The new ’Bustown Beer Boom
By Travis HoewischerPublished October 25, 2012
More than two decades after Columbus Brewing Company kick-started the local craft beer industry in 1988 (the highly successful Barley’s Brewing Company opened a few years later), many of their former employees and mentees, along with other savvy long-time brewers, are crafting the next great entrepreneurial movement in Columbus.
A few have already hit the ground brewing, with a few others chomping behind the gate. Cheers to these five new brews representing the capital city.
Four String Brewing Company
985 W Sixth Ave.
Backstage Blonde (Belgian Blonde)
Brass Knuckle (American Pale Ale)
There were plenty of times when Dan Cochran wondered if he was crazy. Many nights last year he’d hunker down in a sweaty warehouse full of used dairy equipment, bags of grain, and an iPod, and barely clocked out of his full-time day job, he would brew until 2 a.m., unable to imagine the success awaiting him in 2012.
Cochran was confident in his brewing abilities, and as a bass player in some of Columbus’ most celebrated rock bands (Big Back Forty and Bush League All Stars, to name a few), he’d developed a formidable palate by sampling craft brews on hundreds of tour stops. But opening and running a brewery? By the time he was in the mix, headlining Madison Square Garden seemed easier.
“Man,” he says, letting out a sigh while simultaneously turning off a cooler condenser. “It was super challenging. I had no idea. I honestly didn’t – I got an SBA loan and jumped into the deep end. Once I bought equipment and rented a building, I was in – I had to keep going. Pot committed, as they say.”
The biggest gulp came nearly a month before Cochran opened in March. He spent the last of his loan a full three weeks before he had any beer ready – i.e. nearly a month without any income.
“I just crossed my fingers,” he said. “I looked in the cooler and saw 40 kegs and I thought, ‘Wow, if this doesn’t work, I could throw one helluva party.’”
The party has arrived. The first of our five breweries to get up-and-running (six, if you count Columbus-native Hoof Hearted’s Marengo operation), Cochran’s Brass Knuckles IPA and Belgian Blonde are currently flowing from more than 50 taps spread out across central Ohio. Cochran calls the local response “overwhelming.”
“I’ll just sit at a random restaurant or bar, and watch as the bartender pulls my tap handle and see people that I’ve never met before step up and order my beer. As a home brewer since 1994, to sit at a bar and watch someone order your beer, it’s incredibly gratifying.”
Local support is part of the gratification, but Columbus is also a city with discernible taste, Cochran says.
“It transcends beer,” he said. “This whole local thing – it’s not just about ‘local,’ it’s about quality. It’s about recognizing that that matters. Cheapest isn’t always best, and people are starting to realize that.”
The best part, Cochran says, is that he and his competitors hitting the market at around the same time – coupled with the success of the existing microbreweries – ensures quality control.
“The Columbus market isn’t going to drink Columbus beer just to support Columbus – not for long,” he said. “And, I think the existing brewers in town are brewing the best beer they ever have. So, we’re going to have to be committed to brewing world-class beer. It’s local consumerism, not local charity.”
That goes for everything else local, he said.
“Jeni’s Ice Cream is the best f*cking ice cream I’ve ever eaten; I wouldn’t keep buying it just because it’s local. I buy it because it’s a damn good product.”
As far as healthy competition goes, Cochran is getting his wish. Nearly next door, one of the most well trained brewers in the city is building his own liquid pyramid.
Zauber Brewing Co.
1300 Norton Ave. www.zbeers.com
Vertigo (German Hefeweizen)
Magnum Opus (Belgian Copper Ale)
Stodgy Brown (German Ale)
Buxom Blonde (Belgian Blonde)
Myopic Red (German Red ALT)
“Welcome to the biggest little brewery that could!”
The white-walled expanse of Geoff Towne’s Zauber Brewing space on Norton Road may be minimalist, but he’s giving the tour like it’s the Wonka Factory.
Also, a former home brew hobbyist, Towne wears the sly smile of a man who realized after years of work as a packaging rep for beer companies, that the other people in the industry had jobs that were a helluva lot more fun than his.
So, he got serious by dropping out of the workforce and back into school. He enrolled at UC-Davis, one of the only places in the country you can obtain an obscure degree in fermentation science, making him the Mark Zuckerberg of the new crop of Columbus brewers.
“It wasn’t easy to tell my parents, ‘No, I don’t want to go to law school; I want to go to beer school,” he laughed. “They weren’t so sure at first, but they trusted my passion and thought, ‘Well, maybe one day he could get a job at Budweiser.’”
He did get that chance upon graduation, but he spurned the King of Beers to get his hands dirtier at famed Cleveland micro-brew house Great Lakes.
“It was a more intimate scene,” he said. “It was less starch collar, and more dudes sweating in a tank farm.”
