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The Portsmouth Brewing Company marks 170 years of serving craft brews

Feb. 03, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

PORTSMOUTH, Ohio -- Standing majestically on the banks of the Ohio River, the 20-foot-high, 2,090-foot-long Portsmouth Floodwall tells stories of glories long ago when steel mills and factories belched smoke and money.

Those were the days when Jim Thorpe ran wild on the football field for the Portsmouth Shoe Steels and when kids heads were filled with the heroic movie roping and wrangling of Duck Run native Roy Rogers.

While much of that colorful mural-preserved history has faded away into dusty books, just a block off of the river the Portsmouth Brewing Company, located at 224 Second St., has tapped into the river city's rich brewing history and is busy rewriting its future.

First started in 1843, the brewery closed during Prohibition shutting down a business that Julius Esselborn had passed onto his son Paul, a renowned brewer who was for many years the head of the Ohio Brewers Association, and who grew PBC to a 20,000 beer barrels a year operation.

With the brew equipment ripped out and sold to a brewery in Canada, the historic bricked building would house revolving businesses until 1995 when it was bought by renowned area restaurateur and homebrewer Steve Mault, who is known for his Scioto Ribber restaurant in Portsmouth.

An avid homebrewer with his brother Ira "Babe" Mault, Steve, remodeled the historic building to house a brewpub, a state of the art Brewery that began in 1997 to produce beers that paid homage to Mault's German heritage and to the brewery's original founders.

Their Portsmouth Pilsner and Crystal Gold Lager are reminiscent of the German style lagers brewed under the ownership of Julius and Paul Esselborns, and Red Bird Ale dates back to the early 1800s when the brewery first opened.

Recently armed with two new fermenters and distribution expansion that includes the famed German-heritage-hewn beer city of Cincinnati, The Portsmouth Brewing Company, whose stone foundation is the former Ohio and Erie Canal, is celebrating its 170th anniversary in 2013 in style -- with the taps on, the bottles capped and the trucks rolling again around the Buckeye State.

To check in on the closest brew pub/microbrewery to Huntington (Portsmouth is about an hour northwest up U.S. 52 from Huntington), we chatted with Emily Uldrich, a 2004 Shawnee State University graduate whose microbiology degree is coming in quite handy.

Uldrich, who has worked in everything from breaking horses to teaching natural science part-time at the bustling state university, has been working for Portsmouth Brewing Company for the past five years helping South Shore, Ky., resident head brewer Tony Thompson, brew.

Also working at the small brewery is her brother Dennis, a sales rep and delivery guy who also helps brew, and Steve Mault's grandson, Tyler Mault, a recent Marshall University grad who is the new sales rep in Cincinnati, and Nathan Marshall and Adam Chaney, two guys who help bottle the beer.

"When we were just doing draft beer we would brew once a month and filter and keg once a month," said Uldrich, one of only a handful of female brewers in Ohio. "Once we started bottling, we are now brewing once or twice a week and bottling once or twice a week, so it is a full time job. I quit teaching in December 2011 and have been over here full time since."

The brewpub and restaurant, which has staff of nearly 20 under the direction of Angie Catee, serves up about half a dozen craft brews including the PBC staples such as the Portsmouth Pilsner, the Red Bird Ale and Peerless Pale Ale, in addition to seasonals such as the Babe's Brown Porter (named for Ira) and the Imperial Steam Ale.

While those brews can be bought by the pint at the brew pub, and in to-go glass growlers, the PBC really began regional growth when it started bottling beer in October 2011 for the first time since Prohibition.

Just over a year ago, in December 2011, PBC began distributing the bottles (which now includes Portsmouth Pilsner, Red Bird Ale and just added in December, the Peerless Pale Ale) outside the greater Portsmouth area.

In 2012, the brewery went east as far as South Point (the craft brew Mecca that is Leo's Carryout), as well as into Ironton, and on up U.S. 23 into Piketon, Waverly, Chillicothe and into the greater Columbus area, home to more than 1.8 million people.

"As soon as we started bottling the phone calls came from all over the state even before we started distributing," Uldrich said. "Ozzy's in Waverly was calling and Barley Hopsters in Delaware they have a huge selection more than 500 craft brews and they were just begging us to get up there."

Tom Burke, long-time proprietor of Chillicothe's historic Crosskeys Tavern on Main Street in Chillicothe, would drive down to get the beer before they started delivering up his way.

The little river city's brews have gotten a big thumbs up in the Capitol too where their brew is available at 50 different retailers.

Brothers Drake Meadery, an urban meadery (honey wine) and bar in the heart of Columbus Short North carries only Ohio beers, wines and liquors.

"Probably our biggest success story is in Columbus," Uldrich said. "They have a meadery, and they're a really neat place because they have a bar there too where they only sell Ohio products and they have all the Great Lakes and Jackie O's, and last year their best selling beer was Portsmouth Pilsner. That's been really cool."

Uldrich said Columbus has been a great market since it's not only America's 15th largest city but on fire for the locavore movement of buying Ohio products from small mom and pop businesses.

"We were surprised that Columbus was so into the local scene and into Ohio products," Uldrich said. "You go into most grocery stores there and they have Ohio sections of beer and wine and liquor. There's a lot more interest the last few years for local products and for supporting your local economy and businesses. We are part of that movement in the craft beer industry. A lot of the big brewers have sold out to overseas interests and I think with selling out you lost some of that quality and some of the more flavorful American beer."

