Exploring the Cleveland Beer Scene
Cleveland is enjoying some much-deserved love for its beer scene from the national media. Cleveland has popped up on all those popular “Best” lists when it comes to breweries. The community was No. 4 on GQ magazine’s ranking of “The 5 Best Beer Cities in America.” Thrillist Media Group and the travel website Matador.com ranked the city as the 12th- and 13th-best beer town in the United States, respectively. The USA Today travel section picked the Ohio City neighborhood as one of the “10 great places to bar-hop round the world.” Did you notice that last one mentioned the world? Just last month, Forbes Magazine recognized Cleveland as its Great Urban Escape Weekend with notable shoutouts to the craft beer scene.
And, of course, All About Beer Magazine chose the city to host one of its World Beer Festivals for the third year in a row.
Clevelanders know their craft beer, especially locally made beer. That’s because for years, Northeast Ohio—which includes the Cleveland and Akron metropolitan areas—was really the only craft beer scene in Ohio. There were more breweries here than in Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo combined. Those other cities have erased this inequity in recent years, and Ohio as a whole can now boast a vibrant and growing craft beer industry.
“Ohio is one of the most up-and-coming states as far as the best-made craft beer,” said Fred Karm, owner and brewmaster at Hoppin’ Frog Brewery in Akron. “We’re beginning to be recognized internationally. … We’re basically kicking ass in our own small way.”
Today, the state has more than 120 craft breweries, with a ton in various stages of planning. More than 30 call Northeast Ohio home. Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors even operate breweries in the state.
Within the last few years, Ohio has made it easier to launch a brewery. For example, new laws have eliminated separate licenses for opening tasting rooms and drastically reduced the cost of a brewing license for craft brewers making less than 1 million barrels a year.
The beer industry is an economic juggernaut for Ohio. The Beer Institute, in conjunction with the National Beer Wholesalers Association, estimated that beer contributes $10 billion a year directly and indirectly to the state economy. The industry employs nearly 83,000 people in the state and pays $1.9 billion a year in taxes.
Ohioans, apparently well aware of the importance to the state economy, are doing their part by drinking. They consume 22.2 gallons of beer a year, above the national average of 20.3 gallons.
But let’s get back to the local beer scene, which really began when Great Lakes Brewing Co. opened in Cleveland 27 years ago.
“When we opened in Ohio City in 1988, we were Ohio’s first craft brewery, and fortunately for us, we opened around a time when people were just starting to clamor for better products—not just beer, but artisan breads, cheeses and wines,” Great Lakes co-owner Pat Conway says. “People were no longer willing to settle for homogenized goods, and we felt we could offer a superior product locally. Import beers were popular in that time, but as the craft movement started to find its identity, people realized they could get products that were just as flavorful—and in some cases more flavorful—in their own backyard. The last brewery to brew a Dortmunder style in Cleveland was Leisy Brewing Co., which closed in 1923. We called our first beer, a Dortmunder style, The Heisman, which would later be renamed to Dortmunder Gold.
“Now, our city has numerous craft breweries and a number of bars and restaurants that offer an overwhelming selection of craft beer. We feel very closely connected to Cleveland, and we’re proud to have played a part in Cleveland’s development, in the realm of craft beer and beyond.”
Sam McNulty, one of the men behind McNulty’s Bier Markt, Market Garden and Nano Brew Cleveland, all situated in Cleveland’s fashionable Ohio City neighborhood, added: “What’s interesting to note is that this local craft beer boom is driven by Clevelanders voting with their pint glasses, asking the bartender: ‘What do you have local on draft?’ The people of Cleveland realize that the craft beer brewed around the corner is going to be far fresher and thus taste much better than the beer brewed across the country and pasteurized and filtered … so it can be shelf-stable for months to come.”
Any brewery list worth its weight in Dortmunder must start with Great Lakes Brewing. It is, after all, the oldest craft brewery in Ohio. It’s also the most recognizable Ohio brand for those living outside the state.
