Going Up

Dick Stevens is too old for this shit.

You can say that he looks good for 75, but what the hell does 75 look like, and more importantly, what does 75 feel like? The only place for an old man in the craft beer business is at the bar, with a pint in his hand.

The truth is, when all this started 15 years ago, that was the plan.

Everybody knows the story because it’s written on every six-pack. In 1999, a father-son beer drinking team started up a brewery at an old grain elevator in Marysville. Thus, the name. There was no plan. Dick had a friend who had the space but couldn’t get the license to open a brewery. Dick could.

“I called up Ryan and asked him if he wanted to start a brewery,” Dick said.

Neither one new the first thing about brewing beer. Ryan knew somebody who knew about brewing beer, but the two probably knew less about brewing than most craft beer drinkers. “I still don’t know what I’m doing,” Dick said as he was preparing for the brewery’s 15th anniversary party. “Give me another 10 years and I might know how to run one.”

Variations of that quote are everywhere. Dick likes to offer up humorous quips about the business. He’ll tell you that Elevator was a non-profit entity for a long time. Perseverance is the word he uses, and it’s his advice to aspiring brewers. Dick just kept pouring money into Elevator—his own, and a lot of it.

“We don’t have any debt,” Dick said. “We pay cash as we go.”

Not having a bank note hanging over the brewery means that Dick and his tiny-but-dedicated crew don’t have to overextend themselves and compromise the beer, which Dick admits has improved dramatically over the years. Even so, Elevator can be found around the state, and there are designs on crossing state lines in the near future. “We’ve got a few things to work on,” Dick noted. “We’ll take a look at some point next year.”

It’s not easy. Distributing statewide might mean sacrificing the impressive portfolio featured at the bar on High Street, or the taproom on Fourth. It’s fun to brew different beers, and be creative, but you can’t have fun and be creative if you aren’t making some money. Debt-free or not, there are bills to pay. Brewing beer isn’t all fun and games when brewing beer consistently at a high volume becomes the primary focus.

There are also legal hassles. The beer that validated everything when it claimed a GABF Bronze in 2007, Dark Horse Lager, has been rebadged as Dark Force because of a trademark infringement. Dick takes it in stride, but now he’s got to be ahead of the game, and claim his own trademarks. The flagship beer might have lost its name, he says, but he’ll protect the others. The barrel-aged Horny Goat is becoming an iconic release for Elevator and has a name that needs protected. Thorny Bloat probably isn’t a good name for a beer.

A combination of issues forced Dick to make what he calls his best decision as a brewer and open a brewery on Fourth Street in Columbus. Things with the landlord in Marysville were getting dicey, relationships with neighbors weren’t peachy, and Marysville just isn’t a worthwhile craft beer market. Columbus is.

“You can’t move a brewery,” Dick advised. “You have to set up a new one.”

Which wasn’t cheap, either. Dick had to liquidate some personal assets, and pour more money into the brewery at an age where most men would be buying a condo in Clearwater. $300,000 here, another hundred grand there. He retired into a grueling business where the rewards aren’t always financial. In fact, just about every penny that ends up on the black side of the ledger manages to find its way back into the brewery. There’s always another thing to buy—15 years, and it’s still a work in progress. That’s no place for an old man.

The question is right there, but something tells you not to ask. Dick started this with his son in 1999, and the plan was to turn it over to Ryan and just be the designated drinker. But Ryan died unexpectedly in 2003. Dick tells you that, but he doesn’t belabor the point. The fact that he moves on from it so easily suggests that it might not be a subject to talk about—not now. It just seems best to follow his lead.

That question, however, is answered when you walk through the brewery. It’s on the floor in the corner behind some equipment. Scrawled into the concrete is the reason Dick Stevens has poured everything into this brewery. In the shadows it reads “Ryan’s Brewery.”

Cheers to the both of you. And to another 15 years in the black.

Elevator’s 13th Floor Taproom is open at 165 N Fourth St. every Saturday from 12 p.m. – 8 p.m.