By Vince Guerrieri
The college town of Athens, Ohio, home to Ohio University, isn’t a particularly big city. Nestled in the Appalachian foothills, its population is around 22,000 – and many of those residents are students, so they’re temporary.
Yet Athens is home to three microbreweries and a bustling brewing scene, thanks to the area’s commitment to “30-mile meals” – meals that came from products grown or raised within 30 miles – and the city’s and school’s reputations as places where people like to have fun.
“It is small,” says Paige Alost, executive director of the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But we have a population dedicated to local food, and we have had that for 40 years. And if it’s important to residents, it becomes important to visitors.”
Craft brewing here took off in 2005, when Art Oestrike bought a bar, determined to make his own beer. He named the new business Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery, after his mother. Athens’s other breweries, Little Fish Brewing Company and Devil’s Kettle Brewing, are of more recent vintage; both sprang from the annual Ohio Brew Week, held every July in Athens.
But those aren’t the only spots for craft beer in Southeast Ohio. If you’re near the Ohio River, there’s Marietta Brewing Co. and the The Portsmouth Brewing Co., which bills itself as the oldest microbrewery in the Midwest. Portsmouth Brewing’s building was first used for brewing beer under that name in 1843; like many other small breweries it closed during Prohibition. It’s been open under its current ownership since 1997, the same year Marietta Brewing Co. opened.
Also near the Ohio River is the town of Bidwell, home to Old Mill Craft Beer, launched by the owners of the Merry Family Winery. Following the Muskingum River north takes you to Zanesville and the Weasel Boy Brewing Co. Together, in this region of small cities, these enterprises form a surprisingly lively craft brewing industry.