The Ohio Craft Brewers Association’s Winter Warmer Festival

“Ohio is the center of the beer universe.”
-Anonymous, overheard at the 2011 Winter Warmer Festival

The Winter Warmer Tasting Glass

The Winter Warmer Tasting Glass

I admit that I chuckled a bit when I heard this statement. OK, more than a bit. Clearly, someone’s sample of Barrel Aged Blackout Stout went straight to their head.

But then I got to thinking. Can you imagine if it were true? Make no mistake, this isn’t one of those articles where we cue the harp music and enter a dream sequence. Here in the real world, I won’t be holding my breath; there’s some serious catching-up we need to do to even get mentioned in the same sentence as Michigan, Oregon, Colorado or California. But what if we could suspend our disbelief of the potential to reach this lofty goal (if only for a day) and collectively take a few steps forward?

Whether or not you believe that Ohio could ever be the center of the beer universe, our star is certainly on the rise. 2010 was a successful year throughout the business of craft beer, but Ohio faired even better than most. Case in point: last year more Ohio breweries won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup than ever before. Who is behind this sudden surge? The brewers of Ohio, of course!

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in March, many of the people responsible for moving things forward assembled at the Sachsenheim Hall for the 5th Annual Winter Warmer Festival. In the past, this festival was thrown by the now-defunct Rock Bottom brewery. In search of a home, the festival’s continuance was brought into question but, thankfully, the Ohio Craft Brewers Association stepped in to take over this year. Their hope is that, by throwing several smaller successful events throughout the year, Ohio may someday have a “guild” run festival that gains national recognition and a bigger spotlight on our amazing craft beer scene.

Austin Walkin' Cane at the Winter Warmer

Austin Walkin' Cane at the Winter Warmer

As I made the rounds during the “early” session, I sensed the spirit of innovation and excitement from many of the up-and-coming breweries in the room as well as a renewed sense of determination from the well-established pillars of the community. As we sampled suds over small talk, I got the distinct impression that the best is yet to come. That could mean a few things: smaller artisanal breweries exploring unchartered territory, national expansion from the bigger brewers, or even some unknown startup hitting the scene with a vengeance and lightning in a bottle. Times are changing and no one is resting on laurels, no matter how big or small. In other words, while they’re fantastic beers, I think everyone has realized that the road to the center of the universe will not be paved with Fat Heads Headhunter or Great Lakes Dortmunder.

So what will get us there? I think the answer lies in the next wave of creative craft beers from the brewers that make up the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. With that in mind, I thought it may be a better idea to explore what’s new instead of typing up my typical “these 5 (likely barrel aged) beers ruled the fest” write-up. Luckily, there was no shortage of the latest, newest, freshest offerings from many of the top Ohio breweries at this year’s Warmer. Here’s how the 10 (at the very least) “new-to-me” beers poured that rainy afternoon, in no real order:

Cellar Rats Imperial Stout

Right off the bat, this beer emerged as a stand-out. It has great head retention and nice lace. The color is a bit more brown and red around the edges than others, but mostly black. That had me worried that the smell and taste would be subdued, but that was not the case. Not at all! This has huge notes of Chocolate, molasses and coffee – sweet and roasty without being too burned. The mouthfeel was extraordinary as well – perfect creamy carbonation and a hefty body. This is a killer stout from an up-and-comer, look for big things from Cellar Rats soon. Seriously, this beer and their Dopplebock were good enough to land them on my short list of breweries to visit soon. I hope they have this beauty on tap when I get there!

Thirsty Dog Barrel Aged Siberian Night

Thirsty Dog Coasters

Thirsty Dog Coasters

I must have missed this on my first couple trips around the room, but luckily I got to the Thirsty Dog table before the getting was dog gone. The beer looks nice – it is pitch black with a nice head and touches of lace leftover. The nose is where this starts to shine. There’s the typical roasted malt that Siberian night features, but it’s a bit more subdued than normal. There are mild notes of oak. No real “bourbon” flavors come through, but there’s some added depth and a nice touch of vanilla in the end of the taste. This was a wonderful tasting beer that didn’t go all-out in the barrel aging. I’d love to have it again side-by-side with the regular as I feel more nuances would be notable. Not something for the bourbon lovers out there, but a nice take on an old favorite.

Willoughby Hop Jam IPA

So, I used to go to Willoughby Brewing Company a lot. As an Eastside resident, they’ve been the only game in town since Buckeye packed up and headed to Lakewood. But the beer was going downhill, and I eventually stopped including it in the rotation. If this sounds familiar, you need to see what the new Willoughby is up to. This is easily the best beer I’ve ever had from them. It’s dark brown with hints of red around the edges, a beautiful white head, nice retention and lace. The smell is wonderful. Hops give pine and grapefruit notes while rye adds some spicy depth. The taste reminds me of a spicier version of Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous. There’s a beautiful tropical note from the hops, bringing grapefruit, pine and even some lush pineapple. I enjoyed this so much I had a repeat pour, something I almost never do at a festival. Keep up the good work, Willoughby brewers!

Indigo Imp 26o Tropical Stout

A first look at the new Indigo Imp Labels

A first look at the new Indigo Imp Labels

So, we go from tropical hops to a tropical stout. What exactly is a tropical stout? It’s a foreign/export stout with high gravity and some residual sweetness. Perhaps the best commercial examples are Dragon and Lion stout. Think “pool bar in Jamaica”. Now it seems that American brewers are trying their hand at this fantastic style. This beer is a good one from Indigo Imp, a brewery I’ve been a hot or cold with. It looks great; the beer is a shade of black with a touch of red around the edges. It’s topped by a nice off-white head. The smell is nicely balanced. I get notes of milk chocolate, roasted malt, and a touch of coffee that are will integrated with sweetness and a touch of tropical fruitiness. The taste is also rewarding, featuring nice roast levels (without being burned or too toasted) some nuttiness and, chocolate, and sweetness. This was very enjoyable, let’s just hope it avoids the sour Gatekeeper pitfall.

