Good Beer Hunting


As Ohio Goes, so Goes the Nation — Columbus Edition

Columbus is the largest consumer test market in the United States. Its mix of diversity — age, wealth, ethnicity, beliefs — make it the perfect place to see how the newest square-pattied burger will fare or which seasonal latte flavor holds the most promise. The wants and whims of nearly 2,000,000 Columbus-area residents have long determined which products are ready for the national stage and which ones die in the R&D lab.

Until recently, however, denizens of the capital city had little choice in their local beer experience. Aside from the Anheuser-Busch facility located along the outer belt, there were only three breweries in town. Columbus Brewing Company, the longest running of the bunch, has been producing a bevy of great hop-forward beers since 1988. Barley’s Brewing Company came online in 1992, and offers a wide variety of good beer, largely brewed to style. And Elevator Brewing Company, founded in 1999, distributes well-loved six packs statewide.

For a very long time, Columbus was a drastically underserved market. But starting in 2012, the city saw a rash of new breweries open, each profiting off the buzz built by its predecessors. Now, there are 18 in operation and a handful in planning, each hoping to capitalize on the Capital City’s growing thirst for local beer.

Two of those 18 have distanced themselves from the pack by taking radically different paths to get where they are today — on the brink of expansion into larger spaces and larger responsibilities, both to themselves and to the city they serve.

Hoof Hearted Brewing (say it fast) began “dabbling in the dank and dark arts” in May of 2012, at the beginning of the new brewery rush. The homespun operation, a brainchild of Trevor Williams and brothers Jarrod and Ryan Bichon, has been churning out small batches of Columbus’ most sought-after hopped-up and black-as-sin beers ever since.

Their 3-vessel, 7-barrel brewhouse — custom built from scratch by Jarrod — resides in what would best be described as a farmland shrine to hair metal and wizardry. Hidden in the maze of crops, barns, dirt roads, and livestock that is Marengo, Ohio, Hoof Hearted isn’t technically within the city limits. They’re about 30 minutes northeast of downtown, but they self-distribute 100% of their beer to the Columbus market.

We technically have the same address as the house up front, so they get a lot of yeast and hop deliveries up there.

Located in an outbuilding behind a large house, their space is roughly 800 square feet, filled to the brim, and nearly impossible to find without GPS. Even the local mail carriers have trouble. Trevor explained, “We technically have the same address as the house up front, so they get a lot of yeast and hop deliveries up there.” Luckily, the homeowner has worked out a system to ensure nothing sits on the porch too long, and, in exchange, the guys keep him stocked with fresh beer.

But remoteness has its benefits, too. Once the dust clears from navigating the dirt and gravel entry, the surroundings are serene. Hemmed in by a lush field, itself edged with trees, their lot represents the idyllic countryside Midwesterners come to miss after they move away. It’s a place for Trevor, Jarrod, and Ryan to get away and focus on flavor, which is useful. As the three explained, “We’re all working other jobs.” “Plus we all have multiple kids.” “It’s nights and weekends only.” And no matter the hour, they rarely have to worry about visitors or curious passersby, other than the occasional  feral dog or ornery raccoon, which means they can blast Van Halen or Iron Maiden whenever they please.

That music, and the sci-fi/fantasy worlds adorning the brewery walls, have shaped the personality of the guys, and, in turn, the vibe of the beer. With names like Wängbär, South of Eleven, and their flagship, Musk of the Minotaur, Hoof Hearted have set themselves apart creatively from everybody else in town. “I want to make the most killer beer ever, but it’s also beer. If we can add some nonsense to somebody’s night with our oddball personality, that’s great. I just can’t imagine trying to be super legit, with a super-classy package and some esoteric name for an IPA,” Trevor said.

Even though the names might not be “super legit,” the beer is. Over the last three years, the guys have become the de facto David Lee Roth of dry-hopping. Musk of the Minotaur is a perfect example. The IPA features an evergreen malt bill, augmented by an outlandish amount of ever-changing hop additions and dry-hop doses. One month might yield a dank, pine forest finish from Tomahawk, while the next goes down like fresh-cut cantaloupe thanks to Cashmere.

Explaining the non-traditional approach to their flagship beer, Jarrod said, “When most people go out to a bar, they want to try different things. As long as it’s enjoyable, it doesn’t have to be 100% consistent.” Trevor added, “The dry hop is just so much fun to play around with. The flavors you can get. And there’s so many different hops right now. Everyone is clamoring for Mosaic and Citra, but there’s so much other shit out there.”

