Cincinnati's German heritage once meant the city was home to hundreds of breweries. Those glory days have long since faded, but beer lovers still can find local, handcrafted brews that offer flavor and personality. This week we explore three microbreweries for tips on what to drink and eat.
BarrelHouse Brewing Co.
22 E. 12th St., Over-the-Rhine 513-421-2337
In the words of the great Homer Simpson: "Mmm, beer. What can't it do?!" Since Homer and my husband share many of the same qualities, including appreciation for a good beer, I've sampled many local brews, but always come back to the best at the BarrelHouse.
Although its location at 12th and Jackson streets places it a bit off the beaten path of the clubs along Main Street, the BarrelHouse has built a loyal following. Even after last year's riots and the subsequent downturn in many Over-the-Rhine businesses, folks still turn out for two reasons: live music and excellent beer.
Brewmaster Rick DeBar has developed many award-winning brews utilizing only the purest methods, as dictated by the Reinheits-gebot, the German beer purity law, stating that only water, malted grain, hops and yeast can be used in the brewing process. My favorite is the Hocking Hills Hefeweizen, a traditional unfiltered German Weisse beer, with hints of banana and vanilla. Homer would give the RedLegg Ale a big complimentary belch, too.
Seasonal brews, like the sweet Summer Strawberry Ale or the dark, spicy Belgian Winter Ale, grace the menu depending on the time of year.
Although the menu has changed somewhat over the years, pub grub favorites are still standard. The fare is better than average bar food, but not the quality you'll find at other local brewpubs. For a safe bet, stick with the gourmet pizzas BBQ Chicken Pizza ($8.99) or the Mediterranean Pizza ($8.99), topped with garlic pesto, spinach, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, black olives, mushrooms and onion, parmesan, mozzarella and feta cheeses. Salads are usually a dry mix (although dressed-up well with parmesan cheese and sliced Romas), and build-your-own pizzas lack flavor. Vegetarian choices include several pizzas, calzones or quesadillas.
Live local and regional musical acts pack the bar every weekend (and some weeknights), often for a cover under $5. The place does get crowded and loud once the bands begin. If you're coming strictly for the beer or a bite to eat, settle in before 8 or 9 p.m. on the weekends, or try an off night during the week.
Keep in mind, even though the food menu is extensive, the beer menu is the real draw. Don't let the average food and service overshadow the superior quality of the brew.
Gallon "growlers" are available to go — as are quarter- and half-barrels, for that matter. — Annie McManis
Rock Bottom Brewery
10 Fountain Square, Downtown 513-621-1588
A few years back on a trip to Denver, I discovered a microbrewery and bought their T-shirt declaring: "You haven't hit Denver until you've hit Rock Bottom." I liked the casual atmosphere of that microbrewery; when one opened on Fountain Square — "the country's leading restaurant brewery group" operates 30 of them altogether — I was glad to have the local option. I still feel that way.
Rock Bottom offers an array of handcrafted brews for every taste: Cincinnati American Light (a bright lager appealing to beer drinkers accustomed to American mass-produced brands), White Tiger Wheat (an unfiltered brew with a lot of fizz, a bit on the sweet side, which many women enjoy), Raccoon Red (very smooth, with lots of malt and a vibrant red color), Crosley Field Pale Ale (a hoppy amber with a citrus flavor and a strong finish), Brown Bear Brown (lots of malt and body, and a whisper of bitter hops) and the seasonal "Brewmaster's Choice" (currently a Dry Irish Stout, but about to change). A glass of any of these is $3.50.
The best approach to experiencing these mind-boggling choices (and your mind could be boggled) is the sampler ($5.75) — six small glasses, about three swallows each. The night I dropped in with a friend who's a self-confessed beer snob, we got the bonus of two limited-run beers, a smooth Honey Porter and a dark Dunkel Lager.
I find Rock Bottom's products a bit tame compared to other local microbrewers. That's likely the result of some standardization by a national group. But as the brew names imply, attention is given to local tastes and preferences.
On the flip side, Rock Bottom's menu is excellent and reasonably priced, especially for the clubby downtown location with lots of wooden booths, brass and dark, rich decor. Service is pleasant, too: In fact, we had a server whose name is "Amber" — how appropriate in a microbrewery.
We had Asiago Cheese Dip ($6.95) with our samplers: The hot spread has sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and scallions. It's served with a chewy, thin-sliced beer-bread. The menu offers many entrée choices, but simple fare always seems the best accompaniment to a beer. To go with my favorite brown ale, I chose a Hickory Burger ($8.95) on a wheat bun (a bit dry), the juicy patty was embellished with melted Cheddar, bacon and a barbecue sauce made with Rock Bottom's stout. It comes with fries and a sweet Brewery slaw that balances the heartier flavors. My friend washed down his "individual" Pepperoni and Sausage Pizza ($8.50) with a pale ale. Unable to finish the meal, he noted that a pizza would be plenty for two people who had shared an appetizer.
The bottom line: Hitting Rock Bottom is a good thing. — Rick Pender
Watson Brothers Brewery and Bistro
4785 Lake Forrest Drive, Blue Ash
Packed with Blue Ash happy hour patrons when my brother and I dashed in from a summer storm, the atmosphere in Watson Brothers Brewery and Bistro made it easy to forget we weren't downtown, but 12 miles north. The massive space is visually centered under a high vaulted ceiling before a glass encasement displaying the 14-barrel brewery. Rustic but polished, copper-topped bars and dark wood are punctuated by sleek modern lighting and photographs of the locally famed 1920s aviators, the Watson brothers. Our service was upbeat and timely, although a neighboring booth received their entrées before their appetizer.
In belated celebration of my brother's 21st birthday, we made a scientific endeavor of the Microbrew Sampler ($5.95). He thumbs-upped everything but the award-winning pale ale, declaring the metallic tinge and bitter aftertaste typical of pale ales. He ordered a pint ($3.50) of the light, hoppy Woody's American Wheat, and I chose the crisp, chocolate-noted Toby's New Zealand Black Ale.
The menu has two sides: casual but trendy pub fare and upscale bistro entrées. Pub offerings include Mandarin Chicken Salad ($9), Mashed Potato Pizza ($10) and Baton Rouge Wrapper ($9) with blackened chicken and chipotle mayonnaise. Bistro specialties include House Smoked Ribs ($18) and Teriyaki Salmon ($17). The most eye-catching vegetarian option is the Grilled Portabella Sandwich ($9) with Romaine lettuce and Caesar dressing on corn polenta bread.
The highlight of our meal was the Tempura Popcorn Shrimp ($10), on our pig-tailed server's list of favorites. The plump rock shrimp arrived still steaming in their light, flash-fried tempura shells alongside a creamy Serachi chili sauce.
Our entrées were good, but not worth the splurge. My brother's 12 oz. pepper-encrusted Strip Steak ($19) was cooked beyond medium-rare, although the smoked bacon gorgonzola butter on top was a hit. My Seafood Fra Diablo ($19) pasta had textural issues. The sea scallops were tender, but the mussels and crab had that stringy, overcooked meatiness. The fiery Diablo marinara left a delightful tingling on the lips, but it tended to either clump to the linguine noodles or puddle beneath them.
Having only skimmed the menu, we were too stuffed for my brother's favorite, New York Cheesecake ($6). On a return visit, I'd stick with the reasonably priced pub menu. — Emily Lieb