For the last eight years, Towne has poured the inspiration he gained there, and in his graduate work in Europe, into bringing continental-style beers to Columbus. Even though he was born in Putnam County, Towne’s wife and his parents lived in Columbus, so Zauber was always thinking about coming home.
“It’s always been a place we circled on the map,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why doesn’t Columbus have a micro-brewery of size? It’s got such perfect demographics for craft beer … why isn’t it better spoken for?’ I always just felt Columbus was prime, and that there was no particular reason why there wasn’t more action. It was just an exposure issue. There is no reason why Ohioans’ taste buds are any different than anyone else’s taste buds in the country.”
Part of that exposure will come with the latest boom, Towne said, adding that, in addition to pushing each other to brew better beer, Columbus’ five new brewing operations are now tied to each other, for better or worse. The movement needs to stay healthy as much as any individual’s sales numbers.
“I am more afraid of everyone’s failure than I am of everyone’s success, because I don’t want to be lumped in with guys who messed up,” he said. “Plus, there’s only so far one dude can hand-sell his own beer; whereas, if you create a culture of expectation and a culinary idea that when you go out to a bar and you have several local choices, it’s a way for bars, in a tough economy, to define themselves.”
“It is an urban thing,” he said. “Most places you go in the country, breweries are in paved warehouse districts, or transitional neighborhoods. Great Lakes started in a not-so-good neighborhood, but now their brewery has served as a turning point there. They help move things forward. Now there are condos right next to breweries because they know that they are selling points. It’s a lifestyle thing.”
While bigger plans for the brewery are in the works, Towne has initiated his own local cultural exchange program with his Food Truck Pod concept. Every Thursday and Friday, customers can visit Zauber between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. for a chance to buy growlers and sample local street food.
Across town, one local beer guru is planning a similar extensive operation that hopes to serve as urban oasis for both craft beer enthusiast and local property owner.
Seventh Son Brewing
1101 N Fourth St. www.seventhsonbrewing.com
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (American Strong)
Black Sheep (Foreign Export Stout)
Those bad-old-days of the dilapidated Short North are not-so-distant memories for Collin Castore. When he went to work on the space now inhabited by Bodega, he can remember prostitutes knocking in earnest at 11 o‘clock at night.
“I was like, ‘No thanks,’” he said. “‘Just doing some tile.’”
A decade later, the uber-popular brew house for creatives, gallery hoppers and everyone in between, is the cornerstone of a bustling block of High Street that includes the indie art peddlers at 83 Gallery and the by-the-slice juggernaut at Mikey’s Late Night.
“People always come up to me, like, ‘This is sweet; how’d you get this spot?’” Castore laughed.
Bodega’s 50-plus craft taps are good evidence of Castore’s palate as a vendor, but he has an equally keen eye for real estate and urban renewal.
This month, along with partners Jen Burton and Travis Spencer, and brewers Colin Vent and Vladimir Ponomarev, Castore will unveil the Seventh Son Brewing Co., a 5,500-square-foot brewplex, which will be home to everything from wedding receptions to the vintage Flea events. With a full liquor license, an adjacent patio, and the ability to stage for catering, the brewery/brewpub could serve as a new jewel in the Weinland Park/Italian Village development vision.
Part of the benefit of the flexibility of the event space will be to bring in an additional revenue stream that doesn’t dilute the goals of the brewery.
“We really don’t want to get tied into like, ‘Oh, we made this one cherry wheat beer that everyone likes,’ so we get stuck making only that.”
The Seventh Son team plans to employ their artistic backgrounds (Castore is a glass blower, while Burton and Spencer both hold art degrees) to ensure meticulous market appeal. More aggressive about plans to bottle than the other local breweries, they plan to sell its Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and its Black Sheep stout in 12 oz. 4-packs within the first few months of opening.
“If a beer looks amazing and tastes amazing, they’re gonna buy it, and buy it again,” Burton said. “But, it can’t just look good and it can’t just taste good – it’s gotta be both.”
It’s all part of keeping up with what Castore calls Columbus’ “hyper-conscious” attention to detail in the local food and drink industry, which partly stems from the successful exposure of local distilleries like Middle West Spirits and Watershed.
“The aesthetic thing isn’t just with good beer,” he said. “People are much more conscientious now of what they are drinking in general. Even with mixed drinks they think about it; with their gin and tonic, they’re saying, ‘Do I want Watershed, or do I want Bombay? Do I want an English gin, or do I want a local gin?’
“It’s all where they put value. Value isn’t necessarily a price point. Yeah, it’s a seven-dollar cocktail, but the guy made it in front of me and it looked amazing and tasted amazing. That is value.”
While Castore admits he’s taking a big swing with Seventh Son, the chance to join the nationwide craft brew boom, intensify the local booze business and, perhaps, help revitalize another part of the city makes the financial and physical work of the last five years a worthy activity.