The experiment is clearly working. Whenever a new version of Musk is tapped, it’s not long for this world. Folks flock to the bars that put it on because they want to try the newest iteration, and they never know when, or if, it will be available again.

Despite the demand, Hoof Hearted is selective about where they sell their beer. Part of the reason is practicality. Trevor delivers almost every single keg himself, to nearly 73 accounts. But part of the reason is personality. As he said, “We only want to sell our beer to the places we’d want to drink it in.” So that means arcade-themed bars, hippie pizza joints, and independent music venues; places almost as far off the beaten path as the brewery itself.

From their remote outpost, the guys have implemented a measured expansion plan. “We’ve been really cautious about growth compared to a lot of other places in town. But we never really saw ourselves being a huge brewery. Getting huge would take away a bit of the nostalgia,” Trevor said.

When pressed about their place in a growing market, he mentioned the benefit a head-start can make and how much can change in just a few years. “We were fortunate we were so early to market; it was pretty easy to get good placement. But the rising tide thing is definitely true here. In 2012, all these bars reserved one handle for local beer. Now, with all the new places in town, that’s flipped on its head.”

Despite the rapidly changing local landscape, Hoof Hearted has grown slowly but steadily through its loyalty to long-standing accounts and by cultivating an ardent fan base with adventurous palates. They’ve grown smart, and they’re about to embark on their first expansion. “I bought a building not far from here. Closer to the freeway, right behind a Lion’s Den. It’s absolutely perfect for us,” Jarrod pointed out.

I want to make the most killer beer ever, but it’s also beer. If we can add some nonsense to somebody’s night with our oddball personality, that’s great.

The new space is 3,200 square feet — quadruple the size of their current building — and houses a 15-barrel brewhouse custom-made by Tig Pro out of Maine. On the fermentation side, they’re upgrading to three 30-barrel fermenters, in addition to bringing along their three 7-barrel tanks. Additionally, the new outfit will allow room for something Hoof Hearted has never had before — a tasting room.

The gang is excited to finally invite their customers to experience Hoof Hearted in all its glory, on-site, with all the music, artwork, and shenanigans. But on the flip side, they’re planning to make strides outwardly as well, by packaging a few beers. They’ve scheduled time to can near the end of June with a statewide mobile outfit, Buckeye Canning.

With that in mind, Trevor, Jarrod, and Ryan brewed their pilot batch at the new facility just last week. Within two months, they’ll have canned beer on shelves around town, and a couple of the guys will be working at the brewery full-time. All dreams just a couple years ago.

Over that time, Hoof Hearted has gone about things their own way. From hand-loading spent grains on a tractor to feed their own livestock, to commissioning irreverent art from childhood friend and local legend Thom Lessner, to releasing a farmhouse IPA inspired by Tupac, they’re unique. In a growing market, they stand out — for the quality of their beer and their off-the-wall personality. Among some of their more aggressive peers, they are proof positive that slow and steady still has a place in this rapidly expanding industry.

Two years ago, Seventh Son Brewing Company came online with roughly the system Hoof Hearted is growing into now — a 15-barrel brewhouse, a bunch of tanks, plans to package, and a taproom. Since that time, their output and acclaim has grown by leaps and bounds. At every opportunity, they’ve traded out 15-barrel tanks for 30-barrels, to the point that they are now completely out of space. As an example of just how maxed out they are: they need to move their forklift outside on brew days just to have some space to breathe.

The brewing team that manages those tight quarters is made up of Colin Vent, who comes  from a culinary background with a focus on unique flavors, and Max Lachowyn who has a technical-focused brewing background (Max has since left Seventh Son in order to start his own brewery.) The two make a wonderful complement. Colin explained, “For me, it’s about aesthetics. How do I make a new taste?” Max countered, “With me, there’s always an opportunity for a new personal challenge. I can always find something to do a little bit better than I did yesterday.” But they both agree, when it really comes down to it, it’s all about the people.

Max spoke for them both when he said, “It’s about being able to share our own creations. It’s about challenging ourselves but also our customers. Pushing their palates. Helping them to understand what they’re tasting.” Which is hugely important as young as the Columbus market is. Lots of people are experiencing certain styles for the first time, and having educated consumers is integral to overall growth within the region.

