There are some myths about the craft beer business.
A lot of people think it’s easy, which explains why we’ve seen such a tremendous surge in new breweries not just around Central Ohio, but the entire country. Some of those breweries are failing because they underestimated just how tough this market is. Even if you’re brewing good beer, there’s no guarantee it’s going to fly off the shelves.
In Columbus, Lenny Kolada isn’t some fresh-faced neophyte. If Central Ohio ever has a Mt. Rushmore for craft beer, his head will be on it. He’s not a brewer, of course, but he knows what it takes to make good beer. So, when he opened Commonhouse, promoting some tried-and-true Smokehouse ales to the production arm of his brewing empire, success seemed a given.
But the beer gods cursed Commonhouse, crippling distribution with a warehouse fire, then throwing some production issues in the way. Then there were personnel changes, and, finally, a shift to a new distributor.
This year has Commonhouse hitting the market with two beers: IPA For the People, a brilliant collaboration with the general public to formulate a simple, easy-drinking IPA, and the flagship 614 Good, which is classified as an Ohio Common. Other beers will almost certainly work their way into the market, but which beers make the cut remains to be seen. The IPA was a beer Commonhouse decided against brewing initially because the market space for that style is overly saturated, but it’s a style that people are just not letting go.
In addition to simplifying the lineup, Commonhouse tweaked its packaging to have a little more visual identity on the shelves. While the changes seem simple, and intuitive, it’s worth noting that this process was probably harder than formulating the recipe for the IPA.
The beer, you see, is easy. Selling it in a crowded market space is hard.
Lesson Learned: Listen to the people.
For years the elephant in the room was Elevator’s overall mediocrity. Aside from their barrel-aged beers like Horny Goat, and BarBar, people just weren’t impressed with the rest of the lineup. There wasn’t anything wrong; the beers just seemed a little dated—Elevator was stuck between floors. This wasn’t a secret to anybody at Elevator either, which is why, last summer, the decision was finally made to bring in Doug Beedy, a trained brewer with more than 20 years of experience. Vic Schlitz was a solid brewer, but he had homebrewing roots and the daily grind of cranking out the same beers he’d been brewing for years seemed to wear on him. Doug’s at peace with that aspect of brewing, and his impact at Elevator was evident as his beers hit the market toward the end of 2017. Doug is tightening up the recipes, and establishing more stringent quality controls to ensure consistency from one batch to the next.
Lesson Learned: Complacency is bad for business.
The most shocking change is the extirpation of Zauber. At one point, it was the center of the craft beer universe thanks in part to an ambitious advance marketing surge by Geoff Towne. His preference for German-style beers was a blessing and a curse: Zauber was able to build a strong following in their taproom, but the brand just didn’t have much of a presence away from home. Internal drama ensued and Geoff was bought out, bringing forth Endeavor, which precipitated a big change in the brewery’s lineup, moving away from German lagers to embrace the West Coast take on ales.
Lesson Learned: It ain’t about you.
Kindred Brewing experienced all sorts of growing pains after opening. From high level management changes, to branding, to a change in brewers and brewing philosophy, they’ve finally found themselves on stable ground.
It’s also two breweries: the larger production facility has moved away from the Eurocentric approach, and into more of a traditional craft space. The tap room on Morrison Road in Gahanna features some excellent sour beers, but the process here will be streamlined, with the portfolio of base beers being reduced.
So, aspirations have also been modified. Initially established as a regional player, Kindred is now looking to focus more energy in building its brand inside of 270.
Lesson Learned: You’ve got to learn to walk before you can run.
None of this is fun, but craft brewing is a low margin business. On the small scale these brewers are operating on, the packaging costs more than the beer it contains. Every penny counts, but you can’t get caught up in pinching pennies or the quality of the beer suffers. You have to give the people what they want, while being willing to listen, and respond to criticism. These four breweries have had the courage to listen, adjust, and adapt in ways both big and small. That tells you they’re serious about making good beer.