A Taproom Tango at Bottlehouse Brewing Company

Used to be, bars were for drinking. Used to be, bar food was an afterthought—a chipped plate of quick-fried tapas in Andalusian wine caves, a free bucket of Thames-plucked oysters in London pubs (origin of the oyster stout), stale peanuts, greasy burgers. Used to be a simpler time.

But beer has grown up and food has, too. And so, here we are, when restaurant beer menus rival their wine lists, and bar food menus rival the restaurants. Barkeeps are mixologists, food trucks are gourmet, and fancy beer is served in cans.

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Cleveland abounds with star chefs, so it’s not surprising that BottleHouse Brewing Company has good food. BottleHouse just plucked Chef Mickey Venditti, a Culinary Institute of America grad, veteran of New Orleans’s renowned Dickie Brennan’s Palace Café, and a cook with Zest Cleveland Catering. BottleHouse owner Brian Benchek first met Venditti at the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square, where he was slinging tacos from Zest’s airstream food trailer.

With Venditti now working in the kitchen at BottleHouse, a delicious plate is a given. The surprise is in your glass.

BottleHouse has some of the best, most adventurous beers in town, but you might not know it. It’s a small operation. The proprietors don’t package their beers, and kegs pop up only rarely at simpatico beer joints around town. Theirs is subtle, small-scale creativity—the best kind. Take their sour beer program, with about 30 barrels softly bubbling away in their new Lakewood space.

“We’re a small brewery, so we can do 30 different barrels, all with unique ingredients and bacteria,” Benchek says. First to emerge from their casks is a Gose, a slightly salty sour style with origins in Leipzig, Germany, and a Berliner Weisse, a light, tart wheat style from Germany.

“These are great beginner sours,” he says. “The Gose has a very mellow sourness. Our native bacteria culture has a nice funk to it.” He believes that funk rounds out the sharp edges of lactic acid that can make other sour beers too intense for first-timers.

During a time when breweries, both locally and nationally, are opening and expanding their operations in quick succession, BottleHouse chose to eschew that trend, at least for now.

“I made the conscious decision to go in the opposite direction, to stay small and produce a diverse and ever-changing lineup,” Benchek says.

The beer is served only on location in BottleHouse’s original Cleveland Heights brewery and at its Lakewood sour house. There, with those 30 barrels out in the open, drinking at the source is part of the experience. But Benchek realized he needed to offer a food menu that complemented the craft beer destination.

“Cleveland requires a food component,” he says. “We like to eat.”

Come for the beer, stay for the food. Or, come for the food, and you might find yourself staying for an unexpected beer—a retro homemade sour or a fermented-honey mead.

“Food gives us an opportunity to talk about the beer and mead. It’s an immediate conversation point,” Benchek says. “What is a mead? Most people don’t know anything about it. They think it’s syrupy sweet, or a kind of wine. We tried serving flights with chocolate pairings, but it never worked. Having a real-deal chef, though, gives us a chance to educate.”

We spoke on the eve of BottleHouse’s first Chef ’s Kitchen—a weekly spread of food made for, and with, their beers. (Other nights will feature tacos on the Zest airstream parked outside.) This evening featured chicken chili with an IPA, pulled pork braised in a malty Bière de Garde French farmhouse style, and a chicken salad paired with a strawberry melomel, or fruit-infused mead.

“The pairings are designed to enhance the character of the drinks,” Benchek explains. “We’re not just plopping down a glass and a plate. It’s a whole culinary experience.”

The diner’s experience starts with the chef ’s. Benchek explains how that melomel matchup came to be.

“It’s been aged for a year in a chardonnay barrel,” so even though Venditti smelled strawberries, “they’ve mellowed, so he starts thinking, ‘this would be great with a strawberry salad to enhance those flavors.’

“Most people think meads are super sweet, but ours is bone dry. It’s not a big syrupy, heavy mead,” Benchek says. “But the flavors of the honey come through as a ‘suggested’ sweetness. So how do you pair to that perception? You don’t want to pair it with a dessert. You don’t want the pairing to play to the wrong expectations.” (Hence the chocolate flight’s failure.) “So you pair it with something a little more savory, like the goat cheese, to round out the expectation.”

In other words, you want a surprise; the drinker thinks sweet, so you throw a curveball. That’s the way it works at BottleHouse. When good food is expected, prepare for something more.

Find details at TheBottleHouseBrewingCompany.com, or call 216.801.1455 in Cleveland Heights, or 216.926.0025 in Lakewood.