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Redemption Comes in a Can: The rise, fall, and rebirth of Hilltop Lager

Mike Thomas

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These days, Dan Cochran is busy meeting with distributors and getting marketing details ironed out for the launch of Hilltop Lager—again.

In the summer of 2018, his current situation would have seemed almost inconceivable. Hilltop Lager, a decidedly working-class brew crafted by Cochran’s Four String Brewing Company, was all but inescapable in Central Ohio. With vintage-inspired art splashed across its 16-ounce cans, Hilltop and its light counterpart quickly became fixtures in the local beer scene since launching the year before.

Originally intended to compete with the likes of PBR and Miller Lite in the crowded domestic lager category, Hilltop Lager bucked all of the trends established by the modern craft beer boom. In 2018, organizers of Columbus’ Community Festival announced that Hilltop and Hilltop Light would replace those aforementioned domestics as the fest’s only American lager options. It seemed Columbus finally had a stalwart hometown lager to call its own.

And then, without warning, it was gone.

In the fall of 2018, Four String Brewing closed its doors. For Columbus beer fans, the sudden closure of the brewery behind what was fast becoming one of the city’s most recognizable brands came as a shock. Hilltop Lager was an undeniable hit—how could have this happened? Answers were not immediately forthcoming. Cochran and Four String never issued a press release or spoke with media regarding the closure.

“I wasn’t going to let the blood get in the water, but the public were very surprised, especially with the growth of Hilltop Lager,” Cochran said. “It was just getting bigger and bigger every month. That was one of the biggest disappointments for me. We finally had this hit beer, but just a little too late.”

Months removed from what was undoubtedly one of the most painful chapters of his life, Cochran opened up about Four String’s sudden closure.

“It was really all about economics and finance,” he explained. “Our original model was to be in several states, and while we were out trying to build this business, local breweries in Columbus were doubling down and getting in deeper in this market. As a result, we weren’t selling the volume of beer that we wanted to be, and we started contracting to pay the bills. When that business went away, it was hard to replace, and frankly, we got to the point where I just had to shut the doors.”

But Cochran is not content to dwell on the past. On the contrary, since Four String’s closure, he has been working tirelessly to secure a future for Hilltop Lager.

First, Cochran reached out to his friend Blake Squires for advice. With experience in tech startups, Squires used business connections to gather a group of investors and secured the brand rights for Hilltop Lager from Four String’s lenders. It was the crucial first step in the brand’s latest chapter: a planned relaunch in the summer of 2019.

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“I’m really excited that we were able to put this together as quickly as we have so we can make this summer [launch] happen. I know that the beer has been missed, and there’s just been this huge public outcry,” explained Cochran, who now serves as a consultant for the newly-founded Hilltop Brewing Company.

With the foundations of the business established, the focus shifted to establishing a plan for production. Rather than starting from scratch with a new facility, Hilltop decided that finding an established brewery to produce their products on contract would be the best course of action.

The search for a partner that could achieve the quality and volume that would be required started in Central Ohio, but the right fit could not be found. After expanding their search, Hilltop has found a home among the award-winning stable of beers at Brew Detroit in Detroit, Michigan. Brew Detroit is responsible for the modern incarnation of the heritage lager brand Stroh’s, which is in many ways a good example of what Cochran hopes Hilltop can be.

“Something I’ve said since we first started is, I want Hilltop to be the Old Style of Ohio,” Cochran explains, comparing his creation to the longstanding, culturally-ingrained brew from Chicago, Illinois.

To make Hilltop the semi-official beer of Columbus that it was born to be, Cochran recognizes the importance of bringing the brand home.

“As we grow this brand, at the top of our list is to bring production back to Columbus, Ohio. That’s important to me,” he explained.

Cochran also assures fans that the recipe of the original Hilltop Lager remains intact in its new incarnation. Hilltop is still a biscuity, easy-drinking, American-style lager packed with plenty of malted barley, incorporating adjuncts necessary for color and flavor, but never to cut costs.

Though some things remain the same, the relaunch means this brand will have to find its footing for the second time. While the future of Hilltop Lager has yet to be written, it’s hard to imagine the product that resonated so strongly with consumers will fail to find an audience following its brief departure from the market.

Speaking with Cochran, his enthusiasm for Hilltop Lager clearly runs deeper than mere business. The loss of the brand seemed to a effect him not only personally, but as someone who appreciates what a product like this can mean to a community—something for hardworking people to enjoy, identify with and depend on.

With the relaunch comes redemption. If successful, a return from the ashes of financial ruin will forever become part of the Hilltop story. It’s a brand that’s faced seemingly insurmountable hardships, and somehow overcame the odds to survive. In 2019, is there anything more American? Foreclosure couldn’t kill this beer— there’s something hopeful in that.

