All the Right Notes

Cleveland shakes off its blue-collar tastes to become a craft beer mecca — more or less

With the work day circling the drain, the barstools are quickly filling up at Fat Head's, an award-winning brewpub in North Olmsted. Brewmaster Matt Cole is standing behind the bar, leaning against a row of more than a dozen taps, swishing a gulp of beer around his mouth.

On the other side of counter, Paul Shick — a longtime beer aficionado and past president of the Society of Northeast Ohio Brewers — is sipping the same brew, the pub's Battle Axe Baltic Porter. Last year, Cole shipped some of this particular batch off to the Great American Beer Festival, the preeminent contest for brewing bragging rights in the country. It scored a gold medal.

After a minute, the two begin volleying insider lingo back and forth about the beer's taste, its malts, hops, shades, hints, and subtle suggestions — all the nuances that rush past the untrained tongue on the trip down. Shick nods in approval, a knowing craftsman admiring another guy's work. "I always love the opportunity to get together to talk beer," he says.

At the moment, a lot of people are talking beer in Cleveland, and not the usual slurred bartstool plea for anouther Milla Liight puleeez. Instead, you're more likely to hear the finer points of brew culture being discussed.

"People want variety and creativity," Cole says, his eyes roaming the list of Fat Head's' offerings on the wall. "We struggle to keep up."

Craft beer in Northeast Ohio is grooving in a full-blown renaissance. Ohio currently has 70 licensed craft breweries. Cleveland Beer Week, now in its fourth year, has quickly become one of the top destination brew festivals in the nation. And it seems like a new brewpub opens on West 25th St. in Ohio City every other week.

Last month, the scene's arrival became official when GQ magazine rubber-stamped Cleveland as one of the "5 Best Beer Cities in America." We shared the podium space with trendy no-brainers like Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

But all this seems rather odd for a spot on the Rust Belt that's historically kept it simple at the bar. Not long ago, if a drinker so much as whispered the word "hefeweizen" in a local watering hole, he'd likely be chased from the premises by an angry pack of factory workers wielding just-weaponized Schlitz bottles.

How did Cleveland go from shot-and-beer simplicity to GQ gourmet?

The seeds for the current scene were planted long ago. Many of the big names in the local brewerati started out cooking up their own concoctions at home.

"It had been my hobby for about 10 years, then in 1995 we opened our business," says Brew Kettle owner Chris McKim. The idea was a logical extension of the home-brewing world: McKim invited interested patrons to come on-site and make their own beer. But even in those early days, the ambitions among the customer base stayed close to earth.

"For the first four or five years, everybody that came in wanted to make something that tasted like Budweiser," McKim recalls. "Now they all come in wanting a Scottish ale or a super-hopped IPA or an imperial stout or a spice winter warmer. The people we're drawing have really jumped on the bandwagon. They're enjoying the craft that's out there."

General consensus holds that the wheels on the craft beer bandwagon first started rolling nationally in the mid-'90s. Locally, the momentum was based on two factors: One, early shops like Great Lakes Brewery, which opened in 1988, showed Clevelanders that they could put their thirst to bed with something other than the usual American mega-brands. Two, local bars like the Winking Lizard started connecting their taps to kegs of craft beers from around the world, offering a new global perspective. The latter was due to the fact that Ohio was singularly well-positioned to get craft products.

"In most states you might have only two distributors: one that they call the 'red' distributor, or Anheuser-Busch, and the Miller/Coors 'silver/blue' network," explains Winking Lizard co-owner John Lane. "Here you have three other independent beer distributors, and two of them only sell craft beer."

Columbus-based Premium Beverage Supply and Cincinnati-based Cavalier Distributing offer more than just a choice of distributors. "Their focus is totally on craft, whereas when you're in a big house, the smaller breweries don't get any attention," Lane says.

Over the last decade, beer culture has mimicked the moves of its sober older sibling, the foodie world. When the beer drinkers' budding familiarity with world craft was spliced together with the foodies' emphasis on expanded palette, the basic DNA of the modern beer geek was born. Locally, longtime brewers saw a change in their clients — drinkers came with well-informed questions and more sophisticated tastes.

"One example I always cite is our Burning River pale ale," explains Great Lakes brewmaster Luke Purcell, who's been working at the brewery since 1996. "It's still the same as we've always made it, a 45 IBU American pale. It used to be considered a pretty aggressively hopped beer. Now ours is almost considered mild on the hop front."

But in recent years, the foodie obsession that's most impacted the beer world is the emphasis on local. Drinkers today not only want craft beers, but local craft beers; and not just local craft beers, but local craft beers made with local ingredients.

"Just about everything we buy for the brewery we get as close as we can," says Thirsty Dog Brewing's John Nageway. "Our pumpkin ale, which is the last one on the market, was released last week. But we grow all the pumpkins in Randolph, Ohio on my farm."

Despite the amount of high-quality local beer flooding the market, brewers still face challenges. The big question is how to move a product out beyond its home base brewpub. Historically, supermarket and restaurant chains haven't exactly opened their arms to local brews (although perhaps in a harbinger of things to come, Heinen's stores now sell growlers of local craft beers poured from on-site taps). Even some Cleveland restaurants have yet to embrace the local brews — at their own risk.

"What I would like to see the bar owners do in Cleveland is support local beer, as long as it's kick-ass beer," says Buckeye Brewing owner Garin Wright. "If it sucks, don't do it. But if you have the option of putting on a killer Ohio or Cleveland beer as opposed to a beer from California, I've got to ask that bar owner: What the fuck are you doing putting a California beer in there?"

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