“Good beer is worth the headache,” he said.
1288 N High St.
The burst of locally produced spirits in Columbus hasn’t just infused new flavor into the local drinking scene – it’s brought inspiration.
Gavin Meyers and Tim Ward were in the audience two years ago as Middle West owners Brady Konya and Ryan Lang spoke to them and their fellow Fisher College of Business students at an entrepreneurship event at the distillery. With the glorious brass tanks serving as an impressive backdrop, their minds started to fill with ideas faster than a 10-gallon mash tun.
Within the week, the two set up a meeting over beers to discuss a brew-on-premise operation, i.e. a large-scale operation that would serve the exploding number of home brewers in central Ohio. Almost as soon as it was conceived, BRU was busy being born.
“By the time that meeting was done, I already had it named and the tagline was ‘Something is Bruing,’” Meyers said. “Within two weeks I had our first business plan, and we were already looking at locations.”
BRU, set to open soon at 1288 N High St., is taking a totally unique approach to the new brew boom by combining the brew-on-premise concept with a full-scale microbrewery and pub that will serve roughly 10 of their own brews.
“This boom is evidence that this is a real movement and Columbus is serious about craft brewing,” he said. “We’re taking it a step further.”
Meyers says they estimate there are 8,000 – 12,000 home brewers in central Ohio, many of whom are in dire need of a nearby supply store or space to expand their brewing operation from their basement or garage. Not only will it scratch the itch of the year-round brewer, but will offer a fun one-off experience for visitors in the Short North.
“There’s a culture in Columbus that seizes on experience,” Meyers said. “You can go and buy wine, but if you want to make your own, you go to Camelot Cellars. Or you go to Candle Lab and make your own candles.” BRU will also hold a full liquor license.
“We are going to be the only place in central Ohio where you can brew beer while you’re drinking a beer, chase it with a shot of whiskey, and walk home with a case of your own,” Meyers said gleefully.
BRU has spared little expense for their start-up operation, custom-ordering equipment and absorbing the pricier real estate in the Short North, a facet of the BRU development that the two decided was non-negotiable. Part of the reason: their original inspiration in Middle West and neighboring meadery Brothers Drake.
“We considered the suburbs, but when we saw the space we [later] chose, the proximity to those places and now, with Seventh Son opening, too … it was perfect,” he said. “Now, not only are we in a destination district, but we are our own district. You’ve got local vodka, local whiskey, local honey wine and local beer all within one tight little area. The Spirit District! It’s a neat fit.”
Actual Brewing Company
655 N James Rd. Suite 655
Perhaps none of the new micro boomers best represent the personality of the craft renaissance than the boys at Actual Brewing Company. Co-founders Fred Lee and Rob Camstra don’t just seize the DIY independent brewery spirit: it’s dripping from their beards.
“I want to make a Columbus Common,” Lee exclaims, his eyes widening at the prospect of a local homage to Anchor Steam’s famous California Common. “All Columbus hops, all Columbus water – I’m just tired of the coasts! East Coast is best … West Coast is best… How about the No Coast? It’s time. And Columbus is the capital of the No Coast.”
In the new class of microbrewers, Actual Co. would be the freshmen, considering that at press time they were still waiting on the government to make them legit. But Lee and Camstra, along with third co-brewer Max Lachowyn, bring decades of experience as employees of Elevator downtown, and are throwing themselves headlong into perfecting their brew for when it’s ready to hit the streets. It’s a process three years in the making.
“This quarter-of-a-million dollars-worth of science equipment isn’t just for show,” Lee says of the company’s current lab on James Road, a holding tank for their eventual Main Street location. “I know it looks like a bunch of dudes sitting around high-fiving and drinking beers, but the reality is, we’re here until 9 o’clock every night and we’re in the math. It’s moving sh*t – all day. It’s humping bags of grain. It’s kegs, and kegs and kegs …
“It’s hard-ass work for a watery product,” he adds with a laugh.
The new boom is a re-awakening for Columbus, says Camstra.
“We have our own city now,” he said. “It’s finally coming to term that Columbus has an identity.”
“People are all of a sudden realizing that the shit on the shelves in front of them is three f*cking companies,” Lee said, of corporate brewieries. “Walk down a grocery aisle, and you think, ‘All that? One guy makes it. One guy gets rich from it.’ And we’re sick of it.”
The Actual team embraces the all-boats-rise-with-the-tide theory floated by their competitors; in fact, Lee says when the brewery is up and running, his ultimate goal is to serve not just their local beer – but all of the local beer.
“I want every Columbus beer!” he said. “It’s gonna be a million-dollar draft system, but I want every single Columbus beer being made, all available in one spot.
“We could have 10 more breweries open up this year,” he went on, nearly jumping from his seat. “Everyone reading this article should invest in a local brewery today.”