CINCINNATI - Michael Shields knows a thing or two about beer and food.
As an experienced cook who worked alongside celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse for several years and a home-brewer of 19, infusing great food with craft beer was the next natural step for his latest venture, BrewRiver GastroPub.
"I would just imagine taking something out of it and replacing it with beer and then I would start experimenting," said Shields.
Shields, a graduate of the Midwestern Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State, says he's been cooking since childhood.
"My grandmother came to live with us when I was 5 or 6 and she was a really good baker. My mother was a really good cook, so being the homebody that I was as a kid, I stayed inside and I would help cook. So by the time I was 13 and old enough to stand at the stove, I would make dinners for us...That's how it all started."
BrewRiver GastroPub, located on Riverside Drive, opened its doors on July 13, 2013. Photo by Emily Maxwell.
Shields, originally a Kenwood native, left Cincinnati to work alongside Emeril Lagasse for five years in New Orleans at the famous Emeril's. Shields later helped Lagasse open a second location in Atlanta where he lived for 2 and a half years before returning to the Tri-State.
Shields continues to incorporate his New Orleans roots into his current cuisine. The BrewRiver menu emulates traditional Cajun dishes from their popular oyster po'boy sandwich to their classic New Orleans-style brunch on Sundays.
Tapping into Cincinnati's history
The BrewRiver GastroPub opened its doors last July in the East End, but the originally intent for business partners Joby Bowman and Christian Babani was to open a brewery.
"The concept of the restaurant came out out of our interest and love of the old breweries on McMicken. That's how we decided...we really wanted to open as a brewery," said Joby Bowman, Shields' business partner and co-owner.
Bowman, also a home-brewer, scouted real estate with Babani around Cincinnati in hopes of opening a brewery. But, when the two decided to switch gears and start with a restaurant, they knew they wanted to add Shields to the mix.
"He was naturally the person we went to to talk about the food concept, knowing that he loved beer. It was like it was all written in these stars," said Bowman.
BrewRiver GastroPub offers 23 beers on tap, including several products from local breweries.
All three business partners also shared a vested interest in the Cincinnati's roots.
"That was our inspiration. -- it was Cincinnati's brewing history and when you come into the restaurant we pay a lot of homage to old brewing history, as well as river history in our city," said Bowman.
Bowman says the new efforts in Cincinnati to tap into the city's rich brewing history, is a sign of the times.
"Cincinnati had this huge history, but yet we were so behind. So I think it was one of those scenarios where we're playing catch-up and now it's happening literally all at once, which is incredibly exciting," she said.
Although other U.S. cities like Portland, Ore. and Ashville, N.C. cater to a craft brewing culture, Bowman says it's encouraging to see the support within the Cincinnati brewery community.
"All brewers [in Cincinnati] are friends with each other. They do not like to step on each others' toes... To me it's a very exciting environment to be in, especially because we came in at the beginning when there was really only Rivertown and Mt. Carmel. It's exciting to see that kind of cooperative environment."
Local food, local beer
Even though BrewRiver offers 23 beers on tap, it maintains a focus on local brews.
"We had the idea of brew pub, but couldn't find place big enough to put a small system in. [We] then came up with the idea with partnering with local brewer," said Shields.
Listermann Brewing company provides the house brews, but products from Mad Tree, Rivertown and Blank Slate are also available on tap, as well as Mt. Carmel beers in bottles.
In an effort to keep ingredients as local as possible, Shields also incorporate local craft beers into his cuisine.
"It's definitely creates a depth of flavor. We just started making our goetta with replacing half the water with an oatmeal stout from Listermann's and it turned out really good," said Shields.
Shields shops for produce and meats at places like farmers markets, Findlay Market and Carriage House Farms while also having his own garden behind the restaurant.
"We knew we were going to be a gastropub -- that was Michael's vision for food. And of course gastropub, if you look at the definition, it's craft beer-centric, local ingredients, in an environment with food that is elevated, but a comfortable environment," said Bowman.
Using local beers with his food was an easy transition for Shields.
"Say for instance, like the poutine, typically you would make that, braise it with chicken stock. I took the chicken stock and put beer in, and that's kind of how it all started."
The New Orleans Style Barbeque Shrimp is one of many main dishes made with local beer. Photo by Emily Maxwell
Even the bacon is made in house and soaks in beer for nearly a week before it's prepared to serve.
But for those just beginning to cook with beer, Shields offers the following advice: think simple.
"I would recommend starting out with a lager. In Cincinnati traditionally when people have like a Fourth of July party, people boil their brats in beer. If you're not too accustomed to it, I would start off with a lager, something like that. But those that have done it before, I would recommend an oatmeal stout -- a spicy sausage and with a sweet beer."