A quick history lesson: William Howard Taft was the 27th president of the United States and died 85 years ago. He was the only president to also serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was the heaviest president and the only president born in Cincinnati.
Having obtained all of those superlatives, Big Billy, as he’s sometimes called, deserves a shrine dedicated to his accomplishments — and he now has one in the form of Over-the-Rhine brewpub Taft’s Ale House, which opened its doors on Reds’ Opening Day.
The multi-story 1850s-era St. Paul’s German Evangelical Protestant Church in which the brewpub is housed had its last service in 1984 and until the late ’90s partially operated as a drug store. Current partners/owners Dave Williams, Dave Kassling and Kevin Moreland signed the lease in November 2013, and after about $7 million in renovations, the church lives again.
“I’m really proud of what we did with this building,” Williams says, staring up at the 46-foot vaulted ceilings.
Black-and-white Taft photos and memorabilia are scattered throughout the three levels of the 13,000-square-foot space. There are beer hall-style communal picnic tables on the first floor, a speakeasy-type lounge named Nellie’s (after Taft’s wife) in the basement, a more intimate dining area on the mezzanine and a 6,000-barrels-per-year brewery, run by brewmaster Moreland.
The three partners, who are from different backgrounds, age groups and live in different cities, came together a few years ago when Williams, a University of Cincinnati graduate who now lives in Pittsburgh, met Moreland, a Cincy native, through the local brewing scene. Moreland was working at Listermann Brewing Co., where he founded their Triple Digit brand.
“I got to know him,” Williams says. “He said, ‘We gotta build a brewpub.’ My first reaction was, ‘There’s no way I want to do that.’ ”
Dave Kassling was a family fried of Williams, and because Kassling had started a small chain of successful restaurants in New York City called Tri Tip Grill, Williams brought him into the fold.
“In Cincinnati, there’s the Taft Museum, there’s the Taft Theatre, there’s Taft Road — there’s all these very serious things about Taft,” Kassling says. “Well, we wanted to do something that was a little bit more fun, that took the fun side of him but also still paid respect to him.”
The menu, beer and décor — which features specially made Rookwood tiles modeled after tiles found in Taft’s childhood home in Mount Auburn — separate Taft’s from anything else currently in town. The menu is influenced by Kassling’s NYC eateries, with meat platters, salads and sandwiches that focus on tri-tip beef — similar to prime rib. The restaurant ages the meat, rubs it, chars it, smokes it over hickory-wood chips and then finishes it in the oven. And Moreland and his team have crafted some of the best beers in the city to complement the menu.
“You gotta be unique,” Moreland says. “You can’t think you can brew IPA and lager and just think people are going to wow over it. I just want to be creative.”
So far he’s succeeding: His Mooly Wooly Coffee Milk Stout is made with rotating Coffee Emporium beans and tastes like breakfast. The brewery uses Findlay Market’s Maverick chocolate in its Maverick Chocolate Porter, which tastes like an actual chocolate melted in your mouth.
Their key lime beer was inspired by Moreland’s avid vacationing in the Caribbean and reminds you of the tropics.
“It starts with being simple first,” Moreland says. “Achieve what you want to achieve out of each beer. So if you want to make a chocolate beer, make the focus on that chocolate. If you want to make a coffee beer, make the focus on coffee. Don’t muddle it up.”
Taft plans to have three beers permanently on draft, rotating in others, including the soon-to-tap City Flea Summer Session Pale Ale — which will be sold in Washington Park during City Flea markets — and a German Dortmunder lager.
They’re going to market their beers to other OTR locales, and eventually they want to take the brand national.
“I believe this to be the most special brewpub in the country,” Kassling says.
It’s unclear whether Taft was a big drinker, but the guys think he would’ve loved the place. And just in case he haunts the building, they had a priest stop by on Opening Day to “bless the beers.”
“He haunts it with good spirits,” Kassling says.
Taft’s Ale House,1429 Race St., Over-the-Rhine, taftsalehouse.com