There’s a reason that Great Lakes is the most recognizable brand. It makes great beer. The brewery has won 12 medals at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Edmund Fitzgerald, a hearty porter at 5.8%, has won five of those medals, including three golds. Its name is a tip of the hat to the famous ship that sank in Lake Superior in 1975.
Great Lakes also makes what is arguably Ohio’s favorite holiday beer: Christmas Ale, a 7.5% classic made with honey, ginger and cinnamon.
“We are truly honored that we’ve been able to represent Northeast Ohio, and the entire state, for more than 25 years,” Conway said. “We’ve certainly embraced our role. Many of our beers are named after Cleveland icons and events, which is why so many people love our labels. Even in outside cities, people love hearing the stories of Eliot Ness and the Burning River.”
Great Lakes operates a production brewery and gorgeous brewpub in the city’s Ohio City neighborhood. Founders Pat and Daniel Conway have been tireless supporters of Cleveland and environmental causes. Each year, they hold the Burning River Fest, a beer and music festival that raises money for the Burning River Foundation and promotes freshwater resources. The Conways also helped turn around the Ohio City neighborhood, a once-gritty area that now serves one of the city’s hot nightlife spots with bars, restaurants and the historic West Side Market.
Literally around the corner from Great Lakes are the Market Garden Brewery, which also has started distilling its own spirits, and its sister location, Nano Brew Cleveland. Market Garden features a tasty brew for IPA lovers, Citramax, which is dry-hopped with Citra hops to give it an intense citrus flavor. As the name suggests, Nano Brew makes small batches of rotating beers.
Market Garden also is upgrading to a 35-barrel brewing system that will be housed in the former Culinary Arts Building and affectionately called the Palace of Fermentation.
And a few hundred feet away, on Lorain Avenue, Platform Beer Co. opened last summer along with a relocation of The Cleveland Brew Shop—a homebrew store in the Tremont neighborhood to space adjacent to the brewery. In addition to being a production brewery and tasting room, Platform also serves as an incubator for homebrewers looking to turn pro.
Hansa Import Haus, a Slovenian store, is building a brewery to produce recipes from European brewer Lasko, with a summer opening planned. And Earlybird Brewing Co., a nanobrewery near the borders of the Ohio City and Stockyards neighborhoods, is nearing completion. There are other nearby breweries, as well. The Portside Distillery on Front Avenue downtown makes not only its own craft beer, but also rum. The Brick and Barrel Brewery, a nano operation along the Cuyahoga River, has recently opened.
Over on the east side of downtown in AsiaTown, you can find Indigo Imp Brewery—one of the few breweries in Ohio doing open fermentation, which means wild yeast can splash around in the beer and give it unique flavors. That wild yeast imparts a different, Belgian character to beers like Blonde Bombshell and Jester, a robust porter.
And farther east, The Cleveland Brewery, which operates a nanobrewery out of a storefront on East 185th Street, just opened its tasting room with limited Friday hours to start.
The Butcher & The Brewer on East Fourth Street—the operation is connected to the Tremont Taphouse—opened last summer, and the Cleveland Playhouse renovated the revered Hermit Club arts organization into a shared performance and restaurant venue with the Hofbrauhaus that opened last September.
Meanwhile, on the west side, Buckeye Brewing Co. opened its tasting room, called the Tapstack, near its production brewery. Buckeye produces brands such as Hippie IPA and the seasonal Nighty Night in 22-ounce bottles. The brewery already operates the Lakewood-based Buckeye Beer Engine, which specializes in gourmet burgers and offers 30 beers on tap, including cask-conditioned ales, and another 100-plus bottles ranging from Aecht Schlenkerla Oak Smoke to Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The beer scene isn’t limited to the city itself. The Cleveland suburbs are filled with quality breweries.
Fat Head’s operates not only a brewpub in North Olmsted but also a production brewery in Middleburg Heights. (There are also a restaurant in Pittsburgh and a brewpub in Portland, Oregon.) The Fat Head name refers to the size of its sandwiches, which are called headwiches because they are, no joke, the size of your head.