Willoughby Peanut Butter Coffee Porter

I’ve been dying to try this beer for so long, but our paths have never crossed. Now is the time! The glass in my hand is dark brown with some lighter shades of brown and even a touch of red around the edges. It has a white head that exhibits good retention and leaves some nice lace behind. Then the adventure starts. The nose is like a Reese’s Cup. Huge peanut butter and chocolate notes jump out of the beer. They actually pulled it off! Incredible!! The taste is very good too, however it is just slightly washed out compared to the smell. Overall, this beer scored perfectly in the smell department. It was also very tasty but could exhibit more heft in the mouthfeel. So, what’s the secret here? Did these guys actually add peanut butter to the beer? You’ll have to ask the brewers as my lips are sealed about the peanut butter flavored coffee beans they use to get such a unique and exquisite flavor. Willoughby is batting 1.000 so far and is on track for a Cleveland area “brewery of the year” award!

Great Lakes Dopplerock

Luke from Great Lakes gets the crowd going!

Luke from Great Lakes gets the crowd going!

Great Lakes is rolling out a new beer for spring. This is their take on the legendary Dopplebock style, dominated by German brewers. That should make this one right up their alley with their already exceptional Dortmunder and Vienna Lager styles if they can hang with the added ABV. Things start off well – the beer looks great with its dark brown color and red edges. Held to the light, the beer had notes of crimson and plum swirling around. An off-white head leaves some nice lace. The smell is the first indication I’m in store for a treat. There are notes of dark fruit, mild chocolate and raisin but this isn’t very sweet. Just a touch of caramel begins the tasting experience, with fruit upfront then notes of chocolate and raisin. This beer never gets too sweet and dries out at the end, leaving a pleasant finish reminiscent of other Great Lakes beers. I think the trick is that the sweetness and bitterness peak at same time, then the creamy carbonation and viscosity take over. This is a winner from Great Lakes – a big beer that brought something new to a classic style.

Buckeye Zateck 2001-A Tropical

One tropical stout just wasn’t enough! Buckeye Brewing debuted the newest edition of their Zateck series. This is the third incarnation of the brew; the first was a Rye beer, the second was an Imperial Stout and now things are going the tropical route with 2011-A. The ‘A’ means there will be several more variations this year – now, on to the beer! This is dark – pitch black – with no head or lace. That’ll hurt things, but the brewer himself commented this was so freshly packaged it hadn’t had proper time to dial-in the carbonation. No sweat, there’s a great smell going on here to make this appealing. It’s roasty without being overbearing, with balanced amounts of cocoa and caramel. The taste brings flavors of molasses, cola, chocolate, and a touch of roasted coffee with lingering sweetness. I’ve already mentioned the carbonation issue, so the mouthfeel probably suffered a bit as well. That being said, this is quite good and should serve as a nice spring stout when released in 22oz bottles next month!

Chophouse Bourbon Barrel Stout

Tickets for Beer and glasses for beer!

Tickets for Beer and glasses for beer!

And the award for the oddest beer I’ve had in quite some time goes to…Chophouse for their Bourbon Barrel Stout. Things start off well enough with a black beer with a huge, billowing head. Then things start to get strange. There’s a TON of bourbon on the nose here but also an apple skin smell that is totally out of left field. The beer isn’t infected at all, but I think it may have spent too much time in the barrel. The taste, strangely enough, does not really have a lot in common with any other “–bal aged” stout I’ve had. There’s a touch of roasted malt, giving some chocolate and molasses notes, but the dominating taste is apple cider with brown sugar and oak tannins. This wasn’t a pour-out but not something I’d seek out in terms of flavor. Now I really can say I’ve tried it all!

Indigo Imp Spring Saison

To quote that American Idol judge from Journey, this was “just OK for me”. The beer looks like a Traditional Saison with its straw color but lacks the genre’s defining fluffy, pillow-like head. The yeasty esters aren’t fruity or spicy enough for me personally, and the smell is primarily wheat-driven. The taste is also wheat forward, with some esters and spices emerging but still taking a back-seat. I just really didn’t love this beer, but a fan of Indigo Imp’s may. For me, there’s already been a perfect beer in the Spring Saison category, and this is no Fantome Printemps.

Willoughby Moonshadow IPA

Willoughby IS Brewing great beers

Willoughby IS Brewing great beers

I had to head back to Willoughby for one more of their beers. Moonshadow is a hazy, cloudy yellowish gold color around the edges, with a brownish orange core. The beer has a white head and ample lace. The smell is full of nice citrus hops, a touch of pine and perhaps some mint as well. It’s flowery, and the taste is comprised of touches of orange and pineapple, powdered sugar and flowers. There’s even a touch of tea leaf. The beer was a touch on the creamy side. Not a bad beer at all – a touch more English leaning than my beloved West Coast style, but good nonetheless.

Yes, it’s true – the prominence of Ohio beer growing and our journey is gaining momentum. We’re on a mission following a path. Whether that path leads to the centermost point of the beer world or just somewhere somewhat central, we’re up and moving in a very positive direction. We won’t get to the top without complex, creative and cutting-edge beers from our brewers – the brewers of the Ohio Craft Beer Association. Thanks to the organizers, volunteers and all the wonderful craft beer lovers for a wonderful time! I used to laugh, but now I believe. You should too.

The 2011 Ohio Craft Brewers Association Winter Warmer Festival Photos and Photo Gallery

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  • John Fay

    Sounds like there were some awesome beers. Wish I could have made it.

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