Huge. That’s the best way to describe the two-day Cincy Winter Beerfest.
The sampling glasses are big.
The pours are large.
The amount of breweries and beers represented are massive.
The crowds are colossal, as in elbow-to-elbow in some areas.
And the lines for the men’s rooms are ridiculously long, as in 50 guys deep.
My wife Wendy and I blew into Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon from Akron to attend the biggest craft beer festival in Ohio (and blew out early Sunday morning). The event, held at the Duke Energy Convention Center downtown, didn’t disappoint and is a must-see for any craft beer lover in the state.
Here’s a mix general observations and news that I gathered while chatting with Cincinnati-area brewers:
The festival — which is a fundraiser for the Big Joe Duskin Music Education Foundation — attracted about 14,000 people this year. It’s easily is the largest craft beer event in Ohio and reminds me a lot of the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.
Again, there are a ton of breweries and beers. Some people come dressed in costume or wear funny hats. And others wear pretzel necklaces so they can grab a bite and cleanse their palate between tastings. There are plenty of food vendors and retailers hawking beer merchandise.
For those unfamiliar with the event, there are three tiers of tickets. There’s a connoisseur level ($75 advance), which includes a nifty glass snifter and access to a third-floor area where there were special beers and paired with finger foods. You also get early entrance.
There’s the VIP level ($46 advance), which gets you an 8-ounce acrylic mug and early access to the event. Then there’s the regular ticket ($36 advance), which gets you a smaller acrylic mini-mug.
The beer pours are enormous — no matter what size glass you have. I was there to taste, as opposed to get wasted. And I had to make sure to tell servers that I just wanted a sample. Otherwise, my glass would be half-full or even full.
Usually, I wouldn’t mind. But my goal was to sample all the new Cincinnati-area breweries (Blank Slate, Double Barrel, 50 West, Cellar Dweller, MadTree and Triple Digit) and I couldn’t do full glasses of them all.
This blog -- as regular readers know -- is dedicated to beer news, as opposed to beer reviews. But here are a few of my favorites from the new breweries in no particular order (as long as you understand that I lean toward browns, porters and stouts):
• MadTree Gnarly Brown, a slightly hoppy brown ale.
• Blank Slate Fork in the Road, an India amber ale.
• 50 West Russian Imperial Stout.
• Cellar Dweller Shawsome, a black IPA.
My wife and I were unprepared for the sheer mass of people. This event is popular. So popular that it was difficult sometimes to navigate through the crowd. We also weren’t prepared for the enormous lines snaking out of the men’s rooms. Easily, there were at least 50 guys waiting in line at most of the bathrooms. Meanwhile, nary a soul at the women’s rooms. My wife thought this was hilarious.
We also were warned that the Saturday tasting would turn into a drunk-fest at the end. And indeed, there were plenty of glass-eyed people stumbling around at the end of the evening. Friday is more manageable, brewers and those in attendance said.
While Lagunitas Brewing Co., a well-respected brewery from California, is distributed around Ohio, it’s nowhere to be found in Cincinnati. How come?
James “Pnut” Kahles, the well-known beer buyer for Dilly Cafe, offered an explanation during a blogging conference sponsored by Hoperatives before the festival. (Hoperatives is a great blog keeping an eye on the Cincinnati-area beer scene and sponsors a blogging conference in conjunction with the festival.)
Seems that Dilly was able to get a couple of kegs of Lagunitas before it was distributed in Ohio. Kahles said the Lagunitas brewer found out about that and was none too pleased so the Cincinnati area was cut off when the brewery officially launched in the Buckeye State. Now, Kahles vows never to carry Lagunitas at Dilly. “It’s good beer, don’t get me wrong,” he said, “but because they did that I’ll never carry them.”
Breweries and distributors are fiercely competitive when it comes to getting their beer sold at retail establishments.
Eddie Anderson, a division sales manager for the Craft Brew Alliance, said brewers are paying for tap handles at bars and restaurants to prevent their rivals from getting a coveted spot on draft. But don’t for a minute think it’s just a sneaky tactic employed by big national brewers. Craft brewers are doing it, too, Anderson said at the blogging conference.
Retailers have a “what are you going to do for me?” attitude now, said Lindsey Bonadonna-Roeper of Heidelberg Distributing and wife of Rivertown Brewing co-owner and brewer Jason Roeper. “A lot shady sh-- happens.”