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Food & Drink

North Market Present: A look at the diverse community food haven

Mitch Hooper

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Ever-changing, always evolving, the North Market today serves as a cultural touchstone to what Columbus has become. Before there was an Arena District, the Greater Columbus Convention Center, and trendy shops all along the Short North, there was a place where community members could pick up fresh produce and goods. It was, and still is, an integral part of Columbus life, but now it plays a different role.

READ MORE: North Market Past: A history of the 143-year-old business

The North Market used to be a spot where beef, poultry, vegetables, and all of the options in between were available before the days of the supermarkets. There wasn’t a Kroger down the road where you could grab a pound of ground beef for dinner that night. Rather, it was perhaps your neighbor or friend who ran a butchery during the day. But that was in the late 1800s, and now with the amount of foot traffic and diverse options, the North Market has become a staple for the lunch rush as well as those going about their weekends in the downtown area. It’s one part food hall, one part farmers market, and every bit at the forefront of what has happened over the span of a century and a half.

Rick Wolfe, Executive director of the North Market (Photos: Brian Kaiser)

What the North Market leverages is community and diversity. It could be easy to fill up vendor spots with burger joints and other Midwestern classics, but Rick Wolfe said he wanted to take a different approach to give our city fresher options. Here, you’ll find Somali food, the national cuisine of one of the city’s largest immigrant communities, and the opportunity to experience a dish that’s otherwise rare in Columbus food encounters. There’s also Middle Eastern food, Indian options, and of course, there are still relics of grab- and-go-style ordering which grew the North Market to fame, filling a niche larger grocers could not. While you won’t find everything you need at the North Market—kitty litter, light bulbs, trash bags—there’s still a connection between farmers, crafters, and brewers with the community at large.

“You have to look at what’s happened around us now,” Wolfe explained. “Back in ‘95 when we moved into this building, there was no Arena. The Convention Center was just coming, there were a lot of boarded-up buildings. We have a million and a half to two million people coming here. I’d estimate that about 40% of that is tourism from the Convention Center.”

With the changing customer base comes different ways to serve, something the North Market has striven to do throughout its history.

“If we were still a fresh-only market, people would walk in and say, ‘Wow! This is really cool, but I’m not really taking a head of lettuce back to my hotel.’ We have evolved with our merchants on who comes through the doors.”

Now, the North Market can be broken up into three parts: fresh options, baked goods, and prepared food. Since Wolfe came aboard in 2013, things have changed, and he says that’s a good thing. Change is inevitable, and the North Market is all too familiar with it. His strategy for growth has been somewhat of a revolving door. The North Market serves as an incubator for local offerings to grow and learn as a business, but also it can serve as a place for vendors such as Market Blooms, which has called the North Market home since 1990, to become a known presence.

“It took me a while to wrap my arms around here and assess each individual’s needs,” Wolfe said. “And it’s not a coincidence. My mindset was—we have a lot of great prepared foods and international folks that are living in different parts of the city, but you’re not seeing it down here.”

As an example, Wolfe mentioned Lan Viet, a Vietnemse restaurant offering options such as bahn mi and the ever- popular pho. When Lan Viet first moved into the North Market in 2010, it was probably described as “exotic,” but now alongside merchants such as Firdous Express, a Mediterranean restaurant, and Satori Ramen Bar, the overall feel is one of authenticity.

The North Market now stands on the brink of a makeover, and many have questions about what changes will be coming down the road, quite literally. How will construction impact the merchants? Will parking still be accessible? What steps can be taken to make sure businesses are protected throughout this process?

“Will there be disruption? Of course there will be disruption, but will we close? We will not,” Wolfe said. “We have to get super creative on how to minimize the disruption for you—the community, the tourist, the convention folks—to get in and out of here without being too much of a pain in the ass. It’s not 100% avoidable, but we are working very hard to minimize that disruption.”

As of now, things are still full speed at the North Market as construction hasn’t quite picked up just yet. Brittany Baum, founder and owner of Brezel, a Bavarian pretzel merchant, notes that there are fears looming with the unexpected, but remains hopeful. She, like many other vendors and merchants, has been able to cultivate a team that has up to five years of experience under their belts.

“To be honest, in the sense of business owners, we just don’t know what to anticipate, at least during that construction process,” Baum said. “But I’m really hopeful, and once that construction process is done, it will really pay off. We’re just going to be faced with challenges over the next couple of years.”

Brezel has incorporated the use of food delivery services like UberEats, DoorDash, and PostMates to counter the number of customers lost to parking or traffic issues.

Another strength of the North Market is the tight-knit community that has grown throughout the years—the type of support that doesn’t give up easily. During off times, it’s no surprise to see an employee of Brezel dropping off a few pretzel sticks to the nearby Jeni’s in exchange for a scoop of ice cream.

