Kathy O’Connell and Brandon Hughes thought they were building a beer lover’s paradise.
O’Connell and Hughes – partners in both business and life – are the cofounders of Copper & Flame in Over-the-Rhine. O’Connell calls the couple’s new establishment their "love child."
It shows. The former location of The Rook Cincy has been lovingly rebuilt. There’s an intriguing dichotomy of old and new on the first floor; exposed brick walls, reclaimed-wood tables and marquee-style letters give the room a fun atmosphere. But Copper & Flame’s allure wouldn’t be complete without the ultra-modern self-pour system that runs much of the length of both sides of the shotgun-style room.
In many ways, Copper & Flame is the craft beer experience it’s meant to be. The selection of craft beers available on the bar’s first floor via the self-pour walls – 26 taps on each side – run the gamut from light lagers to jet-black stouts and everything in between. On the right customers can find lagers, sours and Belgian styles, while the opposite wall features hoppy and dark options.
The curated beer selection is top-notch. Many of the taps pour beer from Cincinnati’s best breweries, including Esoteric, Sonder, Streetside, Brink, Northern Row and Nine Giant (where Hughes is a co-owner and O’Connell is events coordinator). The balance includes offerings from breweries outside of the region – some well-known, some not so much, but all delicious.
In addition to the beer, the bar’s second floor features 16 more self-pour taps. Eight of them pour wine (four white, four red), while the other eight pour pre-made cocktails such as Moscow Mule and Old Fashioned. The cocktails are made in-house, while the wine comes from local wineries.
The second floor also features a simple shot bar and lounge areas with soft leather furniture in the front and back of the building.
The self-pour system is a big plus for customers, especially during busy times.
"Your biggest bottleneck to getting a beer is waving a bartender down," O’Connell said.
To use the system, a customer starts a tab at the host station, which is linked to the customer’s credit card. Customers are given a card that is used to activate the taps, and beer is charged by the ounce.
O’Connell first experienced self-pour taps during a trip to Chicago a few years back. She was immediately impressed with what she was seeing. She called Hughes and pitched the idea of opening a self-pour bar in Cincinnati.
"You’re drunk. Go home. That’s a terrible idea," O’Connell recalls Hughes telling her. He was concerned that the system would remove the human element. A road trip back to the Windy City a few months later was enough to alleviate his doubts, though.
"It’s not meant to feel cold," O’Connell said. "It’s not meant to feel inhospitable."
To ensure a hospitable environment, Copper & Flame employs guides that interact with customers. They help inexperienced beer drinkers identify choices they’re likely to enjoy, often pouring free samples for those on the fence.
Copper & Flame has been open since the first week of June. While the business is off to a successful start, success hasn’t come the way it was originally expected. Exhibit A: IPAs aren’t even remotely the most popular beers in the building.
"We blow through sours like crazy," O’Connell said. "It’s amazing how many we blow through per week. That’s probably our No. 1, flying-off-the-shelf thing."
She also has been surprised by the weekend dynamic.
"We get slammed at 9 or 10 on weekends," she said. "It’s not what I expected, but it’s not a bad problem to have."
By 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the upstairs area is elbow-to-elbow full of guests. The cocktails have turned out to be extremely popular, as has the aforementioned shot bar.
"I thought we were building a bar for the beer nerds, the drinkers, whatever," O’Connell said. "I didn’t realize we were also building a speakeasy and a nightclub up there."