“Columbus just didn’t have anything for a long time,” Colin noted. “Only lately has the market started to demand quality.” For a while, people would drink anything just because it was local. But now, as drinkers start to become more educated and selective, being local won’t be enough. They’ll be drawn to unique flavors and different styles they can’t get from anyone else in town, which is why Seventh Son launched with a style hardly anyone else in the city makes.

Columbus just didn’t have anything for a long time. Only lately has the market started to demand quality.

Their eponymous flagship beer, a 7.7% American strong ale, has made a big impact in the Columbus market. It has shown consumers that big, bold flavors aren’t only found in IPAs. It has taught people that a rich malt profile can be the primary driver of flavor, complemented by a hop finish. And it has served as a gateway beer for a lot people venturing over to the darker side.
At the taproom — a study in modern minimalism with a poured concrete bar and gobs of natural light — the friendliest and most knowledgeable bartenders in town are trying to open the minds of new customers. Colin is well aware of how important that educational component is. “We’re just fortunate that two of the three people that started this company have had long careers in the service industry. They only hire people that are cheerful and laid back and good at their jobs. Nobody here puts out the beer douche vibe or the over-aggressive nerd thing. They’re here to help.”

The brewery has used the taproom success to get their presence into more stores, as well as more homes. Also engaged with Buckeye Canning, Seventh Son has been pumping 16-ounce cans of the strong ale and a super pale ale into the market for about a year. Colin noted the circuitous consumption, saying, “The cans have really helped with visibility. People can find us all around the city now--at the beverage store; at Whole Foods;wherever they go--and then they find their way into the taproom, and try something completely new.”

While the cans have been a resounding success locally, they’re also starting to be sent across the country and used in trades. Reviews have popped up online from California to Arizona to Vermont. “It’s great,” Max said, “the hope has always been that, one day, people will know our brand even though we’re not in their market. Then they’ll seek us out.”

An additional benefit is that as local breweries start to gain a higher national profile the spotlight will be shared with everyone else in the city. But with more awareness comes more scrutiny. Colin explained, “When there weren’t that many breweries in Columbus, they didn’t all have to be that good. But as Columbus starts to grow, everyone as a whole needs to start doing a better job. As the country starts to take notice, we need them to think, ‘Wow, there’s actually a lot of great stuff going on there.’ So it’s on all of us, collectively.”

When there weren’t that many breweries in Columbus, they didn’t all have to be that good. But as Columbus starts to grow, everyone as a whole needs to start doing a better job.

Max echoed that sentiment by saying, “Experience is key. And we’re pretty young right now. But Columbus is maturing as a city, and the breweries are growing right along with it. Every single day.” That seems to be the overall mindset as more and more brewers start introducing better quality control measures. And as some start planning for expansion, they’re building lab costs into their budget.

Seventh Son happens to be one of those breweries in the expansion-planning phase. In fact, they’re planning a pretty massive expansion. The goal, over the next year, is to move from their 2-vessel, 15-barrel system to a 4-vessel, 30-barrel system. With the added efficiency of the 4-vessel brewhouse, they would raise the ceiling from an estimated output of 3,000 barrels this year to a maximum output of 30,000 barrels a few years down the line. “Just by doubling the size of our system, we could get potentially ten times the output,” added Colin.

In that scenario, the current brewhouse and taproom would stay as-is and serve as a playground of sorts. He continued, “that expansion would take a lot of pressure off of this building, and it could become more experimental. We’ve flirted with the idea of, in a few years, doing a wild program out of this space.” And a wild program is still one thing Central Ohio doesn’t have but, if done right, could certainly put the region on the map in a big way.

To hear Trevor tell the origin story of Hoof Hearted, the hope of national recognition is ingrained in it. “Before we had the idea, I went to this wedding in San Diego. Then a ski trip in Colorado — these great beer destinations. And Columbus just seemed so lame at the time. Little did I know everybody was back home assembling. Everybody had the same idea. So we decided to jump in the fray.”

In the few years since Trevor and Jarrod and Ryan and Colin and Max, and so many others, had that same idea, the state of Columbus beer has grown exponentially. The total number of breweries has grown six-fold, with almost every neighborhood in the metropolitan area having one to call their own. It’s great. Things are going well. But it’s not enough.

Columbus drinkers are thirsty, but not just for local beer or national recognition. They want to have a voice in this industry — like they do in so many others — and influence the shape it takes in the years to come.

This is the second in a three-part series chronicling the state of craft beer in the Buckeye State, and how it could lend insight into national trends and future growth for the industry.

Words + Photos by
Kyle Kastranec