I don’t move much anymore. The combination of COVID caution and a 6 year old being the epicenter of my universe doesn’t inspire me to mingle with the masses. In October, with unprecedented, unchaperoned irrational exuberance, I ventured out of my bubble three times, twice to the same place. What inspired such a feat? The Columbus Brewing Company Tavern caught my eye and kept it.
My dining destination is located in an industrial area in an unnamed suburban no man’s land known to some (at least three people) as the Brewery Triangle. My journey to the taproom was quite short, but the journey to open the doors of this taproom took decades.
The original Columbus Brewing Company dates back to 1898. It was formed by a consortium of bar owners seeking to cut out the middleman and save money from the beer barons of the day. Prohibition, which can be largely blamed on Westerville, killed what was left of the brewing industry in Columbus at the end of World War I. Then, in 1988 or 1989, depending on your source, a new Columbus Brewing Company (CBC – sorry for the abbreviation is vexing) was reborn as our first microbrewery. After a series of locations and brewers, Eric Bean, a UC Davis trained brewer who honed his craft at Gordon Biersch, entered the picture. As Eric’s beard grew, new beers made from the brewery turned heads inside and outside Franklin County. The gold-winning Bodhi (not named after Patrick Swayze’s character in Point Break contrary to urban legend), an Imperial India Pale Ale has captured the hearts and bellies of craft beer lovers everywhere. Eric and his wife Beth became full owners of the brewery in 2011. The demand for beers and Bodhi’s obsession far outweighed production. At the end of 2014, the brewery moved to its current, much larger location. Fans waited for a bar to open on the site. And they waited. Finally, at the end of 2019, the tavern opened…then a global pandemic closed it.
On the plus side, the downtime gave CBC time to think about what they wanted to do differently for taproom 2.0, which included the decision to make food outside the home, but in a trailer in the parking lot. Eric and Beth have enlisted a secret weapon, Eric’s culinary brother, Ryan. The bar reopened last June with a small but satisfying menu. So why would a large brewery choose to have a small trailer for a kitchen? It’s a matter of money and common sense. Any brewery rarely has enough square footage to support growth and in the case of CBC, further growth is still on the horizon – making every square foot valuable. Any bar owner will tell you that having consistent food available for customers is key to keeping customers on hand for another beer. Providing access to good food is a difficult task when relying on independent and sometimes unreliable food trucks. Because Eric and company care about customer feedback, we put a lot of thought into providing well-prepared food to pair with award-winning beer. The bar was set high for the bar and everything placed there.
Over the past two years I have become an unencumbered free time hoarder. Bad movie choice when wife and son are sleeping – tragedy. Substandard takeaway meal – devastating! In a sad comment from long ago, I turned into an expert in leisure efficiency – planning every moment to avoid wasting a valuable second or eating a mediocre morsel. In the case of CBC, I had a good chance of getting in because I knew their history well.
On my first visit I tried a variety of beers and menu items. While I wanted the Chorizo pizza, I had a guest with me so I opted for the safe bet of a pepperoni pizza. It was wonderful. The moment I washed down the second slice with a Belgian beer, I knew this was an Aficionadough-worthy meal. The crust was crisp where it needed to be, chewy without being mushy, and strong enough to support the generous toppings. The sauce was incredibly flavorful and fresh. As for pepperoni, one word suffices, Ezzo, our local seal of approval for coated meats.
Everything about this pizza was in the goldilocks zone – nothing too x or too y, still just right. Even though I wasn’t hungry, I was tempted to order another six slice pizza, but duty called and I had to return to base before I was punished. Another thing I liked about this pizza was the tray it was served on, with the pizza served on a raised rack there was no place for grease to build up to affect the taste or dampen the crust.
