Craft beer breweries bubble up to meet growing demand in central Ohio.
"Beer is in the eye of the beer holder" – Kinky Friedman
Spend time with the owners and brew masters in central Ohio's craft beer industry and two recurrent themes emerge:
"A rising tide lifts all boats," and "never say 'explode' around the brewing business."
The first idiom, originally coined by President John F. Kennedy, alludes to the camaraderie universally embraced by these skilled makers of quality suds who see each other more as comrades than competitors.
"It's all friendly, not cutthroat," says Craig O'Herron, owner of Sideswipe Brewing, a one-man-with some help from friends-operation at 2419 Scioto Harper Dr. near Valley View. "For instance, I've loaned equipment to Land-Grant brewery and I use their key washer."
The second phrase refers to the, well, boom in growth of craft brewers not only in the region but also the state. In 2012, 58 breweries operated in Ohio; today that number has doubled to 116. In central Ohio, 24 craft brew makers call the region home.
Those inflated numbers might suggest the existence of a dog-drink-dog competition, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead the business side is more like a brotherhood of beer makers. And many are award winners in some of the biggest national and international brew competitions.
Eric Bean, the owner and brew master of Columbus Brewing Co. at 525 Short St.-the area's largest craft beer maker-may have said it best at the end of a December Columbus Metropolitan Club Business Brewing lunch program.
"These guys are my friends, not like a lot of law offices that are here that pretend to be friends," Bean says, drawing loud guffaws from the crowded Athletic Club of Columbus dining room. "If we make a better beer alone, it doesn't help. The competition is not on a day-to-day business basis, and at the end of the day we drink each other's products."
Apparently local consumers are guzzling product, too. Ohio is fourth in the nation in craft beer productivity, creating an economic impact of more than $1.3 billion, responsible for more than 10,700 industry-related jobs in Ohio, says Mary MacDonald, executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association.
"The craft beer industry has just taken off, and we may be one of the fastest growing regions in the country," MacDonald says. "A lot of people have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and it's a passionate group that wants to make beer."
And while overall beer sales are down nearly 2 percent nationally, the sales of craft beer is up by more than 17 percent and has captured nearly 8 percent of the entire sales of alcohol, MacDonald says.
A few years ago, northeast Ohio was the hotbed for craft brew, but no longer. Microbrewers continue to fire up tanks and kettles throughout central Ohio.
"Columbus is a good location with a sizeable population. It's the capital and home to Ohio State and has been an economically stable place even in a bad economy," MacDonald says. "People like to support local businesses, and beer makers see this as an opportunity with a low entry in terms of licensing in Ohio."
In fact, the state has taken several steps to ease the way for craft brewers to open shop. Lawmakers in 2011 eliminated the need for brewers to buy a $3,900 permit to open a tasting room, and in 2013 they lowered the cost of the annual state license from nearly $4,000 to $1,000. The state-mandated alcohol cap stands at 12 percent currently, but there is movement to increase that ceiling to 21 percent.
Even so, the initial capital investment for most craft brewers, especially larger operations, can be significant, says Tarry Summers, founder of the Pigskin Brewing Co., scheduled to open in February at 81 Mill St. in Gahanna's Creekside Plaza.
Including local construction and occupancy permits and state and federal background checks and brewers licensing, Summers has spent $10,000 in permits and expects to spend up to $6,000 annually thereafter. Overall, many brewing operations should anticipate the need for an initial investment of a minimum of $100,000 or more and up to $750,000 or more, depending on size, say Summers and others in the industry.
Summers says he is at the high end of financial investments because he is opening a football-themed brew pub that will seat 95 people inside and another 75 or more on a beer garden and patio. The tap room will include a wall-mounted scoreboard featuring "home" brews and "visitor" beers from other craft brewers, he says. Creekside Plaza neighbor Ciao Vino Italian Kitchen will prepare food for customers.
"We're bringing craft beer to the 'burbs," Summers says. "This is our passion, and we want to make sure people are wowed."
Craft beer has clearly captured the taste buds of the beer-drinking public, says Scott Francis, often dubbed "the godfather of Columbus microbreweries." Francis, who has brewed beer here since 1988 and who has set up six central Ohio breweries, attributes the enthusiasm of craft beer drinkers in part to a sea change in American consumer preferences overall.
"In the early days, you couldn't give this beer away. Today, it mirrors society," says Francis, sipping a beer at the bar with a glass wall that reveals a multi-steel tanked brewery at the Temperance Row Brewing Company, 41 N. State St., Westerville, where he is brew master. "This relates to coffee, bakeries and restaurants. People want more flavor and craft, and they are willing to pay for it."