While the brewery now has to do separate day runs to stock up U.S. 23's small cities and another for Columbus, it is also making a natural distribution expansion to its fellow Ohio River city of Cincinnati.

"We just started bottling the Peerless Pale Ale in December and have two new fermentation vessels that almost doubles our capacity and helps us expand distribution to Cincinnati," Uldrich said. "We're really excited to be in Cincinnati. We know its a big beer town, and we're all really big fans of the Bengals and the Reds."

Taking its six packs with the distinct Ohio River flat-boat logo further into the Buckeye State has also paid off in more folks from all over the region learning the old story of the brewery and making a trip to Portsmouth to check out the brew pub and restaurant.

In fact, the brewers have been giving free tours at 5 p.m. on the first and third Fridays of the month at the brewery which has a unique covered brick walkway between the brewery and the brew pub. Once called Bailey Alley it now serves as the Banquet Hall on the Bricks (reserved for large parties). The passageway from under the floodwall to the Ice House (reputed to be part of the Underground Railroad) is still evident as a bricked up doorway in the basement of the brewery. The Ice House blew down in a wind storm in 2010, but the remains of the outer walls and a pile of brickwork is still present on Front Street.

"We used to just do the tours by request, and we still do private tours by request, but I do the public tours for free which is really unique in the brewery system," Uldrich said. "Some people call ahead but we also invite people who happen to be in here for dinner and people really like it. I talk to them about the history and they can see all the equipment and I answer any questions about the brewing process."

As with any culinary or brewery operation, the experiments continue as the brewers tweak recipes and try mashing up (pun intended) various styles, grains, hops and adjuncts.

They just brewed a Crystal Gold Lager, a low calorie light beer that comes in at about 103 calories. That will be on tap by March. Also in the fermenter is the Vulcan Dark and they plan on brewing their Red Bird Ale with lager yeast to see how it turns out.

"It's been exciting for all of us and cool to see it expand and to let people know about us," Uldrich said. "It's the first time that a lot of people have heard of us and they didn't realize the brewery was this old and that it still makes beer today. So we have a lot of people who are calling from all over the state. That makes you happy to be doing your job when you can make other people happy too."

River City Brew

WHAT: The Portsmouth Brewing Company is one of Ohio's oldest breweries as it was first started in 1843. The brewery celebrates its 170th anniversary in 2013. It is expanding with new fermenters and distribution expansion into Cincinnati as well.

WHERE: 224 Second St. Portsmouth, Ohio.

ON TAP: The brewery's craft beer taps include: Portsmouth Pilsner, Red Bird Ale, Peerless Pale Ale, Imperial Steam Ale, Babe's Brown Porter & Heffeweisbier (as of Jan. 18, 2013). Coming Soon: Crystal Gold Lager and Vulcan Dark. You can get these beers in pints at the brew pub, which has a full restaurant, and in to-go glass Growlers.

IN THE BOTTLES: PBC started bottling beer for the first time since Prohibition in October 2011. Their bottled beer (Portsmouth Pilsner, Red Bird Ale and Peerless Pale Ale) is now being distributed as far west as Cincinnati and as far north as Columbus.

GETTING IT HERE: Lawrence County locations that have PBC are: Fuzzy Duck, The Laidback Bar and BW3's in Ironton. Carry out locations include: Kwik Stop, S&S Carryout, Granny's, Tipton's Mini Market, Park Avenue Carryout and Worth-A-Stop.

The closest place to Huntington to buy it is at the craft beer mecca known as Leo's Carry Out, 1605 County Road 1, South Point. Call Leo's at 740-377-9412.

TAKE A TOUR: Free Brew House Tours are conducted at 5 p.m. on the first and third Friday of every month, and by request. The tours include Brewery History, Brewing 101 and a question and answer session.

CONTACT: For Portsmouth Brewing Co. updates, specials and events, join the PBC Beer Club for free by emailing info@portsmouthOHbrewing.com or calling 740-354-6106. Go online at www.portsmouthohbrewing.com .

BRIEF HISTORY: After German immigrant Julius Esselborn and his son Paul grew the business to make more than 20,000 beer barrels a year, the PBC had to overcome two closures, the 1909-11 Ohio Rose Laws, then National Prohibition in 1919. The brewery tried to brew a nonalcoholic beer called "Flip" to stay open but failed and closed in 1920. All of the brew house equipment was sold to a Canadian brewery.

The brewery did not produce beer again until 1997. Steve Mault, known in the region for his "Scioto Ribber" restaurant in Portsmouth, bought the building in 1995 and had it remodeled to house a Brewpub, a state of the art Brewery and a Beer Garden.

Steve and his brother, Ira ("Babe") Mault, were avid home brewers for many years, and they were successful at preserving Portsmouth, Ohio's craft brewing tradition. Their Portsmouth Pilsner and Crystal Gold Lager are reminiscent of the German style lagers brewed under the ownership of the Esselborns, and Red Bird Ale dates back to the early 1800s when the brewery first opened.

NEARBY: One of the world's longest pieces of artwork by a single artist, the more than 2,090-foot-long and 20-feet-high Portsmouth Floodwall project painted by Robert Dafford of Lafayette, La., is right behind the brewery along Front Street in the historic Boneyfiddle District of downtown Portsmouth. For more info about things to do in Portsmouth, check out the Scioto County Visitors Bureau at http://ohiorivertourism.org/index.html .