For a strapping lad like me, beer is the alcohol of choice with my meal. As for wine, well, I’ve never had much of a nose for it, typically only imbibing the beverage in Europe, where it’s omnipresent.
There are several types of beer my palate gravitates toward: hoppy IPAs; piney lagers; or especially dark, chocolatey, thick stouts, the murky depths of which the sun never penetrates — the kind of beer car pistons would happily accept to lubricate themselves against the combustive forces propelling them up and down their cylindrical housings.
My seemingly testosterone-fueled penchant for beer over wine is likely no coincidence: Studies show higher estrogen levels, particularly during ovulation and pregnancy, correlate to a keener sense of smell. So while my non-ovulating, non-pregnant self can most definitely appreciate the bold differences among IPAs, lagers and stouts, women are more biologically predisposed to detecting wine’s finer, subtler distinctions. It’s but one reason why men are, according to one Gallup poll, predominantly beer drinkers, while women largely prefer wine.
Still, any brewer worth his or her noble hops will tell you the world of beer is at least as rich with variety and complexity, equally worthy of thoughtful pairings to both complement and elevate delicious cuisine. And for beer fans, Cincinnati couldn’t be a more perfect venue for exploring those pairings.
Several notable restaurants in town are as serious about their beer as they are their food. Not surprisingly, many of them pay homage to Cincinnati’s rich beer history, tragically cut short by the dark specter of Prohibition. These restaurants mark a resurgent interest in and reverence of the city’s beer brewing heritage.
The freshly-opened BrewRiver Gastropub, located on Riverside Drive in the East End, is a perfect example. Chef Michael Shields, who co-owns the restaurant along with partners Joby Bowman and Christian Babani, firmly places craft beer at the forefront of his menu.
But BrewRiver doesn’t stop there. Each menu item, from appetizers and entrees to salads and desserts, is accompanied by a suggested beer (and wine) pairing. Hardcore beer aficionados will be pleased to find Alcohol By Volume (ABV) and International Bitterness Unit (IBU) statistics listed for each of BrewRiver’s house drafts, all prepared to the restaurant’s specifications by Great Crescent Brewery in Aurora, Ind.
Guest drafts, bottles and canned craft beers are also available, including those from Cincinnati-area brewers like Rivertown and Mt. Carmel. Cincinnati native Jim Koch, whose Boston Beer Company brews nearly half its Samuel Adams line from its facility abutting Over-the-Rhine, may be sad to find his beer conspicuously absent from the list, as is the popular Christian Moerlein line of beers. In fact, you won’t find much nationally mass-produced product in BrewRiver’s lineup; they’ve instead opted to focus almost entirely on smaller craft beers.
Patrons are encouraged to pair a large plate of BrewRiver’s wickedly addictive Curried Beef Short Rib Poutine with one the gastropub’s selections of wheat or sour beers. The poutine is a foundation of crisp hand-cut fries topped with a Thai green curry beef short rib gravy, riddled with pockets of melting cheese curds. A recommended bottle of Petrus Aged Sour Pale ($20) is a pricey but equally naughty brew of assertive tartness, and with a 7.3 percent ABV, it will easily highlight the poutine’s Thai curry heat.
BrewRiver’s prominent New Orleans-inspired menu selections mirror Chef Shields’ years under the tutelage of Chef Emeril Lagasse. Flavors from their Sriracha aioli-laced Oyster Po’ boys and Genoa salami and Mortadella-stuffed Muffalettas are drawn out through the aid of BrewRiver’s hoppy Calliope IPA and Island Queen Blonde Ale draughts.
Three miles west along the riverbank sets the gleaming new Moerlein Lager House, a spectacularly designed restaurant and microbrewery at the Banks promoting the revived, historic Christian Moerlein Brewing Company’s line of beers. Moerlein was the first American beer to pass the stringent Bavarian Purity Law known as “Reinheitsgebot,” requiring that the original brew contain only four ingredients: hops, barley, yeast and water.
The restaurant complements Moerlein’s extensive list of house and guest drafts, bottled beers and wines with a hearty menu appropriately peppered with both German-themed and beer-infused dishes. The menu seems carefully designed to enhance one’s craving for beer, employing intense, often meaty, rich, salty flavors.
Moerlein’s “Cincinnati Sausage Originals” offers a selection of gorgeous bratwursts, metts, franks and smoked sausages, all handmade by Avril-Bleh & Sons, the renowned downtown German business predating Prohibition’s Volstead Act by a quarter of a century.
Suggested beer pairings are available, but our favorite was Moerlein’s Over-the-Rhine Ale, with a crisp, easy versatility worth drinking with nearly everything on the Lager House menu. Try it with the moist, superbly roasted and herb-intensive rotisserie Beer Can Chicken Melt or the Hops Smoked Pork Belly with marinated mushrooms, resting on a bed of eggy spaetzle and served with tangy, creamed Brussels sprouts.
Our final beer-and-food pick, Wunderbar!, is located across the river in Covington. Only six months old, this cozy authentic German eatery headed by Marshall Mann desires nothing more than to serve house-made sausages, slow-marinated Sauerbraten, crispy veal and chicken schnitzel and other German classics alongside a healthy selection of German and local craft beer.
Wunderbar’s gigantic “Riesen Brezel” puts the “P” in pretzel, a head-turning, doughy behemoth easily accommodating up to three or four people, served warm on a plate with several bold, house-made mustards.
Visitors can pair Wunderbar’s delicious German comfort food with either a 12- or 25-ounce mug of a featured draft. Beers frequently on tap include the light and malty Christian Moerlein Exposition Vienna Lager, Warsteiner, Hudepohl Amber Lager and Bluegrass Bourbon Barrel Stout. Einbecker Dunkel and Weihenstephaner are notably popular bottled options.
Wunderbar!, BrewRiver Gastropub and Moerlein Lager House are among a growing number of restaurants leading the charge in Cincinnati’s renascent craft beer movement, carefully pairing quality cuisine with satisfying brews.
BrewRiver Gastropub, 2062 Riverside Dr., East End, brewrivergastropub.com
Moerlein Lager House, 115 Joe Nuxhall Way, The Banks, moerleinlagerhouse.com
Wunderbar!, 1332 Lee St., Covington, facebook.com/WunderbarCovington