On a brisk February Saturday afternoon, the century-old FirstEnergy Powerhouse, known to locals as Windows on the River, opened its doors to nearly 1,000 craft beer lovers who were eager to taste test more than 90 beers offered by 24 of Ohio’s premiere craft breweries at the Ohio Craft Brewers Association’s (OCBA) seventh annual Winter Warmer. Lines formed at every craft beer booth with beer drinkers looking to try the area’s best brews.
The line chatter was boiling over with local pride. “Try the Willoughby Brewing Co.’s Peanut Butter Cup Coffee porter.” “Have you been upstairs to check out the Great Lakes Albert Clipper raspberry chocolate porter?” “Delicious — that’s the best word to describe Thirst Dog’s Smoked Black Lager.”
Ohio craft beer is booming — that’s no secret. The Winter Warmer’s turn out and enthusiasm for craft beer was a clear indication to Eric Bean, Columbus Brewing Co. brewmaster and president of the OCBA, that it was time for the association to kick promotion of the Ohio craft brewing industry into high gear. But first, the association aims to organize itself as it begins the transition from a strictly volunteer organization to a legit non-profit that is prepared to crusade for craft beer.
“The organization has been around for about eight years; we’ve been trying to figure out what we’re going to be,” Bean said in a crowded room of craft beer enthusiasts. “I think right now we have 42 active members of the association, while we believe there are 96 active brewery permits in the state. We’ve got some room to grow. We existed as an organization with the idea that we were going to do something, and our goal for 2013 is to make this a legit non-profit organization that promotes craft beer.”
The first step in that plan is creating an executive director position. That means defining the job role and getting the financial ducks in a row to pursue association business on a daily basis. And that’s the catch — financials. Bean was proud to say that they had never bounced a check in the association’s history, but like the small breweries the association hopes to support, growing usually means monetary pains for the group. The answer that problem could be more crowded events that promote the growing craft brewing scene.
“Nine hundred and fifty [attendees] is a great number, but we’re seeing festivals with 6,000 and 10,000 people. Those become drunk-fests, but they’re profit makers,” Bean said, acknowledging that the craft beer-focused events tend to have a bit more class. “On this level, people are here and trying beers. They’re not using pint glasses, and it’s not a ‘get-wasted’ event. It’s an afternoon event. I think our short-term goal is to promote awareness in the state to the fact that we’re making great beer with world-class brewers who are recognized on a national level by making beer in the state.”“I think our short-term goal is to promote awareness in the state to the fact that we’re making great beer with world-class brewers who are recognized on a national level by making beer in the state.” — Eric Bean, Columbus Brewing Co. brewmaster and president of the OCBAOhio is a big state, and each of the three major metropolitan areas — Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati — are at different levels of craft beer awareness. Bean, who started his brewing career in Cleveland after getting his degree in anthropology biology, explained how Great Lakes Brewing Co., which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year in Cleveland, helped launch the proliferation of craft brewing in the state. But Columbus and Cincinnati aren’t far behind as Ohio craft beer gets a foothold on local taps.
“Wholesale distributors’ awareness of the industry and their desire to participate is huge. They recognize that there’s money to be made and they’re willing to play ball,” he said speaking to the growing strength of Ohio craft brewing. “Those doors have opened. The retailers are aware. [Columbus brewers] are still dealing with some corporate concepts and getting them to understand the importance of having local beers available. I think this is one of the advantages of Cleveland. It’s such a non-commercial, mom-and-pop city, which helped Great Lakes get established. Columbus is more chain-oriented. We still have to knock on doors to get a local tap handle established. In the last two years, those numbers have significantly changed. We now get phone calls from out of state from companies who say they have restaurants, and they ask what they need to do to order our beer.”
Bean joked that they used to say that Columbus was five years behind Cleveland. Now, he says they’re about a year-and-a-half, and Cincinnati, which recently celebrated its own Beer Week, is quickly closing in the rear-view mirror.
How does this relate to the association? Bean said they’re going to need all the different areas to come together and establish events, much like the Winter Warmer, in order to grow a state-wide association.
“I think the Columbus brewers need to get together and establish an event. We need to get together with the Cincinnati guys to do this,” he said. “So that’s the goal. Spread out the events and potentially, down the road, add something that’s a state-wide event. But we’re not there yet.”
The state of brewing
For Bean and the OCBA, 2013 is all about establishing the benefits of membership and putting the association in a position to pay it forward.
“Our belief is that we owe it to the industry to establish this and make in-roads to make life easier for the smaller guys and to open some doors to make legislative pieces easier,” Bean explained. “It can be a daunting task to figure out how to tread through the alcohol industry.”
Daunting might be an understatement — just look at the battles going on in Tennessee, Texas, Florida and California. But Bean has no complaints as an Ohio brewer. Ohio has been one of the most progressive states in passing legislation to make doing business in the state easier for craft brewers. Perhaps the most progressive piece of legislation was passed in late 2011 that allowed Ohio breweries to open tasting rooms without having to buy an expensive second permit.
“The tasting room was probably the biggest thing for Ohio craft beer that has come along in 10 years. That was a huge thing,” Bean said. “Truth is the state has been fantastic in supporting us. Governor John Kasich’s administration has put through some bills that have been fantastic. I joke that I’ve been a poster boy for the Republican Party because I have nothing but good things to say.”
Bean went on to commend the state’s ability to help and encourage start-up brewers. He explained that in some states, making a phone call can get you yelled at. In Ohio, you make a phone call and the state government will try to help brewers make the right decision. It’s a refrain we’ve heard before from a new brewer in Granville, Ohio.
Still, just because brewers have had it good in Ohio doesn’t mean that it’s going to stay that way. With the explosion of craft beer comes some unusual services like growler filling, which Bean sees coming to a head on the legislative front. There’s no better time than right now to shore up the association’s game plan for creating a presence both in the industry and on the legislative side.
“These growler laws that we’re going to have to figure out are another thing that is benefiting all the breweries, but it’s the wild, wild west as far as the laws go,” Bean said. “They’re putting growler stations in every gas station; they’re everywhere in Columbus, Akron and Cleveland.”
Setting the ground work for the association’s future in order to deal with future legislative issues is paramount to the OCBA. While the association will face its fair share of challenges this year, Bean was confident that the growth will come.