Richard Dube, brewmaster at the Moerlein Lager House in downtown Cincinnati, said he’s worried about the growth of the craft beer industry. He recalled the boom and bust in the 1980s when a ton of craft breweries opened and then closed. He said he’s concerned about the new brewers putting out bad beer and hurting the overall impression of the industry.
Mark Sweeney, who put together the documentary The Cincinnati Beer Story, was at the festival selling DVDs. He offered a fascinating tidbit about the cover artwork for the DVD.
It features the Cincinnati skyline. No big deal.
But turn it upside down and there’s the Cincinnati skyline from the 1800s.
The Rivertown Brewing Brewmaster Series this year will feature all high-alcohol brews. The first one is called Infinite Shilling, a 10 percent Scotch ale, and it’s available now at the brewery taproom, co-owner Randy Schiltz said. There will be four beers in the series and they will be released throughout the year.
Before the festival, Schiltz watched over the Homebrew Competition, which was run by the Cincinnati Malt Infusers. The winner was a Belgian-style saison brewed by Philip Meyer. Rivertown will brew the beer and Schiltz wanted to be there to taste it. He wasn’t sure yet when the beer would be brewed or available.
Double Barrel Brewery, a new Cincinnati production brewery and taproom, got its brewing license on Friday and was at the festival on Saturday giving beer drinkers the first official taste of Bad Tom Ale. “We were under the gun to get in,” brewer Charles Boucher said about the festival debut.
The brewery, located just down the street from Bella Luna and Terry’s Turf Club on Eastern Avenue, had hoped to open last year. Double Barrel ran into a few city inspection issues that delayed the opening, Boucher and co-owner Sean Smith said.
Bella Luna will start serving Bad Tom Ale this week and the brewery is looking for other accounts for its draft beer, they said. The first beer is named after Thomas “Bad Tom” Smith, who was the last man publicly hanged in Kentucky in the late 1800s and is Smith’s great-great-uncle.
Double Barrel initially will be open only on the weekends and has a growler station available. Tastings can be scheduled. Double Barrel had only Bad Tom Ale available at the festival, but Eastern Avenue IPA should be ready soon, they said.
Fifty West Brewing Co., another new Cincinnati brewery, made a splash at the festival. The brewery parked a Volkswagen bus converted to serve draft beer at its booth. The bus also was decked out with the Fifty West logo.
Co-owner Bobby Slattery said the public response since opening has been overwhelming. Owners Slattery, Whit Hesser and Blake Horsburgh figured they would sell 10 growlers a week.
They were a bit off. Instead, they are selling 200 a week, Slattery said. “We’re as happy as can be.”
He also said Fifty West will add a kitchen to start serving food within the next couple of weeks.
One of the biggest trends in craft beer lately has been high-alcohol brews. Many brewers are pushing the legal limits (where they exist). Blank Slate Brewing isn’t as interested in that trend.
“We’re trying to teach people you can have flavor without the alcohol,” owner and brewer Scott LaFollette said. Blank Slate offered Movin’ On, a session ale at 4.2 percent; Fume, a cherrywood smoked porter at 5.4 percent; and Fork in the Road, an India amber ale at 6.8 percent.
Cellar Dweller Brewery, located at Valley Vineyards in Morrow, made a collaboration brew with Listermann Brewing in Cincinnati. It’s an imperial oatmeal stout infused with cherries and aged in a port barrel. The beer — named Slide Job — should be available in a few months, Cellar Dweller brewer Steve Shaw said. The name stems from Shaw and Listermann brewer Kevin Moreland’s mutual love of racing stock cars.
Meanwhile, Shaw said the brewery, which opened last year, has been a great success. “We are 12 times over our projected numbers,” he said. Cellar Dweller also has done wonders for the winery. “It’s brought those couples who are split [beer vs. wine] and now they are willing to come,” Shaw said. “We started small because we didn’t know what it would do to the wine side. We weren’t sure if people would accept it. And all it’s done is brought a whole new group [to the winery].” The dinner business is up 40 percent and the winery didn’t see its usual winter dip in customers, he said.
Buckeye Lake Brewery, located in Buckeye Lake, made its Cincy Winter Beerfest debut. Owner Rich Hennossy said the brewery, which opened in February 2012, had three beers on draft at first and now has six. The brewery also has started distributing its beers and is available in about a dozen area bars.
Hennossy is trying to get out to more beer festivals this year to promote the Buckeye Lake name. The brewery was at AleFest in Columbus earlier this year.
“We’re going to as many as we can,” he said. “We feel we’re getting some steam out there.”