Church of Beer - Visiting Taft's Ale House in Cincinnati
All photos by Kevin Gibson.
A number of breweries have opened in former churches the past few years, begging phrases like “church of beer” to be passed around.
From Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh to the St. Joseph Brewery & Public House in Indianapolis to McMenamins Old Church Brewery & Pub, the idea isn’t new, but the quaintness doesn’t get old. (A new one even opened recently in my home base Louisville, Ky., in the form of 3rd Turn Brewing; check it out if you pass through.)
I was in Cincinnati recently for a weekend getaway when I decided to check out the house-of-worship-turned-house-of-brews called Taft’s Ale House in the city’s historic Over the Rhine district. Formerly St. Paul’s Evangelical Church, the structure was once the oldest protestant parish in Cincinnati. Not only that, a whole lot of brewing history went down in Over the Rhine, especially prior to Prohibition, so it’s a perfect place for an addition to Cinti’s growing brew scene (Taft’s opened earlier this year). And the place pays homage to jurist, statesman and U.S. President William Howard Taft, who hailed from Cincinnati, which is a nice touch as well.
Nondescript on the outside – it still mostly just looks like an old church – one immediately is swept up in the vibe upon entering. Picnic table seating in the main dining room mimics rows and rows of pews, while a bar now graces the spot where the pulpit once was. The brewing system is behind glass on one side as well as overhead. Meanwhile, further private table seating rings the balcony above, which also features yet another crescent-shaped bar. Richly dark wood permeates the warm, lovely space.
It was no surprise that the place was packed, and we were quickly informed it was a two-hour wait for dinner seating. We checked in and made our way to the packed downstairs bar, where Ohio State was in a fight with Big 10 counterpart Indiana in college football. Based on the sheer number of hipsters and people in groups already clearly a few drinks in, Taft is far more place to be seen than sports bar.
While my girlfriend Cynthia and I were hungry, I was mostly there for the beer and not the social climate; I wasn’t disappointed in that respect. Fourteen taps were pouring brews ranging from a German pilsner to a coffee milk stout. It was tough to choose, to be quite honest, but I went with my gut instinct and coaxed a Cincy Cobra APA from one busy bartender, also ordering a Maverick chocolate porter for Cynthia.
The chocolate porter was exactly what she expected and hoped for, with a rich aroma and creamy body that blends chocolate with roasted malts. The Cobra, meanwhile, came across as a solid representation of the style (I tend to favor APAs, which is why I went there in the first place), with a subtle aroma, crisp, medium-light body and a mildly spicy and dry finish. I could drink 10 of those beers, but I had others I wanted to try, and we were in for the long haul.
The next round, I went for the Gavel Banger IPA (there’s the Taft theme coming through), which also had a milder nose than expected, but tripped me up with a big, citrusy flavor and a hop-leaning finish with a piney bite that didn’t quickly dissipate. In my notes, I guessed this was hopped with Galaxy, but it was a blend of Mosaic, Citra and Centennial. The former two have similar characteristics, so I wasn’t too far off. At 65 IBU and 7 percent ABV, it’s a spot-on American-style IPA.
We got our table sooner than expected, ordered dinner and also grabbed a five-beer sampler to get more variety for our palates. One of those was the Mooly Wooly, which was the aforementioned coffee milk stout. It had a fantastic coffee aroma and flavor, rich body with nice bitterness and notes of vanilla. We also tried the Caruso, a brown ale that comes alive with infusions of vanilla beans and white oak wood staves, which offers a slight variance on a beer aged in bourbon barrels but still brings bourbon qualities to the flavor profile with just a bit of acidity. Nice.
The German Pilsner is a classic rendition of the style with a buttery quality, while the Roadie APA is more like what you’d find labeled a blond ale; if you’re looking for a lighter drink at Taft, I’d recommend the pilsner.
The menu at Taft relies heavily on its Tri-Tip Steak, which according to the menu goes through a five-step process including 21 days of aging, followed by a dry rub, charring, smoke and then finished in the oven medium rare. I ordered the Tri-Tip bites, which had a fantastic bark balanced by tender, only lightly smoky beef. They were quite tasty, and served with creamy, flavorful horseradish sauce. Not mind-blowing, but solid and moderately priced. Cynthia chose an avocado salad, which was overflowing with fresh chunks of avocado. Also well worth the moderate price.
I finished up with one last beer: The Judge (yes, more Taft) double IPA is a hophead’s delight, triple hopped with Amarillo, Simcoe and Centennial hops for a medium floral aroma, an ample malt backbone and a big, bitter finish. But even with the malty balance, this one leans toward the hop side and carries a surprisingly crisp drinkability, despite packing 8 percent ABV – thank goodness for Uber!
The food and beer is solid at Taft’s, but it’s worth a visit for the atmosphere. This one will be an inspiration to future breweries, if there’s any justice. (See what I did there?)