“It’s all the businesses together that have this kind of neighborhood feel,” Baum explained. “When we are in there working with our nearby neighbors, we can quickly ask, ‘Hey, we are out of this, Can we borrow this?’ and they can ask us for things, too. So it’s a really nice vibe for not just customers, but also business owners as well.”

For Wolfe, one merchant going out of business during this project is unacceptable. His perspective on the construction remains hopeful and the future still looks bright. He mentioned that sales are at an all-time high, the merchant slots are all full, and he refuses to lose any momentum.

“These are the times in life where you make moves like this at your strongest—you don’t wait until it’s too late. And I’ve said this to everybody from past, present, and future, there’s been an evolution since 1876. This is our third building on this piece of property and we are the last one standing in this part of town. The only way we’re still here is we’ve accepted change, we’ve adapted to change, and we’ve stayed ahead of change.”

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Beyond the Latte: I put pumpkin spice on everything and it was really weird

Chris Manis

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Spice World
Illustration by Anastasia Markova  
Originally in (614) Magazine October 2016


This year I’ve decided to stop making jokes about Pumpkin Spice Lattes and join the bandwagon.

No, I’m not talking about simply ordering a PSL (Pumpkin Spice Latte) from Starbucks, I’m talking fully embracing the PSL (Pumpkin Spice Life). What was once reserved for coffee drinks and actual pumpkin pies is now a full on revolution that has invaded nearly every food and drink category imaginable. To become a true Spice Head, I needed to bring the sweet flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and ginger into every meal.

Entry One: A Song of Spice and Fire

On my drive home today, I saw some fellow Spice Heads waiting in a long line at the Starbucks drive through. Were it not for the traffic making an already long drive nearly unbearable, I would have stopped and blessed them with my PST (Pumpkin Spice Tin). Upon arriving home, it was time to begin dinner. I’ve been trying to eat somewhat healthy, and I had some boneless skinless chicken breasts and some green beans in the fridge, so my dinner was pretty much set. Normally I would brush a little olive oil on the chicken, and roast them in the oven, with some salt, pepper, and Cajun seasoning, however tonight was going to be special.

I brushed on the oil, and instead of reaching for my usual spices, I grabbed the PST (Pumpkin Spice Tin) from my bag. I added a healthy dose of my new life force (a teaspoon or two) and put them in the oven to focus on the haricot vert. I like to steam my green beans, and so I got some water boiling and set up my steam basket. I was worried that the spice wouldn’t stick to beans, so after they were finished I tossed them in some olive oil, before sprinkling on the PS (Pumpkin Spice). This did the trick. I could smell my PSC (Pumpkin Spice Chicken) roasting in the oven, and I was pretty excited. When my chicken was finished, I plated it nicely with my PSGB (Pumpkin Spice Green Beans) and dug in.

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from this meal, and it could have gone sideways really easily, but it actually turned out pretty nice. Both the chicken and green beans were cooked well, and the PS (Pumpkin Spice) didn’t detract from the meal at all. It wasn’t off-putting and almost reminded me of thanksgiving when you fill your plate with 5 different things and the flavors bleed together.

Chicken & Green beans: 3 Pumpkins Out of 5

Entry Two: Spice Head Picks a Peck of Pumpkin Pizza

I found myself hungry today in Clintonville, and decided to stop in for the lunch special (half salad and a small pizza) at Harvest. It’s one of my favorite lunch specials in town because their Kale Caesar is maybe the only salad I ever crave, and pizza is well….pizza. I was tempted to leave my PST (Pumpkin Spice Tin) in the car, but I chose this life, and I wasn’t about to give up. I spoke with sous chef John Franke briefly after I arrived, and though he was skeptical, he agreed to spice up my usual special. I handed over my precious PST (Pumpkin Spice Tin) into his capable hands.

Moments later my Kale Caesar arrived and Chef Franke explained that the dressing had been infused with some PSL (Pumpkin Spice Love). This salad was a bit of a struggle, Diary, because the bites that included hazelnuts were quite pleasant, but the bites with lots of parmesan were not ideal. I scavenged around for a bit looking for hazelnuts, but in the end, I just don’t think this will make it onto the fall menu.

Next to arrive was my PSPP (Pumpkin Spice Pepperoni Pizza). It had been sprinkled with a bit of spice before it went into the oven, so it could really get that flavor incorporated into the cheese. You could tell immediately from the smell that this was no ordinary trip to pizzaville. Chef Franke asked how it turned out and I was happy to report that it was a success. The Pumpkin Spice worked well with the salty pepperoni, and really just gave it a more savory note. It seems counter-intuitive, but if you think of ham instead of pepperoni it makes perfect sense. When you roast a glazed ham for the holidays, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger make perfect sense, and they work well with pepperoni too. Definitely an enjoyable pizza. I would eat it again. Plus the crust basically turned into those cinnamon stick dessert things that chain pizza places serve.

