Beer might just be the perfect gift. Unlike the kitchen kitsch, no-good knickknacks, and other wrapped crap we tend to exchange, beer is simply shared and enjoyed, leaving nothing behind but fond memories and a few bottles or cans in the recycling bin.
But there are also hidden perks to one of our city’s most pervasive beverages, personal relationships that become partnerships and interconnected industries that make the unseen economic impact of beer more than just a smooth pour or six-pack.
“There are a lot of local businesses I work with as a brewer. We’re working with One Line Coffee in the Short North,” explained Chris Davison, head brewer at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing. “Just for the brewery, we order hundreds of pounds of coffee for all of the beers we do. The restaurant uses some, too. and we cross-promote each other. I know sometimes when I walk in, their guys are wearing our shirts. They send customers our way and vice versa.”
Agricultural infusions aren’t as ordinary as they used to be. Brewers often trade finished product with the suppliers of some of their unexpected ingredients. Wolf’s Ridge exchanges ale with a local pumpkin producer for their supply of the seasonal gourd that goes into the beer. There was also a blueberry barter that didn’t quite work out this year, which Davison hopes to revisit next summer.
Then there’s the matter of the mash, the mix of spent grain that quickly rots if left unattended. Wolf’s Ridge is one of many local breweries that has standing arrangements with local farmers who gladly pick up the mash to feed their livestock. The next time you order a local burger, bratwurst, or barbeque, you’re likely supporting your local brewery as well.
“As a brewer, it’s great not to see it go in a dumpster or landfill. It’s free waste removal for us, and free feed for them,” he noted, as well as the less formal exchanges that belie the food and beverage business. “We’ll throw them a six-pack here and there and they’ll bring us some eggs. It’s a reciprocal relationship.”
Brewing is also more than just what goes in a beer. It’s also what the beer goes in. Those woody and boozy accents aren’t accidents.
“We get almost all of our brewing barrels from Watershed. We get fresh barrels when a lot of breweries can’t,” Davison added, though there are some exceptions.
“Today in our taproom we have an event where I took our Coconut Howling Moon Imperial IPA and we aged it in a rum barrel from a little local distillery called 451 Spirits. I didn’t even know they existed until a few months ago,” Davis admitted. “The distiller came in to talk to me and said, ‘Hey, we’re really small, fairly young, and a lot of people don’t know much about us—so I want to give you a barrel for free if you’ll age a beer in it and promote us on social media.’ We took a chance and the beer came out really great, so we’ll be serving it in the taproom today along with some cocktails made from their spirits.”
Smaller brewers sometimes have an edge over larger ones when it comes to expensive or exclusive ingredients. Bigger batches inherently mean more raw material, which is often in scarce supply.
“When we buy, we typically need bulk—not consumer, or even restaurant quantities. I was recently looking for 20 gallons of local honey and the supplier for the restaurant found a source, but told us it would be two-to-four weeks and would be insanely expensive,” he explained. “We did source 40 gallons of maple syrup from Chardon, Ohio for a beer, and it was like $1500. One of the things we’re still struggling to measure is the premium for local ingredients. It’s hard to tell sometimes what value people put on that connection.”
Amy Noltemeyer wasn’t trying to tap into the loyalty of the local beer scene when she founded Growlers Dog Bones. She was just struggling to find a meaningful occupation for her son with autism. But what started as a part-time project was quickly embraced by area brewers, most of whom now sell the bags of beer-based dog bones in their taprooms.
Growlers Dog Bones are made from a recipe of beer mash, peanut butter, eggs, and rice flour, then pressed, prepared, and packaged by teams of students and young adults with developmental challenges that pose barriers to employment.
“Even when we’re not selling back to the breweries, when I go to the farmers markets, people want to know what we’re all about,” Noltemeyer explained. “Having the names of each brewery and baker on the bags gets their attention and sets us apart.”
That connection proved crucial in establishing the authenticity of the brand—both in the name recognition of the breweries by prospective customers and the personal recognition it creates for the bakers, who often start through one of several local transition-to-work programs. The social enterprise has set up shop at the Food Fort, an innovative incubator for culinary entrepreneurs with a similar mission to serve communities that also lack adequate opportunities.
“We really do market every single brewery. They are the ones who fill our buckets,” she said. “Occasionally, I’ll meet someone who is very enthusiastic about our product and the opportunities we create, who then says, ‘But I don’t have a dog?’ I tell them, ‘All of these breweries support us, so if you want to support us, you should support them.’”
Asked whether the sale of some beer bones over others was due to the preference of the people or the preference of their dogs, she was initially confident, then quite coy.
“I can tell you one of our bakers tasted them all and he says they’re pretty much the same,” Noltemeyer chuckled. “I’ve tried them, too. From one wet barley to another, they really do taste ab out the same. But with dogs—I don’t know for sure.”