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Photo by Chris Casella

Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

It’s hard not to like Dan Cochran—he’s just a good guy. Whether you’re knocking back too many beers with him, or you’ve caught him, somewhat guarded, in his entrepreneur’s hat, the blue collar bass player comes out in him soon enough, as he stops in mid-sentence to call out what’s on the jukebox.

Everly Brothers, he interjected during a recent conversation. They were so good.

Even though he’s spent years at the side of the stage anchoring rythym sections in Columbus bands, he’s been in the role of front man for years now in the local beer sector, the default lead in the city’s still-rising third wave of craft brew. The company’s ethos has been well-curated, a mix of blue-collar (brew-collar?) hard rock and biker iconography, evident in beers like the flagship Brass Knuckle pale ale, and more recent titles like the Switchblade IPA and Skeleton Red Rye.

The connection between his former occupation and his current one is an homage to the era he toiled between the two—when Cochran was doing time in the 9-to-5 world and brewing beer in his house. Bands and beer have essentially been his life—or all the great parts of it—and he’s thrown himself into the latter with the most ambitious expansion of all the new brewers in the city.

“This is the first time,” he said, “that I’ve had a job where I am truly passionate about what we’re making and selling. I have never been more focused or determined at anything in my life. I love this business. It’s hard work, but I just love what I do.”

But, as Phil and Don Everly once sang, “love hurts.”

“Work hard,” is an understated mantra in the craft beer world. Brewing is dirty work,’ and when you’re done getting dirty, everything needs to be cleaned meticulously. When you’re not brewing, you’re bottling and when you’re done with that you need to be selling the merchandise. People see the beer distributed all over town and would be tempted to think places like Four String are flush with cash, not aware that operational costs are still a lot to soak up. Most of what you pay for a six-pack of your favorite craft beer is going right back into the next six-pack.

Since Cochran was the first third wave brewery to hit the ground running four years ago, he’s been sprinting ever since. Four String opened quietly amidst a lot of hype from other joints that wouldn’t open for a while, and though Cochran had experience brewing at home, it was nothing compared to brewing on bigger production equipment, especially the “Franken-brewery” he’d assembled from dairy vats and salad dressing kettles.

When it came time to actually brew, Cochran needed a few extra odds and ends, but the business line of credit had been maxed out. That’s when the personal credit card came to the rescue. “My future was in the tanks,” he said.

And that’s how it was for a while. Once that batch was ready, Cochran had to go out and hustle those kegs so he could buy the next batch of malt and hops. It was grueling. Over time, Cochran started to have a little money left over, which he also quickly invested back into the brewery. There was always something present to soak up what little profits lingered in the margins: temperature-controlled fermenters, new kegs, extra tap lines in the taproom, an employee, the occasional cheeseburger.

Last year he made the decision to start canning, but even that was a break-even proposition. Teaming up with a distributor helps him get his beer to more places, but they also require a healthy chunk of money in exchange.

And Cochran’s not stupid. He knows that the distributor is selling other beer, so he has his own sales people who go out and support the brand. The distributor’s job is to put beer on the shelf, but it’s Cochran’s job to make sure people buy it.

Four String was successful. Beer was moving, but Cochran was still treading water just to keep his head above water. It’s the nature of the business.

In blue-collar beer, it’s “money for nothing,” just like Mark Knopfler sang.

The market is only going to pay so much for beer, so the margins are thin. If you want to make money, volume is the key.

Cochran describes the brewery as a dream come true but acknowledges that there are times when it seems like a nightmare, too. He didn’t have a rich uncle to turn to, and he’s not going to court some investors who sit around and wait for checks to roll in. Cochran is 100 percent invested in the operation.

Cochran’s one of those people who was born to run his own business. Growing up, his family ran a restaurant in Mt. Vernon. Cochran’s preference for seedy dive bars was born from his father’s desire to get away from work and pound booze in peace. Of course, the restaurant business was one thing Cochran knew he didn’t want to be in.

“That’s why I came out of the gate with a production brewery,” he said, explaining that the higher home pub margins weren’t worth the headaches. When the new production facility on Hague Avenue is at full capacity, Cochran’s going to let somebody else stress out over the evolution of the original facility on West Sixth. Four String will maintain the taproom as a bar and entertainment venue, and use the smaller brewery to brew some specialty beers.

Ah, yes, Four String is growing and in a big way. Cochran secured a 25,000-square-foot industrial space not far from CBC’s new digs, and once he gets the three-vessel, 30-barrel brewhouse rolling, he’ll be flirting with a projected annual output of around 12,130 barrels per year. That’s roughly where Columbus Brewing Company has been deadlocked for the last few years.

The new facility could support five times that volume if need be, but for now Cochran’s got his sights set on a magic number.

“Fifteen thousand is where the economies of scale seem to kick in. If I can get to that number, we’ll have some buying power that can reduce costs. After that, we’ll go for 20,000 barrels,” he said. “We don’t have to rush it, but we do have the space we’ll need.”

Part of the expansion meant taking on a partner—Larry Horwitz, a seasoned craft beer veteran who helped Cochran get Four String up and running four years ago. Horwitz will head a brew crew that places Four String in a position to brew a full portfolio of world-class beers. The new facility will include a canning line—eliminating a costly, but helpful middleman in Buckeye Canning—and a yeast lab, giving Four String more granular control over every aspect of the brewing process.

Brass Knuckle APA (Four String’s top-seller, Switchblade, IPA, and Payback Pilsner will be the core year-round offerings, while Big Star White IPA slides the spring slot of the seasonal rotation. Backstage Blonde remains a personal favorite of Cochran’s, but the pils edged it out. Two brewing houses mean that Four String can experiment with those beers while churning out enough volume to keep everything in stock.

Money can’t buy ya love, as The Beatles said, but it can buy you a brighter future full of delicious beer.

Much like he did four years earlier, Cochran has managed to sneak up on Columbus and change the craft beer game. This expansion positions Four String to be Columbus’s second-biggest brewer, with the potential to become a major player in the statewide game. If you’re into numbers, Great Lakes leads Ohio’s craft brewers with a barrel-per-year capacity of just over 160,000. That puts them in the top 20 nationally, but even Great Lakes feels the pressure to grow—it’s part of every business’s DNA.

Expanding, of course, means reinvesting largely because it’s a grow-or-die scenario: do you pull the brakes, regroup and hope to regain momentum, or do you get out in front of the train and lay more track? Four String is living life in the fast lane—and the brakes are not an option.

“The expansion is both a product of our success as well as a necessary investment to stay in the game. For me, Four String is a dream come true. Business is on fire,” he said. “What am I going to do—not keep busting my ass? Sorry, that’s not my style. The fact is, my wife and I are personally leveraged to build this new facility. That’s small business in America. If you don’t want to take a risk, go work for a bank.”

His future is still in the tanks, but Cochran’s committed to making sure it’s a bright one.