There has been an awakening...of craft beer. Have you felt it?
When Ohio's legislature passed House Bill 243 in late 2011, it helped set into motion Cincinnati's resurgence as a major craft beer hub. Now small, fledgling brewers were able to provide customers tap rooms on site at their respective breweries without having to purchase a second liquor license, which can cost as much as $4000.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of this law was MadTree Brewing, which is now readying an $18 million expansion and relocation from their Kennedy Avenue facility to the massive former RockTeen Co. paper mill on Madison Road, across from Crossroads Church.
We've all seen MadTree's distinctive canned beers around town. The three MBA-schooled founders of the business are as shrewd at marketing as they are at brewing, making their brand one of the most recognized in the Cincinnati area.
Only recently had we first stepped into MadTree's Kennedy Avenue brewery, as the place is so ragingly popular that one would be hard-pressed to find good parking on any given day. We arrived shortly after their doors had opened one early weekend afternoon to meet some friends for a birthday celebration. A wave of malty, yeasty aromas hit me as the six of us stepped into their large tap room for some lunch and brew.
MadTree typically offers about 15 different varieties of beer, available by the glass, growler or as 4 oz beer flights. They've also partnered with Catch-a-Fire, a wood-fired pizza company that had started off with a food truck parked at the brewery but now sports a permanent kitchen (at least until MadTree moves to Madison Road).
We started off with a variety of MadTree beers and Catch-a-Fire appetizers. I chose 4-ounce servings of the dark "Gnarly Brown" ale and "Thundersnow" beer, along with an order of "Taters:" slices of roasted red-skinned potatoes topped with bacon, creme fraiche, onion and gorgonzola. I also ordered six wood-fired chicken wings with Jerk sauce.
My girlfriend ordered the 4-ounce "Dreamsicle," a light, vanilla/orange Kölsch as well as a personal-sized veggie pizza brushed with roasted garlic & olive oil and topped with Kalamata olives, goat cheese, Peppadew peppers, artichokes and spinach.
Our friends choose another order of wings with a BBQ sauce infused with MadTree's Happy Amber beer, along with a large "Simmer Down" pizza with fire-roasted tomato sauce, Italian sausage, jalapenos, red onions and five cheeses.
My girlfriend and I especially enjoyed our first swig of Dreamsicle, for its initial smack of orange and vanilla was truly reminiscent of a Creamsicle pop. It's a perfect, light concoction for those who don't care for hoppy beer. I appreciated the spicy, dark richness of the Thundersnow beer, but thought the Gnarly Brown a little too bitter for my tastes. One of our friends tried MadTree's "Get Off My Lawn" beer, which we found to be a smooth-tasting homage to the best Irish Reds.
The pizzas overall were a little thicker than I typically like, and they surprisingly lacked the crispiness I've come to expect from wood-fired ovens. My girlfriend found her veggie pizza to be surprisingly bland, a common problem she finds with sauceless veggie pizzas. On the other hand, Catch-a-Fire's "Simmer Down" pizza was a success, getting a collective thumbs up for its spicy, meaty heartiness.
I was especially impressed with our wood-smoked wings, and the Happy Amber BBQ-sauced variety was the clear winner in our group, with its deep, complex sauce and a pleasantly caramelized char to the chicken skin. We were also fans of the Taters side, its bubbly Gorgonzola cheese complimenting the crispy slices of red-skinned potatoes.
There's no question MadTree and Catch-a-Fire have a runaway hit, using the proven, time-tested pairing of pizza and beer as a firm foundation. We look forward to trying their new Madison Road location in the coming year.