Francis and other brew masters say that the super hoppy IPAs-India Pale Ales-are the engine driving the current boom in craft beer.
"It's all the rage now. It's a fad," Francis says. "We ferment the beer in a tank and then transfer it to another tank and add new hops to get the aroma."
Temperance is in the heart of Westerville, a city whose "dry" reputation was strong enough even in 1909 to prompt the Anti-Saloon League, which helped spark Prohibition, to move its headquarters to Westerville from Washington D.C. The city remained dry until voters made it wet in 2005.
Tony Cabilovski, owner of the Uptown Deli and Brew, part of Temperance which opened in December, recognized the growth of the craft beer industry and decided to open shop. Dozens of pre-and-post Prohibition pictures adorn the taproom walls, including a giant 1895 portrait of State Street taken from in front of the former feed store-turned-brewery.
"I was not trying to be ironic or flippant by opening in Westerville," Cabilovski says, with a nod to the city's past. "When I thought about the city's Temperance Row Historical District, I had an ah-ha moment for naming it."
Cabilovski and many other craft brewers, including Dick Stevens, founder of the Elevator Brewery & Draught Haus, 161 North High St., believe that the craft beer bubble is no where near the bursting point.
"A lot of people are home brewers, and they want to get to the next level because they see what is happening," says Stevens, whose brewery celebrated its 15-year anniversary last November. "We could absorb more breweries in town and especially more brew pubs."
As the industry continues to expand, it might become more difficult for craft beer makers to find shelf space for these unique brews, says Stevens and others who nonetheless welcome new contenders.
"I'm all for whoever wants to get in. There is no quota on breweries," says Stevens from his taproom, 165 N. 4th St., which features a large wall map with markers representing visitors from all over the world. "No one can tell us what to brew, but the market will tell us what to sell," he says.
As the number of local brewers expands, they must scramble to find strategies to differentiate themselves in order to grab market share, say most brewers, including Geoff Towne, founder of Zauber Brewing Co., which celebrated the one year anniversary of its taproom at 909 W. Fifth Ave. in Grandview in January. That includes, of course, good beer and consistency.
"It's a big challenge to build your name and brand yourself. A lot of what we had envisioned was to be a part of the culture, and that allows us to be local, and local is hot," says Towne, who started his brewery in a small warehouse around the corner from his taproom four years ago. "We chose German and Belgium styles. And names are part of attention-getting. We use one or two words that have hooks."
For instance, Towne says, one of Zauber's beers is Buxom Blonde, which describes a "well-proportioned, curvy beer."
But to even get to the market, brewers need space to brew craft beer, and finding a spot in the Columbus area can be difficult. Eric Bean, of the Columbus Brewing Co., called it the No. 1 problem for newcomers.
Adam Benner and Walt Keys of Land-Grant Brew Co. can relate. Benner, the president, and Keys, the creative director, say it took two and a half years to pin down a site.
"We thought raising capital would be the hardest part," Benner says. "We knew we wanted to be a larger production facility, and we always wanted an urban location."
The partners found one location, but the deal fell through, and they had to start from scratch, eventually settling on a 1920 building at 424 W. Town St. in Franklinton, the site of a former elevator factory.
Their taproom, which seats 100, draws people across the span of demographics and represents about 75 percent of their revenue. They also distribute beer to about 45 local bars and restaurants.
Many of the larger local brewers bottle their product, but some use Buckeye Mobile Canning Co. in Amherst, the first mobile canning company in Ohio and Pennsylvania, to help expand their markets and increase sales. The company's website promises brewers that canning and selling their beer will also make "profitable use of latent brewing capacity." Locally, the company cans beer for Elevator, Four String, Seventh Son, North High and Wolf's Ridge brewing companies.
While many if not all craft brewers embrace social media as a marketing tool, the Land-Grant guys used it to raise initial capital, posting on Kickstarter, a fundraising platform for creative projects, raising $31,000 in 60 days. They have since invested $1.2 million in equity and renovation.
"At that time, breweries in Columbus were still novel," Benner says. "About half the money came from family and friends but the rest was from people we had no contact with. That validated it, and we used that as a proving point. We knew then there was a market out there."
Sideswipe's Craig O'Herron understands the value of each dollar, especially operating as a one-brewer shop. O'Herron has $100,000 invested in just the equipment.
"To gain market share, you have to make good beer and people will find you. That's what I did as a fan," O'Herron says. "But you can't do that forever, you have to increase marketing through word of mouth and social media."
The market is there, and if brewers build it-for now at least and predictably in the future-customers will come.
"Exponentially beers are doing really well," O'Herron says. "I get a lot of contact because I am small, and I hear more and more people want to open a brewery. The feedback speaks for itself."
TC Brown is a freelance writer.