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Craft Beer: The Next Generation

You could call Lenny Kolada the architect of Columbus craft brewing.

That’s because for years he was actually, um, an architect.

Through his extensive travels in that industry, Kolada fell in love with the classic, ’80s-style microbrewery. To him, it’s the perfect way to turn a simple business lunch into a unique experience.

After one fateful trip to Boston, Kolada was determined to give Columbus a concept of its own—and the rest is Columbus craft beer history.

He built the original Barley’s brand on his home soil, and in the midst of success throughout the 1990s, Kolada sat down to dinner one night and asked his sons, Alex, Nick, and Zak, what they thought of taking over the business one day. After a rather long and awkward silence, the youngest, Zak, spoke up:

“Well… if nobody else wants it, I guess I’ll take it.”

Of course, Kolada claims he never really envisioned any of his kids taking over the business one day, and despite the fact that his oldest, Alex, has stepped up as the head brewer at Lenny’s two breweries, he still isn’t passing the torch anytime soon.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said, emphatically. “There’s nothing else I’d want to step aside and do.”

But he’ll still crack jokes about possibly not being around to sample some of the more ambitious beers he wants to produce.

Alexander Kolada has been a fixture at the Smokehouse since he was 12. His parents took turns shuttling him to work and back until he was old enough to drive himself. Longtime regulars at the smokehouse talk about watching the kid grow up, and they’re quick to point out that he busted his ass. Daddy’s boy did not draw any easy assignments.

He must have learned a thing or two, because Alex quickly worked his way up the management ladder during a brief stint at Ted’s Montana Grill. He was the second-youngest person ever selected for their management training program and his star was on the rise, but it was there that Alex finally realized his natural calling.

“I wanted to brew beer,” he said.

The timing worked out, and a spot opened up at the Smokehouse about three years ago when Angelo Signorino decided to commit himself full time to Barley’s. Even then, Alex took a back seat as Lenny recruited Sam Hickey to take over as head brewer, with Alex serving as his assistant.

Lenny decided to seize an opportunity left vacant in the wake of Columbus Brewing Company’s move to their cavernous new digs on Harrison Road; he bought their old brew house on Front Street and launched Common House Ales. Shortly after they got the new brewery up and running, the relationship with Sam dissolved, leaving Lenny with one brewer—his boy—and two breweries to run.

“He really stepped up,” Lenny said. “I knew he was a hard worker, but he showed me that he was ready to step up and lead. He’s still got a lot to learn, and he sometimes doesn’t see the big picture, but I can count on him, and that’s the most important thing. We can work on the other things.”

That’s a pretty solid dad-boss assessment, and one Alex agrees with. So, then, what does he think of Pops?

“He’s got so much passion for what we’re doing that he doesn’t really leave anything out. We’re always talking about the business. My brother will tell us to stop talking about it because we’ll get burned out, but it’s not like that. It’s fun.”

The irony of Kolada’s place in the Columbus industry—where many long-time brewers are the ones starting their own brands—is that he’s never been much involved in the day-to-day brewing of his beer. Of course, part of that was because Lenny’s first brewer, Scott Francis, was a very experienced brewer, best left to his own devices in the brew house. Plus, when Signorino took over he was already one of the more experienced brewers in the country; not much sense in getting in that guy’s way, either. Kolada decided to let his brewers do the brewing.

Things haven’t changed much—Lenny keeps pushing the business side. And it’s good he has another capable brewer handling the tanks, so he can focus on his new social enterprise brewery, Commonhouse Ales.

Recently, just after they signed the check for the first batch’s non-profit contribution, their distributor’s warehouse burned to the ground, vaporizing several shipments of beer. With beer in the tanks, they were able to quickly bring the supply back up, but they’ve faced a few other obstacles along the way. Things haven’t quite gone according to plan, but Lenny remains optimistic. Common House is brewing good beer and giving back to the community as a “B” corporation.

“There’s so much crap going on in the world—it’s hard to figure out how to help,” he said, “Why not just take care of things right here?”

Lenny effectively traded his retirement in for Common House, so he’s not going to kick back any time soon, but having his son at his side as the brewery moves forward adds a dynamic to the team that Lenny has always placed a high value on: loyalty. Whatever experience Alex needs to add will come in time, but the loyalty that exists between a father and a son just doesn’t come along every day. The next generation is excited to step up and be a part of moving his father’s legacy forward, even if it took him 20 years to answer a simple dinnertime question.

“It’s funny,” Lenny said of Alex finding his way back into the brewery. “Scott [Francis] was never one for giving beers whimsical names. He hated it, but when he brewed that Russian Imperial Stout back in what I think was our second year, we called it Alexander’s. Most people thought it was for the Czar, but we both had sons named Alexander so it was actually named after them. Now here we are all these years later and both of them are brewing. That’s something, isn’t it?”

For more about what’s brewing with the Koladas’ beer businesses, visit smokehousebrewing.com and commonhouseales.com.