Caesar: 2 Pumpkins Out of 5
Pizza: 4 Pumpkins Out of 5

Entry Three: Spice Head and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Eggs

Maybe I got too greedy, or perhaps I’m just foolish, but I’ve made a terrible mistake, Diary. I want to be very clear when I say this; PSSE (Pumpkin Spice Scrambled Eggs) are truly awful. They are the absolute worst. Very jarring and altogether unacceptable. It’s like when you’re a kid and you think you’re about to take a sip of apple juice, but really it’s your dad’s warm beer. You expect one flavor, and what you get is just a fucking mess. The color is a murky brown similar to the dregs of a week old PSL (Pumpkin Spice Latte).

Run as far away as you can. These are as bad as it gets.

I’ve covered three meals, and I think it’s all I can do, Diary. I hate to cut it short, but the PSL (Pumpkin Spice Life) just isn’t for me. I thought I could live it, truly embrace it, but it is yet another failed experiment.

Scrambled Eggs : 0 Pumpkins Out of 5

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Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking hard seltzers at these local breweries

Mike Thomas

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You go to sleep one night, and seltzer is just the fizzy stuff in big glass bottles that clowns used to hose fools down with in old cartoons. You wake up, and it’s the hottest beverage trend since India Paled its famous Ale (or whatever).

While the drink predates this calendar year, there can be no doubt that the summer of 2019 belonged to hard seltzer. Whether you were getting “Truly” hammered, or disregarding all laws with White Claws, surely these fizzy intoxicants were a fixture at many a summer function you attended.

A hit with the fit crowd for their low calorie count and negligible carbs, the alcoholic seltzer sensation has washed over the nation like a carbonated, mango-flavored tsunami. Popular though they may be, these beverages are not without detractors. One article in the San Francisco Chronicle called spiked seltzers “the summer’s biggest scam,” pointing to the fact that in spite of marketing to the contrary, the drinks are not in fact seltzers, but carbonated malt beverages (like Smirnoff Ice and Zima).

With enormous international companies such as Anheuser Busch getting in the hard seltzer game, it was only a matter of time until the forward-thinking minds in our city’s booming beverage scene put their own stamp on this latest and greatest toastable trend.

While not native to Columbus per se, Cleveland’s Platform Beer Co. has won a spot in the hearts of local craft brew fans thanks to its hoppin’ downtown taproom and the consistent quality of their products. Platform is also one of the prominent regional brands to embrace the spiked seltzer phenomenon wholeheartedly.

Available in six-packs, Platform’s rotating series of hard seltzers features some flavors that will be familiar to regular drinkers of the national brands, such as black cherry. Where the brand finds a leg up on the competition is a slate of unique offerings like Passionfruit, Ginger-Lime, and Blood Orange Yuzu.

Platform’s seltzers clock in at the industry standard 5% ABV, and retain the same near-clear, bubbly appearance as most competitors. While a respected craft brewery dipping a toe in this segment might get the mustaches of snobbish craft beer purists twirling, Platform has never been known for playing it safe—and they’re not the only ones.

Seventh Son Brewing sports ample draft handles in their multi-tiered taproom, giving pilot batches of “out there” brews a place to shine among the pleasing regular lineup. With so much room for experimentation, it’s no wonder that Seventh Son has cracked the hard seltzer puzzle.

A departure from the norm in several ways, Seventh Son’s “Kitty Paw” is a raspberry-flavored seltzer crafted with 100% real fruit juice and zero artificial colors or flavors added. The striking pinkish hue of this feline- inspired booze water also helps Seventh Son’s creation stand out from the pack. Opaque and bursting with tart berry flavors, Kitty Paw should be a hit with fans of fruit-flavored lambic beers. Available on-tap only, this initial offering is just the first of a planned series of hard seltzers being cooked up by the Seventh Son team.

No hard look at hard seltzer would be complete without mention of Four Loko, the “blackout in a can” hooch concocted by a group of OSU grads that mixed copious amounts of caffeine (since removed from the recipe) with alcohol, fueling all of your worst college-era mistakes.

If the notion of alcoholic water at first seemed too absurd to believe, leave it to Four Loko to take that absurdity to the most extreme possible end. In a Twitter post dated to August 11, 2019, the company teased their own accursed foray into the hard water game with a beverage that would pair “a hint of blue razz” with a daunting 14% ABV. At the time of this writing, no such drink has appeared on store shelves, for better or worse (...better).

Only time will tell if spiked sparkling water will make the move from passing fad to permanent grocery cooler staple. Refreshing and all-too- crushable by nature, typically gluten-free, and with a fraction of the calories of even the lightest beer, it’s easy to see why summer drinkers were drawn to the spiked watering hole in droves. With companies big and small experimenting in this increasingly-crowded segment, water may just be the hottest new beverage in town.

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