In 2014, Fat Head’s won a gold medal at GABF for AlpenGlow in the German-Style Wheat Ale category. In 2013, Fat Head’s picked up three: a gold for its Hop JuJu, an imperial IPA; and silvers for Trail Head, a fresh-hopped pale ale, and Black Knight, a schwarzbier. The brewery also has won four medals at the World Beer Cup.
Brewer and co-owner Matt Cole has quickly distinguished himself as one of the top brewmasters in the country. Years ago, he always marveled at brewers who were able to win consistently at those large competitions.
“You wonder how the hell they do it,” Cole said after his World Beer Cup wins in 2014 about the perennial winners. “And now it’s kind of weird to be that guy. We’re making a name for ourselves, definitely on the West Coast, as far as hoppy beers go.”
Head Hunter IPA, a 7.5% hop bomb, is Fat Head’s most celebrated beer, picking up a silver and bronze at the GABF. Head Hunter also has twice won silver medals at the World Beer Cup, has twice won the West Coast IPA Festival and was twice named Grand Champion of the National IPA Challenge.
The Brew Kettle, a production brewery, brewpub and brew-on-premise operation (allowing people to come in and brew on professional equipment under the tutelage of a professional brewer) in Strongsville, is well-respected. Every brew-on-premise operation in Ohio looks to The Brew Kettle for inspiration and guidance. Its beer is award-winning, too. Red Eye PA, an imperial red, won a silver medal at the 2010 GABF, while Jack Hammer, a barley wine, won a bronze that same year. In 2014, El Lupulo Libre was crowned grand champion of the National Imperial IPA Championship, and just last month, the White Rajah IPA was crowned grand champion of a national blind taste test conducted by Paste Magazine.
Although the Willoughby Brewing Co. in Willoughby makes some tasty India pale ales, the brewpub is primarily known for one powerhouse brew. The Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter is infused with locally roasted coffee and features peanut butter and chocolate flavors. It’s a hit at any beer festival, and, apparently, a hit with judges—it won a gold medal in the specialty beer category at the 2014 World Beer Cup.
Black Box Brewing Co. in Westlake is a small production brewery with limited distribution. It produces some well-known Cleveland brands from years ago, such as Crooked River and Western Reserve. It also makes one of the most unusual beers in Ohio: Cucumber Belgian White Wheat, a brew with a distinctive cucumber flavor.
Other suburban breweries include Little Mountain Brewing Co. in Mentor, Rocky River Brewing Co. in Rocky River, the BottleHouse Brewery in Cleveland Heights, Lager Heads Brewing Co. in Medina, Chardon BrewWorks in Chardon, Main Street Grille and Brewing Co. in Garrettsville, the JAFB Wooster Brewery in Wooster, Cornerstone Brewing in Berea, Rust Belt Brewing Co. in Youngstown, Edbin Brewing Co. in Elyria, Franklin Brewing Co. in Elyria, and The Brew Mentor in Mentor. Granite City Food & Brewery, a chain that doesn’t brew on premise, opened last year in Legacy Village in Lyndhurst.
Any mention of Northeast Ohio must include Hoppin’ Frog Brewery in Akron. Opened in 2006 in a tiny industrial park across the street from the massive Akron Airdock blimp hangar, Hoppin’ Frog makes some of the biggest and boldest beer in the country. Owner and brewmaster Fred Karm has won five medals at the GABF, including two golds for his B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher Oatmeal-Imperial Stout. His Barrel-Aged B.O.R.I.S. picked up a bronze last year.
Hoppin’ Frog’s beers are available in 15 countries, and foreign sales make up 10 percent of its business. For years, Hoppin’ Frog sold its beer only in 22-ounce bottles. But Karm has since branched out into draft—and to the delight of beer fans everywhere—opened a tasting room and restaurant at the brewery last year.
