Sunday, April 21, 2002

Brewer's days long but rewarding

BarrelHouse's beer on tap at 100 local bars and taverns

By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Whenever the 80-hour workweeks, landlord hassles and other lamentations of ownership get out of hand, all Mike Cromer has to do is kick back and partake of his own work product.

        It's a perk befitting the co-owner of a brewery — BarrelHouse Brewing Co. in Over-the-Rhine. And if it ever ceases to bring respite to the stressful vicissitudes of Mr. Cromer's protracted days, he can think back to his previous career as a corporate accountant, one who was laid off at that.

        Today, seven years after it was born amid a renaissance of hometown-brewed beer, BarrelHouse has put Cincinnati back on the beer-making map. The company's 14 varieties of beer are sold by about 100 Tristate restaurants and taverns. The freshly made brew flows even more freely at local festivals.

        “The restaurant chains have national standards and have to have Bud and Miller, but the independently owned restaurants and bars are more likely to care about what they have on tap and will put something good on,” said Mr. Cromer, whose unpressed shirt and full beard put him a long way off from his days at General Electric Aircraft Engines.

        BarrelHouse follows a brewing tradition that is part of everyday culture in countries such as Germany and Great Britain. Half of its beer is consumed in the six-story brewhouse/restaurant on East 12th Street; the rest is trucked out in kegs. By day, BarrelHouse has a loyal lunch crowd. By night, people flock for happy hour or for the many concerts hosted by BarrelHouse.

  Background on five of BarrelHouse's Cincy-brewed beer:
  Cumberland Pale Ale — A classic India pale ale with a somewhat fruity start and an aggressive hop finish. Named after the old Cincinnati tradition of loading up the hops to keep fresh beer from spoiling during the long trip over the Cumberland Trail.
  Duveneck Dortmunder — A smooth, malty lager like those brewed in Dortmund, Germany. Named after the Cincinnati art teacher and painter Frank Duveneck, whose father was a brewer in Covington.
  Hocking Hills HefeWeizen — Unfiltered, as traditional German beers are, this beer takes on a cloudy appearance when chilled. A special yeast in this Weissbeer imparts the taste of clove, banana and vanilla.
  RedLegg Ale — One of BarrelHouse's first and most popular beers, this deep red ale has a big hop flavor and a slightly sweet finish. Dedicated to Asa Brainard, the Cincinnati Red Stockings' original ace pitcher in 1869.
  SternWheeler Stout — Hints of chocolate and toffee enhance this dark brew. Named for the stern-wheeled riverboats that were Cincinnati's preferred means of mass transportation in the 1800s.
        BarrelHouse's own tradition goes back to 1995. The company was formed by Mr. Cromer, David Rich and their brewmaster, Rick DeBar. Banks wouldn't touch the venture, but private investors jumped on the wagon. BarrelHouse leased the vacant Rosenthal Printing building and bought $1 million worth of equipment. Its first beers were Redlegg Ale, Cumberland Pale Ale, Hocking Hills Hefeweizen and Sternwheeler Stout.

        “We didn't open with a big bang,” said Mr. Cromer, 44. “We built our business slowly over the years. It's taken seven years to get the message out that we're here.”

        Having good beer helps. BarrelHouse's beer list runs from pilsners and pale ales to stouts and doppelbocks. Arnold's, The Cincinnatian Hotel, Nicholson's, Dewey's Pizza, City View Tavern, Clough Crossing restaurant and the Covington Marriott all offer one or another variety. The beer isn't bottled — yet (It's in the planning stages) — but can be bought at the brewery in half-gallon jugs.

        “The word is spreading,” Mr. Cromer said. “The big guys have done it with tons of advertising. With us, it's giving out samples at all the festivals. If you focus on your product and persevere, a good product will win in the long run. We're looking for people who want the finer things in life and are a little more adventurous.”

        More than a century ago, he said, 32 breweries operated within a mile of BarrelHouse. But the city's oldest remaining brands, Hudepohl, Burger and Schoenling, were bought by a Cleveland company in 1999. Today, those beers are brewed out of state.

        Queen City Brewing in Blue Ash joins BarrelHouse in the production of local beer, but local microbreweries themselves have undergone attrition in recent years — witness the fate of the Main Street Brewery, just two blocks away, which now is a restaurant.

        Smaller operators simply can't afford most advertising. Restaurants and bars can't afford to devote too much tap space to unknown beer. And customers keep asking for the tried-and-true brands.

        Still, some local bars and restaurants want to offer crafted beer.

        “If you're a dyed-in-the-wool drinker of light beer with little taste and no finish, the BarrelHouse is probably going to taste full, heavy and bitter,” said Chuck Warriner, owner of Dilly Deli Wines & Gourmet in Mariemont. “BarrelHouse makes a beer-drinker's beer for people who don't settle for watered-down, lowest-common-denominator ingredients.”

        Jerry Freese, owner of Fries Cafe in Clifton, said BarrelHouse's Redlegg Ale is a consistent seller.

        “I wish we had more tap handles to give them, but it doesn't have the recognition that some of the more established brands have,” Mr. Freese said. “But people like it. I really would like to see those guys do well.”

        Mr. Cromer would have a simple message for those who haven't tried his beer: Taste it.

        “People don't realize that good beer is fresh beer that was made a few days before,” Mr. Cromer said. “It's like getting a loaf of bread right off the baker's hearth.”


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