Surely, we figured, it dated back to pre-Prohibitiion days and perhaps had seen service in some historic establishment. Not so. Sounding like a proud papa, the owner of the brewpub told us it was the handiwork of a local craftsman, who clearly had an eye for detail and a keen sense of what a classic bar looked like.
Two blackboards (these must be an “Ohio thing”) high on the back bar list what’s on tap. We ordered the sampler with all seven. The lineup has something to please everyone, from a light golden ale to a roasty porter, a saison-style beer and a blueberry wheat.
Great Brew in a Strip Mall
Located in the historic Berea Triangle and just minutes from the Cleveland airport is the Cornerstone Brewing Co. (55 Front Street, near the intersection of the Turnpike and I-77). The brewpub, as well as the establishments around it, are part of a downtown revival. Sports fans will be interested to know that Berea is also the hometown of OSU football coach Jim Tressel.
The building retains much of its original character: long and narrow with large windows looking out at a quiet intersection. Blond wood tables are offset by exposed brick and a large fireplace in the rear takes the bite out of a cold winter night. The back bar is decorated with vintage photos of brewing as well as a few autographed pictures of football players, including one of Paul’s all-time favorites, Lou “The Toe” Grozza.
We found the beer line-up adventuresome and the menu varied and hearty. Here, too, there’s a large blackboard listing what’s on tap situated between the bar and open kitchen area. All in all, this is a place we’d like to see in our neighborhood.
The location that looked the least promising at first glance turned out to be our nicest surprise. The BREW Kettle Taproom & Smokehouse in Strongsville (8377 Pearl Road, near the intersection of the Ohio Turnpike and I-71) is located in a strip mall, next to a big box retailer. Hardly a place where you’d expect to find great beer.
We sat in our car just before opening time and, much to our surprise, watched the parking lot fill up and witnessed a race to the door. Crowds of locals rarely steer you wrong so we took our cue and followed—just in time to snag a seat at the bar for lunch.
The first thing you notice is the aroma of barbecue, prepared over a wood-fired oven. No wonder this place is popular. You can bring home pulled pork and homemade barbecue sauce, along with bomber bottles of great brew, and cover most of the major food groups.
The house brew is called Ringneck and it’s accompanied by a constantly changing guest ale collection. There’s another interesting twist, too. The BREW Kettle, which opened in 1995, is one of Ohio’s two brew-on-premises operations. That same year the Ringneck Brewery opened, with a three-barrel system. The taproom and smokehouse opened in 2003, and moved to its current location in 2007.
Don’t forget to check out the large collection of breweriana. We counted over 200 metal serving trays, most for beers that have gone to Brand Heaven, along with a large collection of bottles and growlers on display. There are also bottles of house beer available for sale at reasonable prices at the BOP operation in the back.
Eliot Ness Drank Here?
Finally, no Beer Traveler adventure to Cleveland would be complete without a stop at the Great Lakes Brewing Co. on the city’s near west side. The historic brewery complex is on a quiet street off busy Lorain Avenue. Established in 1988, GLBC became the state’s first microbrewery. Six year-round beers, plus seasonals, are now distributed into eight states beyond Ohio. Their flagship, a crisp lager called Dortmunder Gold, is one of our all time favorites.
Today the brewery (1947 West 28th Street) consists of six buildings, three of which originally served as horse stables and kegging facilities for the Schlather Brewing Co., built in 1878 and one of the 30 breweries that once thrived in the area. Visitors can view the two-story brewhouse behind glass and then visit the adjacent taproom.
The brewpub (2516 Market Avenue) is comprised of two buildings also rich with local history: The Market Tavern and MacClean’s Feed & Seed Company. It’s here where you can see GLBC’s original seven-barrel brewing equipment, not to mention the scale and cash register from the days gone-by supply store. The striking mahogany bar, the centerpiece of the taproom, is Cleveland’s oldest working bar. It’s from the original Market Tavern, which earned fame as a hangout for Eliot Ness and his Prohibition agents. In fact, those bullet holes are believed to have been the work of Ness himself.
All too soon, it was time to head home again. This time our drive north along I-75 was lively as we discussed the beers we sampled and compared the establishments we visited. It won’t be long before we make another “run for the border.”
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.