If you’re really into the ambience of breweries, Thirsty Dog Brewing in Akron offers a rare experience. The brewery operates inside the former Burkhardt Brewing Co.—an Akron brand that disappeared in the 1960s. Thirsty Dog, the third-largest craft brewery in Ohio after Boston Beer Co. in Cincinnati and Great Lakes, opened a tasting room a couple of years ago that immerses people into the working brewery. You can sit at the bar and watch as a forklift passes by. There’s no glass partition, or any barriers for that matter, separating you from the brewery. Thirsty Dog has won nine medals at the GABF, with Siberian Night, an imperial stout, picking up a gold and two bronze medals, and Hoppus Maximus winning two bronze awards.
Its Barrel Aged Siberian Night won a bronze medal at last year’s World Beer Cup.
Other small operations in the Akron area are: MadCap Brew Co. in Stow, Trailhead Brewery in Akron, Mucky Duck Brewing in Green and Meniru Meadery & Brewery in Jackson Township. In addition, Aqueduct Brewing Co. opened last October and houses its nanobrewery in the same complex as Thirsty Dog. Scenic Brewing Co. has announced plans to open in Jackson Township, and Spider Monkey Brewing Co., which is now made on contract at Black Box, is scouting locations for its own brewery in North Canton or Kent.
Cellar Rats Brewery in Madison—a mere 44 miles from downtown Cleveland on the city’s far east side—is a rarity and enjoyable trip for those couples with one beer lover and one wine lover. The brewery is on the grounds of Debonne Vineyards and was the first estate winery-brewery in Ohio. The Debevc family, which runs the winery, thought it would expand its clientele by launching a brewery. It worked, and now Cellar Rats and Debonne routinely attract both beer and wine drinkers. The brewery also has launched The Hop View Brewing Co. to produce beers on contract, such as Bernie Beer, a brown ale that bears the name of former Browns quarterback and Cleveland legend Bernie Kosar.
If you’re not interested in stopping at brewpub or brewery tasting rooms, Cleveland offers some other great beer options:
Winking Lizard Tavern
The Winking Lizard Tavern chain offers hundreds of beers at locations throughout Northeast and Central Ohio. The Bedford Heights-based chain also is home to the World Tour of Beers, a competition of sorts that rewards its customers for consuming more than 100 pre-selected craft and imported beers within a calendar year. Its beer guru is no slouch. Co-owner John Lane has been inducted into the le Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs by the Belgian Brewers guild and the Mashstaff of the Knights in Belgium for his years of promoting Belgian beers. John has applied his expertise to Lizardville, a bottle shop with two locations that features rotating drafts.
McNulty’s Bier Markt
McNulty’s Bier Markt is in the middle of the Ohio City brewery scene. Across the street from Market Garden, down the street from Nano Brew and around the corner from Great Lakes, the Bier Markt was serving Belgian beers before serving Belgian beers was hip. It features more than 100 beers and 30 rotating drafts.
Rozi’s Wine House
Forget the “Wine House” part of the name. Rozi’s, located in Lakewood, knows beer. The shop not only offers an impressive selection of craft beer in bottles and cans, but it also has a top-notch draft beer selection, allowing people to buy growlers to go. And how could you go wrong with a shop that sells “Cleveland’s 24-pack Micro-Brew,” a mix sampler of the best beers that Cleveland has to offer.
The Tremont Taphouse, as mentioned earlier, is located in the Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. It offers more than 80 bottled beers and nearly 50 rotating beers on draft, including many Cleveland favorites, such as Fat Head’s, The Brew Kettle and Great Lakes.
The Wine Spot
The Wine Spot in Cleveland Heights offers upward of 300 craft beers, including 12 on tap and in growlers. People can take beer to go—and you’re able to buy singles—or drink it there. The Wine Spot also doubles as The Art Spot, a student-run gallery for the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Rick Armon is a staff writer at the Akron Beacon Journal, the author of Ohio Breweries and a beer news blogger. Follow him on Twitter
This article appears in the World Beer Festival-Cleveland Beer Guide. The festival is produced by All About Beer Magazine. Click here to buy tickets.