As for pizza in a bar, that makes perfect sense. In the Midwest, the pizza boom was largely fueled by bars in the 1930s through 1950s—hence the term tavern cut. Nationally, more than 25% of restaurants offer some version of pizza on their menus. More importantly, for those who care about good pairings, pleasing palates, and the elements of a good meal, it doesn’t get any better than pizza. Carbs on carbs! Pizza and beer are the peanut butter and jelly of adult appetites. The science of the complementarity of cheese and beer has been hidden from us by the industrial complex of wine and cheese tasting. This combination provides all the ingredients that make a good meal: texture, flavor, aromas, fat, acidity, sweetness, bitterness and carbonation as well as the ability to share with others.
However, after a few days at home, I began to doubt myself. Was I so unaccustomed to eating and drinking outside the home that my perceptions were clouded by basil-colored glasses? There was only one thing I could do. I am committed to the Aficionadough method of test and retest. I managed another trip back and ordered two pizzas that I had wanted to try before. The Cacio e Pepe is a cheese bomb made with a Grande ricotta and parmesan cheese sauce topped with fresh mozzarella Grande and balanced with freshly cracked black pepper. Due to the quality and thickness of the crust, it was like eating one of the greatest cheesecakes I have ever had.
The other pizza I reviewed/consumed was Chorizo. On the base crust is a cilantro-based mojo verde sauce with a noticeable spicy kick, Grande sliced mozzarella with homemade chorizo, rainbow peppers and shaved shallots clog it all up. which is under the trim. It was fine, but my mate and I consensus was that the flavor combination was great for one slice but more than we wanted for a whole pizza. We still craved the pepperoni pizza we had shared a few weeks before. The chorizo would be perfect for sharing with a party of six or as a thin buffer for a hop-heavy IPA.
I was impressed, so I wanted to know more, so I reached out and was connected to Ryan Bean, the man in the trailer. That’s what he had to share in response to my questions.
Our pizza is a hybrid that combines aspects of a Detroit-style pizza, a Sicilian-style pizza, and even a grandma’s (sheet pan) pizza. We tried each style individually and realized we really liked aspects of each, so we took the parts we liked and combined them into one paste.
As for the dough, we tried so many different recipes from sourdough in New York and even Roman style dough. We tested around 20 different batters in all with every possible cooking time and temperature to make sure we got it right. We basically ended up making our own, which is basically a focaccia-style crust in our Detroit skillet that I learned working for David Paul Johnson in my early days in Hawaii. (Author’s note: Ryan spent about a decade at a highly regarded Hawaiian restaurant as a sous chef and in other roles).
Columbus is actually a great pizza city (Editor’s note: absolutely proven fact) So our inspiration came from what we thought Columbus really liked in a pizza. We knew we wanted a cracker-like crust that also had a chewy interior and since these pizzas are so big, we really wanted the pizza to hold up the next day and our crust held up really well.
For our flavor combinations, we knew we needed standouts like pepperoni, but our focus was to make sure we sourced the best ingredients possible to really help it shine. For example, our tomato sauce uses Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, our pepperoni is from Ezzo Sausage, and our chorizo is actually a family recipe.
For our two more unique combinations, the Chorizo Pizza and the Cacio e Pepe, we really wanted to provide a different experience that stood out from most of the other styles our customers would get in Columbus. Eric and Beth Bean actually came up with the idea for the Cacio and it was inspired by the Italian pasta dish. The chorizo pizza is inspired by my life and my travels. These are flavor combinations that I have used in so many other places, especially when I was in Hawaii. The mojo verde sauce is fresh and bright and works so well with the spicy chorizo. I actually picked up the recipe from two of the top chefs I worked for in Mark Ellman and Nick Cleveland while I was in Maui.
I think Ryan’s efforts resulted in a finely executed taproom menu. Combined with well crafted beers and staff who know what they are pouring and how to pair food with what is being served. If you don’t get out of the house often and want a sure thing, this is probably a good bet for you. I came for the beer. I stayed for the food. Came back for the food. I will come back one day for both.
Find the Columbus Brewing Company Tasting Room at 2555 Harrison Rd. Hours are Wednesday and Thursday 3-11pm, Friday and Saturday 11:30am-12pm, and Sunday 11:30am-10pm
For more information, visit columbusbrewing.com.
All photos by Jim Ellison