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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

Sips of Summer: 12 picks to quench your thirst

614now

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When it gets hot, you gotta find a way to deal, and we at 614NOW understand and sympathize. Here are our recommendations to help you cool down when the temperatures rise.

16-Bit | Hulk Hogan
What’s more summery than lemonade? Boozy lemonade. And what’s more summery than boozy lemonade? Dropping in a frozen red, white, and blue bomb pop in the center of the drink! The iconic popsicle from your childhood is back and you’re gonna need a front row seat to your own sip down, brother!

Matt the Miller | Blueberry Basil Limoncello Martini
Skip the regular menu. Here’s a martini for brunch instead! Two of summer’s favorite flavors come together in one glass with Stoli Blueberry and Limoncello, along with basil, lemon juice and simple syrup.

The Bottle Shop | Carribean Queen
The Bottle Shop is known to whip up just about any creation you can think of, and their tiki drinks are quintessential summer vibes. Of course, the classic mai tai is available in these aesthetically pleasing tiki glasses, but our eyes are all on the Carribean queen. The drink boasts a savory over sweet flavor profile thanks to the Rum Zacapa 23 as well as the orgeat (almond syrup) which provides a slight nutty taste. The drink also features earl grey tea-infused falernum to add a floral profile, plus some mint sprigs to garnish.

Standard Hall | Red Sangria
Nothing says summer like a cool glass of sweet sangria. Standard Hall’s Red Sangria is a blend of Pinot Noir, Triple Sec, Absolut Grapefruit, lemon juice, lime juice, and marinated fruit. It comes in a single serving, but once your friends catch a glimpse, they’ll want more than a gulp, so go for the shareable size.

Hubbard Grille | Agave Cooler
Now that you’re grown, hopefully you’ve graduated from stealing your mom’s wine coolers and embarked on a new adult beverage endeavor. But, now we’re sending you back to your roots with Hubbard Grille’s Agave Cooler with A New Amsterdam Vodka, pure agave, pink grapefruit and lime juices, fresh basil; served on the rocks. Your mother would be proud.

Oddfellows | Lushie
With new options nearly every week, Oddfellows’ lushies are a sure fire way to beat the heat this summer. This frozen drink is similar to a slushie you’d find at a gas station, but it’s been upgraded with boujee flavors and booze. Options like The Carter have been featured in the past which is a mixture of Bumbu rum, creme de cacao, and lemon making for a bright orange cocktail perfect for the patio.

Asterisk | Asterisk Orchid
Take time to stop and smell the roses (or the orchids) this summer. From the Asterisk proprietary cocktail menu, a choice of vodka or gin, St. Germain, with notes of lime, rose, and cucumber. A flower in a glass!

Local Cantina | Mango Manzana Margarita
How can you go out for Mexican food without getting a marg to sip on the patio? The Mango Manzana Margarita combines Patrón Silver and Patrón Mango Citrónage with agave, lime, lemonade, and is garnished with an apple slice and a luxardo cherry. By our counts, that’s at least three servings of fruit per glass.

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Two Truths | Penicillin
This is one penicillin shot that even staunch anti-vaxxers will won’t be able to resist. With two scotches serving as a base for this ginger and fresh-lemon infused cocktail, penicillin at Two Truths is good for what ails you!

Huli Huli Tiki Lounge | The Painkiller
And if Penicillin can’t solve what ails you, a good old Painkiller should just about do the trick. This island-inspired cocktail features Sailor Jerry’s Spiced Rum with pineapple, coconut, and orange with the option to have it served on the rocks, or frozen. Beyond a drink that will take your mind straight to the beach, the bright pink flower garnish coupled with a pineapple slice and a speared cherry makes this drink every bit Instagrammable as it is drinkable.

Light of the Seven Matchsticks | Running with Scissors and Playing with Matchsticks
This signature cocktail at this exclusive speakeasy is everything your mother warned you about. One sip of this high-falutin’ mixture of brown-buttered bourbon, Dolin Dry, Benedictine, and a house ancho syrup, and you’ll see why rules were made to be broken.

The Market Italian Village | Barrel-aged Negroni
Go native while visiting Italian village with this twist on the classic drink from the boot-shaped old country. Vim and Petal Heritage Blend Gin join Cynar 70, Sherry, and Apricot in this smoky, barrel- aged cocktail—Maddon’, that’s good!

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Food & Drink

10 Restaurant Week destinations for date night out

614now

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Sometimes just getting out of the house is the priority. Other times, getting out of the house without the kids is the priority. When that time strikes, get the sitter on lock and hit the town.

Restaurant Week July 15-20 is the perfect time to reconnect with your significant other without breaking the bank. Here are our top 10 picks for date night out during Restaurant Week!

South Village Grille | 197 Thurman Ave, Columbus

South Village Grille is a romantic little spot tucked in a happening strip of Thurman Avenue. During Restaurant Week, indulge in oysters (aphrodisiac), scallops, and even pork chops. Round out your night out with beignets.

