Friday, May 27, 2011

Notes from the Field: It’s getting crowded in here! Ohio's Fast-Growing Beer Scene

Only two of the nearly 200 brewers at the first International Beer Fest in Cleveland, Ohio, this past weekend were from Wisconsin: Leinenkugel and Steven’s Point, which is one of only a few craft brewers from the state that distribute to Ohio.

Despite the lack of representation, my experience there brought a lot to mind about Wisconsin and its rich, yet mostly self-contained craft beer scene and how Ohio might already be moving in a similar direction.

With a limited array of locally produced craft beers to fill store shelves, Ohio has long been a stable market for some of the region’s biggest players from Michigan (Bell’s, Founders, Jolly Pumpkin, Arcadia, New Holland, and Dark Horse), Pennsylvania (Troeg’s, Victory,  Weyerbacher, and Stoudts), and Illinois (Goose Island and Two Brothers). It also has been a long-time home for some of the many major players from the West Coast (Stone, Bear Republic, Sierra Nevada, Northcoast, Lagunitas, AleSmith, and Rogue) and Colorado (Great Divide, Avery, Fort Collins, Boulder, Left Hand, Tommyknocker, and Breckenridge). East Coast contributors like Sam Adams, Brooklyn, DogFish Head, Ommegang, Magic Hat, Southern Tier, Schmaltz/HeBrew and Smuttynose have long been in the mix as well.

These breweries have found room in Ohio not only for their year-round brews, but oftentimes also for seasonal and special releases largely due to a lack of in-state competition. Until recently, Cleveland-based Great Lakes and Akron’s Thirsty Dog were the only major local players keeping them from having their run of the Buckeye State.

This isn’t the case in Wisconsin, as you know, where the diverse array of great local brewers has earned a good share of the shelf space and tap handles from local merchants. But this weekend’s event might’ve been a sign of a sea change in Ohio beer culture that could have it soon far more resembling Wisconsin than its current melting pot of regional and national craft brews.

Of the more-than-80 domestic craft breweries in attendance at the show, 24 were from Ohio, most of which don’t yet distribute to the northern part of the state -- but many are hoping to start.

During the past several years, new breweries popping up around the state already have begun to steal market share from out-of-state brewers. Hoppin’ Frog, a Madison Beer Review favorite and winner of a 2008 GABF Gold Medal for its BORIS The Crusher Imperial Stout (the beer took a silver medal at the Cleveland fest, second only to its “doubled” sister-beer DORIS, which took the gold), has been expanding rapidly since starting production out of Akron in ’08 and is now available in 15 states including Illinois, but alas, not Wisconsin.

Indigo Imp, a brewer of Belgian-style ales in Cleveland began brewing shortly thereafter. In 2010, Crooked River Brewing (not seen since the 1990s) resurfaced from bankruptcy, and longstanding Strongsville, Ohio-staple The Brew Kettle (once named one of the Top 5 Brewpubs in the World by RateBeer) suddenly began not only bottling and distributing, but doing so in mass quantities around the area. Meanwhile, Rustbelt Brewing in Youngstown, Wooden Shoe in Minster, and Rivertown and Mt. Carmel Brewing in Cincinnati, also are now searching for their piece of the bottled beer pie in Northeast Ohio.

The brewpub scene is growing just as crowded. With several well-established brewpubs already in the area, Buckeye Brewing -- in business since 1997 -- opened The Buckeye Beer Engine, its first full-service brewpub, in 2006.  Fat Heads Saloon, winner of a silver medal at the 2010 GABF for its Head Hunter IPA, also has opened a successful brewpub in neighboring North Olmsted. The stage will get even more crowded this summer when former DogFish Head head brewer Andy Tveekrem opens Market Garden Brewery literally across the street from Great Lakes’ brewpub. The restaurant will be operated by Sam McNulty of McNulty’s Bier Markt, a locally renowned Belgian beer bar also located nearby.

I remember traveling throughout Wisconsin in 2007 and being shocked by the amount of retail shelf space dedicated to in-state breweries, most of which I had never heard of as an Ohioan because they only distributed within their home state.

The model of the small regional brewery easily able to spread its influence into nearby states appears less viable as more and more new breweries arise and saturate local markets. The biggest victims in Ohio have been mid-sized craft breweries like Weyerbacher and Left Hand, who previously could swarm the shelves with year-round staples and seasonals.

While the likelihood of losing the ability to purchase and drink beers Ohioans used to find regularly looms, the change could be considered largely a positive one. As Wisconsinites have experienced for a long time, having more locally produced options establishes a sense of pride for the products and gives travelers a unique product to sample while in town. Meanwhile, it undoubtedly brings more macro drinkers into the fold, increases interaction with the actual artisans behind the beers, and fits nicely into the recent overall trend in the food and beverage industry towards locally manufactured products.

Since most of the MBR readers live in Wisconsin: How do you feel about this? Would you sacrifice some of the many local players in your area to have access to more regional and national brews or are you happy to have a beer culture with so many local contributors?

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