Cleveland’s Rich Beer History

Pat Conway Tells All

Ever shopped at Dave’s Supermarket in Ohio City? If so, you were browsing for produce and milk atop a piece of Cleveland brewing history.

Underneath the store and its parking lot are the old brick vaults of the Schlather Brewing Company, which hummed productively until Prohibition in the 1920s.

Or maybe you’ve merged onto I-490 from East 55th Street? That was once the site of the Fishel Brewery, manufacturer of the popular Gold Bond, Crystal Rock, and Old Timer’s Ale brews through the 1960s.

These were just two of the 30 independent brewing companies that thrived in Cleveland around the turn of the 20th century.

Most Clevelanders aren’t aware of the depth and scale of the city’s brewing history, says Pat Conway, founder of the Great Lakes Brewing Company.

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Even today, as Great Lakes’ sales grow 15 to 20 percent annually, it sells just under 150,000 barrels of beer per year. Compare that to the million barrels per year once sold by Schmidt Brewing Company, which operated at Quincy Avenue and East 95th Street, across from what’s now the Juvenile Justice Center, until 1984.

Conway and his sales associate Terry Ryan have become the unofficial keepers of the city’s brewing history. They say it’s the outcome of 25 years of working in the local brewing business.

“I’ve always been smitten by history, so it’s been a natural thing for me to dig into,” Conway says.

Some of his and Ryan’s knowledge comes from rifling through old files at the Western Reserve Historical Society. But they also learned a lot from the old-time brewers who—also unbeknownst to most locals—helped Great Lakes Brewing Company establish itself during its formative years in the mid- to late-1980s.

“When Pat came back to Cleveland in 1985, he didn’t realize he’d be the only game in town,” Ryan says. “By then, every single other Cleveland brewery had closed.”

That was a problem, because Conway needed help. He had no brewing experience outside a homebrewing attempt that he describes, with a laugh, as “horrible.”

Some of those breweries’ key employees were still kicking around, though. Thaine Johnson, former manager of the Schmidt Company, was one of them.

Initially, Conway asked Johnson to be a partner in his fledgling business.

Johnson demurred. At the time, he was in his 60s, and wasn’t interested in the risks and vagaries of entrepreneurship. Instead, Conway and his brother Dan—then a full-time bank loan officer who was advising Pat on business matters—hired Johnson as a consultant. Schmidt’s former brewing engineer, Charlie Rice, also came on board as advisor.

Johnson and Rice guided the Conway brothers toward opening their brewery and restaurant in Ohio City in 1988.

As it turned out, the timing was perfect. Starting when they did allowed them to maintain—just barely—a continuous lineage in Cleveland’s brewing history. If Conway had started his business even a few years later, Johnson and Rice might not have been there to provide a connection to all that came before.

Over their years of working with the Conways, the two men also shared their knowledge of the city’s brewing history.

For example: the first beers brewed in Cleveland weren’t the ubiquitous lagers of today’s mainstream, but heavier Englishstyle brews.

“In Cleveland, our founding fathers were from Connecticut, so they brought ales and porters with them,” Pat Conway says.

Back then, it was common for bars to make their own beer. The city’s first brewer, according to Ryan, was probably Lorenzo Carter, Cleveland’s notoriously freewheeling first permanent resident, who ran a tavern in the Flats in the earliest years of the 19th century.

Later, larger-scale breweries began to establish themselves. When Conway first opened his brewery/restaurant in an old livery on Market Avenue in Ohio City, he found a sign from the 1860s painted on the building’s façade. “Lloyd & Keys Old Stock, Kennett Ales & Porters on draught,” it read. “For family and medicinal purposes. Dan Rogers, proprietor.”

Conway laughs. “Isn’t that great? ‘Family and medicinal purposes.’ It speaks to a very different attitude about alcohol back then.”

When larger numbers of German immigrants started arriving in Cleveland in the mid- and late-1800s, lagers began to supplant ales in popularity.

This was the golden age of independent brewing, in Cleveland and around the country. The advent of refrigeration and pasteurization allowed companies to distribute more widely than ever before. By the late 19th century, the United States was home to some 3,000 breweries.

But three developments during the first half of the 20th century squashed the independent brewing scene.

First, industrialization led to increasing pressure to streamline and consolidate operations. The Cleveland-Sandusky Brewing Corporation, founded in 1897, conglomerated 11 Northern Ohio breweries in an effort to compete more effectively for national market share. Even so, by 1919 all but three member breweries had closed.

Then came Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. The remaining breweries in the Cleveland-Sandusky chain tried to adapt to survive by manufacturing low-alcohol “near beer,” soft drinks and even evolving their barrel-making ability into woodworking shops. Some of these strategies succeeded, though the companies emerged in a weakened state.

The true death knell came with World War II. Economic upheaval and increasing industrial efficiency meant that only the very largest brewers could survive.

Almost as bad, Conway says, were the consequences to flavor.

“To save resources, breweries reduced the amount of grain they used for their beer and it became more and more watered down,” he says. “Now you’re into the 1950s and 1960s, and the country goes through a terminal case of the ‘blands.’ Not just beer, but Wonder Bread, coffee out of a can.”

One of the few Cleveland operations to survive this era was the Carling Brewing Company, which employed 385 people at a repurposed Peerless Motor Car factory on Quincy Avenue and East 95th Street. It produced Red Cap Ale—a rare ale in an age of lagers.

The company closed in 1971, and its facility passed the following year to Philadelphia-based Schmidt. Sometime after Schmidt’s closure in 1984, the building was demolished.

Great Lakes’ main brewery building, on Carroll Avenue in Ohio City, is one of the city’s few original brewery-related buildings to survive to the present day. It was the stable for the Schlather Company.

“I’ve studied a lot of [psychologist] Carl Jung, and that was a real synchronicity, that that building happened to be available when we needed to expand,” Conway says.

Today, the national brewing landscape has in some ways returned to how it looked 120 years ago. About 3,000 brewing companies dot the land. Most produce craft brews that collectively account for about 17 percent of the $100 billion annual market, though the share is growing, according to the Brewers Association.

Conway believes Cleveland is well-positioned to take advantage of the upward trajectory in craft brewing.

“Beer making is water intensive, and a lot of breweries will be struggling because of depletion of water supplies,” he says. “But we have 20% of the world’s freshwater at our doorstep. We just have to be sure we use it responsibly.”