Wolf’s Ridge Brewing | 215 N 4th St, Columbus

You may have been to the taproom out back, but have you dined in the front? It’s a beautiful space where beautiful food is served, like lamb racks and Black Forest Chocolate Cake.

Trillium Kitchen & Patio | 2333 N High St, Columbus

Trillium is a modern kitchen with a splendid patio, often times hosting live entertainment! Wine and dine your loved one with Trillium’s diverse wine list, tasty Restaurant Week menu, and romantic digs.

The Keep Kitchen & Liquor Bar | 50 West Broad Street Mezzanine Level, Columbus

With the watermelon salad in the first course, BBQ chicken in the second, and strawberry shortcake for the third, this summer-time menu will be the perfect seasonal date. And the dark wood ambiance will make you want to cozy up close to your date.

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The Boat House at Confluence Park | 679 W Spring St, Columbus

Suggested wine pairings with every course during Restaurant Week will help direct you and your lover down a path of sensuality. And if you’re lucky enough to get seated by the fireplace, the heat will turn up even more, literally.

M at Miranova | 2 Miranova Pl, Columbus

M recently underwent a stunning remodeling that is sure to wow your date. The menu features both surf and turf, so your taste buds will be wowed, as well.

Asterisk | 14 N State St, Westerville

This intimate supper club will really encourage you to relight the flame between you and your significant other. And with familiar favorites like ravioli, meatloaf, and chicken pot pie, you’ll go back to your roots and remember why you feel in love in the first place.

Lindey’s | 169 E Beck St, Columbus

We know it’s hot outside, but Lindey’s patio is worth the sauna experience. This restaurant is the epitome of romance and can be yours to experience for just $35 during Restaurant Week.

Spagio | 1295 Grandview Ave, Columbus

Spagio is the perfect spot for a nice dinner and, with a window on Grandview Avenue, people watching. Let the conversations flow over seafood, pastas, and prime cuts of steak during Restaurant Week.

The Market Italian Village | 1022 Summit St, Columbus

For a fun, light-hearted date with lots of character, this is your destination. Exceptional quality, outstanding service, and approachable atmosphere: The Market Italian Village.

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Food & Drink

Newly-remodeled M at Miranova has the most unique cocktails ever

Laura Dachenbach

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After a quick spring break, M at Miranova is back and open to the public with a new look, shedding its old browns and bronzes for pops of purple and elegant, cooling grays. The 18-year-old fine dining establishment is ready to show off a beautiful wooden floor, its terrace with spectacular views of the river and the city, its lounge made for an evening of small bites, an almost complete menu change, and its new line of seasonal signature cocktails.

Two Ships (Photos by Brian Kaiser)

Developed by award-winning bartender Cris Dehlavi and the beverage team, the line showcases the classic flavors of summer: coconut, pineapple, lemon, and rum.

M at Miranova aims to welcome all, and the line covers a spectrum of tastes. There’s something for everyone at your table, from the light, refreshing oral mix to the heavier, spirits-forward drink, all with an emphasis on superb and fun presentation.

“Gone are the days of the plain old glass,” said Dehlavi from behind the bar, bringing forth her concoctions.

Magic Elixer

The appropriately-named Magic Elixir, a beautiful balance of spirits and flavors, comes to your table as a blue liquid (thanks to butter y pea tea) poured over ice and garnished with flowers. Your server will add a vial of lemon tableside and ask you to stir as chemistry turns the drink a beautiful lavender. Botanist gin and an aloe vera liqueur give the drink a taste as sophisticated and surprising as its presentation.

“There’s nothing like the look on somebody’s face when you put something down in front of them like that,” said Dehlavi.

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The AHA!, a simple and refreshing drink combines a California Brut sparkling with pineapple and coconut flavors, and comes served in light- bulb shaped glassware, a nod to its moment of creative inspiration.

“We really wanted a low-proof cocktail, and kept playing with different ideas. Nothing was working,” said Dehlavi. “My daughter loves coconut water and she had coconut water in the fridge one day and I had a swig of it […] and I thought, ‘What about pineapple liqueur, coconut water, and bubbles?’ and it worked.”

AHA!

Ordered solo, the Two Ships combines Don Pancho rum, amaro, banana, and bitters over whiskey rocks. Ordered for two (or as a taster for four), the drink comes in a globe suspended on a wooden stand containing a blown glass ship and a bit of dry ice for effect.

The creamy You’ve Met Your Matcha and the rich Great Vieux round out the summer line. Your server will snap a Polaroid of the latter, but each of the drinks plays to an audience of Instagrammers, so your own phone is welcome, too. After all, it’s an experience—an impressive, yet accessible array of cocktails, and Dehlavi notes a few are already starting to become favorites.

You’ve Met Your Matcha

“I think presentation is super-important,” said Dehlavi. “We take a real culinary approach to our cocktails. Just like a culinary approach to food, you can put a piece of salmon on a plate with some asparagus and there it is, or you can make it gorgeous. And we always think about that with cocktails, too.”

M at Miranova is at 2 Miranova Pl. To book a reservation, visit matmiranova.com.

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