Aficionadough: Columbus Brewing Company Taproom Pizza Crafts Delectable Pairings
I don’t get around much anymore. The combination of COVID cautiousness and a 6-year-old who is the epicenter of my universe does not inspire me to mix with the masses. In October, with an unprecedented and unchaperoned irrational exuberance, I ventured out of my bubble three times, twice to the same place. What inspired such a feat? Columbus Brewing Company’s taproom caught my fancy and kept it.
My dining destination is located in an industrial area in an unnamed suburban no man’s land some (at least three people) know as the Brewery Triangle. My drive to the taproom was pretty short but the path to opening the doors of this taproom was decades in the making.
The original Columbus Brewing Company dates back to 1898. It was formed by a consortium of bar owners looking to take out the middleman and save money from the beer barons of the day. Prohibition, which can largely be blamed on Westerville, killed what was left of the brewing industry in Columbus by the end of WWI. 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 longer, new beers crafted from the brewery turned heads inside and outside of Franklin County. The gold medal winning Bodhi (not named after Patrick Swayze’s character in Point Break contrary to urban legend), an Imperial India Pale Ale captured the hearts and bellies of craft beer enthusiasts far and wide. Eric and his wife Beth became full owners of the brewery in 2011. Demand for the beers and obsession with Bodhi far outweighed production. In late 2014, the brewery moved to its current, much larger location. Fans waited for a taproom to open at the site. And they waited. Finally at the tail end of 2019 the taproom opened…..and then a worldwide pandemic shut it down.
On the plus side, the downtime gave CBC time to think about what they wanted to do differently for taproom 2.0, which included a decision to do food out of house, but in a trailer in the parking lot. Eric and Beth called in a secret weapon, Eric’s culinary inclined brother, Ryan. The taproom reopened this past June with a small but satisfying menu. So why would a big brewery opt to have a small trailer for a kitchen? It is a matter of dollars and common sense. Any brewery rarely has enough square footage to support growth and in the case of CBC, more growth is still on the horizon – which makes every square foot precious. Any taproom owner will tell you having consistent food available for patrons is critical for keeping customers on site for another beer. Providing access to good food is a hard task when relying on independent and sometimes unreliable food trucks. Because Eric and company care about customers coming back, much thought was invested in providing well-crafted food to pair with award winning beer. The bar was set high for the bar and anything placed on it.
Over the last two years I have become a hoarder of unencumbered free time. A poor movie pick when the wife and son are asleep – tragedy. A sub-par carry out meal – devastating! In some sad commentary of days gone by, I transformed into an efficiency expert of leisure – planning every moment to avoid losing a second of value or eating a mediocre morsel. In the case of CBC, I was going in with good odds because of their backstory was well known to me.
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 went with the safe bet of a pepperoni pizza. It was wonderful. By the time I washed down the second slice with a Belgian Ale, I knew this was an Aficionadough worthy meal. The crust was crunchy where it needed to be, chewy without being doughy and strong enough to support the ample toppings. The sauce was fantastically flavorful and fresh. As for the pepperoni, only one word is needed, Ezzo, our local stamp of approval for encased meats.
Everything about this pizza was in the goldilocks zone – nothing too x or too y, always just right. Even though I was not hungry, I was tempted to order another six-slice pizza but duty called and I needed to return to homebase before I was grounded. Another thing I liked about this pizza was the tray it was served on, with the pizza served on an elevated grate, there was no place for grease to pool to affect the taste or dampen the crust.
As for pizza in a taproom, it makes absolute sense. In the Midwest, pizza’s rise was largely fueled by bars in the 1930s to 1950s – hence the term tavern cut. Nationally, over 25% of restaurants offer some version of pizza on their menus. Most importantly for those that care about proper pairings, pleasing palates and the elements of a good meal, one can’t do better than pizza. Carbs on carbs! Pizza and beer are the peanut butter and jelly of the adult appetites. The science of how well cheese and beer complement each other has been hidden from us by the industrial wine and cheese tasting complex. This combination offers all the ingredients that make a meal great: texture, flavor, aromatics, 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 unaccostumed to out of the house dining and drinking that my perceptions were tainted by basil colored glasses? There was only one thing I could do. I committed to the Aficionadough method of test and retest. I finagled another trip back and ordered two pizzas I had wanted to try before. The Cacio e Pepe is a cheese bomb of Grande ricotta and parmesan cheese sauce topped with fresh Grande mozzarella and balanced by freshly cracked black pepper. Due to the quality and thickness of the crust, this was like eating one of the greatest cheesy breads of my existence.
The other pizza I evaluated / consumed was Chorizo. On the base crust is a cilantro-based mojo verde sauce with a noticeable spicy kick, sliced Grande mozzarella with house-made chorizo, rainbow bell peppers and shaved shallots obstruct anything below the topping. This was good, however the consensus of my companion and I was that the combination of flavors was great for one slice but more than we wanted for a whole pizza. We still craved the pepperoni pizza we shared a few weeks before. The Chorizo would be perfect to share with a group of six or as a fine buffer to a hop heavy IPA.
I was impressed, so I yearned to know more therefore I reached out and was connected to Ryan Bean, the man in the trailer. This is 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-style (sheet pan) pizza. We tried each style individually and realized that we really liked aspects of each, so we took the parts we liked and combined all of those into one dough.
As for the dough, we tried so many different recipes from sourdough to New York and even Roman style doughs. We tested roughly 20 different doughs in all with every cook time and temperature possible to make sure we got it right. We basically ended up making our own which at its core is a focaccia-style crust in our Detroit pan that I learned while working for David Paul Johnson in my early days in Hawaii (Author’s note: Ryan spent about a decade at some highly ranked Hawaiian restaurant as a sous chef and in other roles).
Columbus is actually a great pizza town (Author’s note: absolutely proven fact) so our inspiration drew from what we thought Columbus really liked in a pizza. We knew we wanted a cracker-like crust that also had a fluffy interior and since these pizzas are so big, we really wanted the pizza to hold well the next day and our crust really holds well.
For our flavor combinations, we knew we needed the flagships like pepperoni, but our take was to make sure we procured the best ingredients possible to really help it shine through. For instance 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 many 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 travels. They’re flavor combinations I’ve used in so many other places, especially while I was in Hawaii. The mojo verde sauce is fresh and bright and it works so well with spicy chorizo. I actually picked up the recipe from two of the best chefs I’ve worked for in Mark Ellman and Nick Cleveland while I was in Maui.– Ryan Bean
I think Ryan’s efforts have resulted in a finely-executed taproom menu. Combined with well-crafted beers and staff that are knowledgeable about what they pour and how to pair food with what is served. If you don’t get out of the house often and you want a sure thing, this is likely a good bet for you. I came for the beer. I stayed for the food. I came back again for the food. I’ll be back again someday for both.
Find the Columbus Brewing Company Taproom at 2555 Harrison Rd. Hours are Wednesday and Thursday from 3 – 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. – 12 a.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.
For more information, visit columbusbrewing.com.
All photos by Jim Ellison