The Rising Tide of Local Craft Breweries

Hops that look like rabbit pellets dribble from a plastic bag onto a vintage hops scale at Market Garden Brewery’s brewhouse.

Shaun Yasaki of Platform Beer Co. carefully measures the flavoring agents before in-house brewing wizard Andy Tveekrem deposits them into a Ziploc bag for a quick freeze in preparation for use in their collaboration brew.

“I’m already getting thirsty,” Tveekrem says.

“Yes, I think we all are,” Yasaki agrees.

A few weeks later, the resulting Rising Tides Belgian IPA christens the tap handles at the newly opened Platform Beer Co., a microbrewery and incubator located just a few blocks away from Market Garden Brewery and the greater Ohio City core brewery district.

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The joint brew is a tributary that flows into local craft beer’s growth, buoyed by the contagious spirit of Cleveland’s artisan brewers. In fact, the sudsy offspring was named for a recurring metaphor that Ohio City craft brewery entrepreneur Sam McNulty frequently touts to express the local brewers’ industry approach: “A rising tide lifts all ships.”

Platform Beer Co. is the latest example of that cooperative. The incubator is a result of owner Paul Benner’s pay-it-forward philosophy after an Akron home brewing dilettante facilitated Benner’s own leap from apartment brewing to opening his first business, Cleveland Brew Shop, which sells home brewing supplies.

“My friend from Akron helped me navigate all the ins and outs and figure out how to open a business that serves those who love making beer,” Benner says. “The local brewers’ passion for craft beer inspires you so that what started as a hobby for me became a career.”

Platform Beer Co. hopes to further that vision for others. The small-batch brewer is offering free 12-week education programs that allow participants to use its commercial space for brewing while learning about creating a business plan, marketing, branding and navigating the web of government regulations.

“Our concept was to be an incubator before we even wanted to open a brewery,” Benner says.

This fall Platform Beer Co. graduates its first participant, Kyle Roth of home brewing cooperative Ferndock Brewing. With completion of the program, Roth is one step closer to launching his own brewing operations. Benner and Yasaki will throw a public graduation party after each student completes training and will feature the home brewer’s craft beer on Platform’s tap handles.

Neighborhood a hub for growth

Ohio City alone has five craft breweries, with continued investment pouring in.

“If you want to be a craft brewer, particularly in or around Ohio City, you have to be collaborative,” Benner says. “The spirit is so alive.”

Great Lakes Brewing Company anchors the epicenter of Cleveland’s craft beer community and attracts about 250,000 visitors annually. The nation’s 20th-largest craft brewery based on sales volume, Great Lakes is in the midst of a $7 million expansion plan after completing another $7 million expansion in 2011.

McNulty, Tveekrem, and their other business partners are in the nascent stages of pumping major investment into the Palace of Fermentation, which will augment their neighboring umbrella of beer bars with distribution-scale production, fermented foods, and retail space.

Other microbreweries are filtering in and along the urban neighborhood’s fringes, including Hansa Import Haus on Lorain Avenue, Brick and Barrel on Columbus Road in Cleveland’s Flats, Earlybird Brewing on the border of Ohio City and Stockyards neighborhood, and Butcher and the Brewer on East Fourth Street.

Matt Cole, owner of North Olmsted-based Fat Head’s Brewery, has been scouting Ohio City for a possible outpost, with McNulty eagerly courting his search.

Meanwhile, ancillary businesses like beer tour operator Cleveland Brew Bus, JC BeerTech, and Brewnuts are emerging. JC Beer Tech relocated its soda line and draft beer installation business from Medina to Ohio City, in the space directly above Platform Beer Co.

“We wanted access to a mature market, and the chance to piggyback on other local brewers’ success,” says JC BeerTech founder Justin Carson.

Brewnuts is making inroads into Cleveland’s craft beer culture, selling its donuts made with local craft beer from its temporary storefront in Tremont, at local coffee shops, and even at Platform Beer Co. This past summer USA Today recognized the upstart as one of the nation’s 10 best donut shops.

The energy and density in this corner of Cleveland will no doubt facilitate continued investment in its craft beer economy. But the familial relationship among the region’s artisan brewers foretell continued growth, despite some speculation that the region’s craft beer market has reached maturity.

McNulty has a particularly optimistic outlook on Ohio City’s prospects.

“Everyone compares us to Portland in terms of density, quality, and diversity of offerings,” McNulty says. “Give us three years, and we’ll be the number one destination for craft beer in the world. Yes, I said ‘world.’”

Go with the flow

The collectively determined spirit of Cleveland’s craft beer community arguably played a key role in the shift from the city’s reliance on heavy manufacturing to a creative, entrepreneurial, post-recession economy. Locals weren’t drinking craft beer to drown their sorrows; they were celebrating a revival. Urban planners from coast to coast took note, and Cleveland’s urban rejuvenation, bolstered by local craft brewers, became a national narrative.

Cleveland Beer Week was started in 2009 as the first event of its kind in Northeast Ohio to help project that story. This year’s sixth annual event, held October 10-18, will feature 100 local and national brewers at more than 350 regional events. For the first time, local brewers will pair off with national brands to co-produce a variety of small-batch session beers for the event kickoff.

“This whole thing is about collaboration,” says event organizer Christine Montague. “Even the wholesalers who are in competition with each other, the retailers, the suppliers, they’re all working together with the brewers to showcase Cleveland craft beer. I’ve never seen such a group of individuals work together so hard toward a common goal.”

Hop to it

A crosswalk away from Great Lakes Brewing Company, Tveekrem heaves a 55-pound bag of malt onto a dolly and wheels it across the oft-gridlocked West 25th Street to fellow brewer Luke Purcell. The gesture is a favor returned.

“We borrow malt or hops from one another if one of us runs out,” Tveekrem says.

The dolly idles against the brewpub’s brick wall, while the longtime craft beer colleagues take a seat on the patio to discuss the geometry associated with Great Lakes Brewing Company’s latest 600-barrel fermenter and bright tank installation.

In other industries, these former coworkers could be considered competitors (Tveekrem, as a former Great Lakes’ brewmaster, was Purcell’s boss). And cross-marketing? Leave that off the table.

“The exchange of ingredients or information is part of the story of each of us working together to build up this industry,” Tveekrem says.

Purcell adds, “Of course we’ll exchange a beer or two.”

“Indeed,” Tveekrem says. “We have to stay lubricated.”

Plan your visit to the breweries and restaurants of Ohio City at OhioCity.org.