Photo by Chris Casella

North High & Rising

The business concept behind North High Brewing is hard to take seriously because it seems like a couple of guys decided to make money by inviting people to come and brew with them.

In truth, the business model is proven. Gavin Meyers and Tim Ward might seem like a couple of fraternity brothers living out a brewing fantasy, but they’re actually business geeks who specifically targeted an underserved niche.

They weren’t surprised that there was demand for some of their house beers, but they lacked the facility and the brewing knowledge to meet those demands. Brewing isn’t that hard. Anybody, literally, can do it. That’s the premise part of brew on-premise. But, brewing for production is a major pain in the ass. You can blow through a small fortune in a matter of days if you don’t have your game locked in. That’s why North High Brewing invited Jason McKibben to the party.

McKibben’s background includes formal coursework in brewing science, a master’s degree, and a dozen years toiling away in the bowels of every craft beer hobbit’s Mt. Doom, Anheuser-Busch, before a stint with the legendary company that effectively started craft brewing as we know it, Anchor Brewing.

Now he’s all in with North High. The production facility opened up in Milo-Grogan earlier this year, and he’s got a brand new baby girl, Vivienne Paige, in need of a college fund. A lot of people are counting on him, and he’s up to the challenge.

You’ve been around, and you have some beer cred. Why did you pick Columbus?

I used to live here. I was at AB from 2005 to 2012; I had a house in German Village until I left AB for Anchor. I loved it, so coming back here was a no-brainer. Yeah, it’s a bit of a setback in earnings, but I come from a family of entrepreneurs, and I’ve always wanted to be an owner. This was a great opportunity to do it. The cost of living is a lot lower. I’m paying 35 percent less for my house than I was paying for rent in San Francisco, but this a great opportunity. This town is ready to embrace craft beer, we just have to educate beer drinkers on what the local brewers are doing.

What contributions do you feel you can make to advance the beer culture in Columbus?

We’ve got to make sure every bar has a local handle. It doesn’t have to be North High. We have 15 breweries in town, we just have to get people to try it. Everybody at our brewery does sales calls, we need to develop taste. At North High, we want to offer a variety of styles. I like variety, and I want to see where they fit in the community, so you have to get out there and talk to the bar owners and find out what their tastes are.

Does Columbus have a signature beer? What is it? Why is it the signature beer?

Man, that’s a tough question to answer without having a lot of time to reflect on it. I guess I’d have to say Bodhi. I saw that it was ranked on Beer Advocate’s top 250 list, and that might have been the only local beer on that list, so I’d say Bodhi.

So how does Columbus make the Stone slight work for us?

I’ve got good friends at Stone, and one of them is the head brewer at the new facility. They’ve kept a tight lid on everything, but it seems like they felt like the location in Richmond was really cool. It’s on the riverfront, almost like Richmond’s Arena District. The Timkin site wasn’t cool. It will be; the city is working hard to revitalize that area. The spot has potential. The logitistics are great. It would be a fantastic site for another brewer, and there are more out there looking to expand. A lot of them, and I don’t know why, really seem attached to the I-95 corridor, but 50 percent of the U.S. population is a within a day’s drive of Ohio. There’s also a great market in Ohio.

What do you think Columbus needs to do to become a craft beer destination?

Do you mean from a consumer perspective?

I’m thinking more like the Northwest, culturally. Does the city need to do more to embrace the craft brewing movement?

You know, I have a lot of friends at AB on the north end, and they felt like they were playing second fiddle to Stone. They generate millions of dollars in tax revenue and employ a lot of people, but they felt like the city hasn’t paid a lot of attention to them, so yeah. It’s just that trends tend to start on the coasts and move inward. The craft market share in Oregon right now is ridiculous—something like 50 percent, but 20 years ago it was only 10 percent. We’ve got a lot of room to grow. When I started at AB in 2005, this was a Bud/Bud Light town. There were three craft brewers, and they were just treading water. It’s come a long way.

Speaking of your time at AB, you did an interview a few years back and said that Budweiser was your favorite beer, is that true?

Heh. Yeah, I was toeing the company line. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of pride in process control. They brew a lot of beer and it’s consistent, but there isn’t a lot of flavor.

So is craft beer more fun?

I definitely like wearing more hats. At AB you have one job. It was a little like working in a mine. A smaller company you get to do more. There’s a lot of energy in craft brewing. I get into the trade, talking to other brewers about their beers, and how to solve problems that come up. Yeah, it’s rewarding.

Favorite North High Beer: I’m really liking this Brown Ale. It’s made with caramelized wheat, so I sometimes call it the wheated brown.

Favorite Frenemy Beer: Unibrou’s La Fin Du Monde. It’s one I had a long time ago, but I like to go back to it. I’m trying to reverse engineer the recipe.