Thanks to several farmers’ markets and a plethora of restaurants and food producers that use locally-sourced ingredients, it’s not a challenge to eat local in Central Ohio. It’s also increasingly easy to drink local, as evidenced by the number of wineries, distilleries, and microbreweries that have cropped up in the region over the last five years.
In this three-part Trendspotting series, we will focus on those wine, spirit, and beer makers, as well as a few industry veterans− particularly the challenges they face, future product releases, and what they should consider as they look to grow and expand in the months ahead.
Microbrew production appears to be flourishing in Central Ohio and experts predict only good things for the industry’s future here.
One reason for that rosy forecast is simple: There’s no shortage of beer enthusiasts in these parts.
“There is a healthy beer culture beginning to assert itself throughout Columbus and the breweries that are up and running are doing a good job of capturing some of that momentum,” says Collin Castore, co-owner of Bodega and co-owner of The Barrel and Bottle.
That beer culture is evident in bars like Bodega, St. James Tavern, Bob’s Bar, and the Winking Lizard, which James Marks, co-founder of the Columbus Beer Guys blog, credits with helping create an atmosphere for consumers to sample exceptional craft beers, not only from Ohio but from all over the country.
Columbus Beer Fest, North Market Microbrew Fest, and Barley’s Mini Real Ale Fest also give consumers the opportunity to explore craft beers, he says.
“Central Ohio may be a little behind the wave of craft mania that swept other parts of the country, such as Oregon, Colorado, and Michigan, but they are embracing it now,” says Michelle Hill, owner/operator of St. James Tavern.
Hill went on to say that she recently tried beer made by Rockmill Brewery, which opened in Lancaster last fall.
“They brew their beer using water from a natural spring on the property, which has the same basic composition as the waters of the Wallonia region of Belgium, which makes some amazing beer,” Marks contends. “If you haven’t been able to try to their beer yet, you’re missing out.”
Hill also complimented the brewery, saying its process results in “some very good beers, which are organic, as well.”
Rockmill currently offers four beers sold at about 20 retailers.
“We were developing the brewery for approximately two years before we opened in September and it has been exciting to finally have the opportunity to share our brew with the community,” says Matthew Barbee, Rockmill’s brewer.
On the other hand, Columbus Brewing Co., which opened in 1988, is a microbrew pioneer− and it continues to innovate.
“CBC has revamped and improved their beers over the last couple years,” Hill says. “Their brewer has tweaked a couple of their recipes, gotten rid of a couple outdated styles, and added some great new beers to their lineup, such as their IPA and many new beers in their Hop Odyssey series, which introduces a new beer each month.”
Hop Odyssey tapping party locations are announced via CBC’s website and Facebook page. The majority of its beers, though, are available in draft and bottle throughout Greater Columbus.
“Our goal is not to set ourselves apart from others locally,” says Eric Bean, brewmaster at CBC. “We are focused on making world-class beers that we love and hope that others will, too.”
Rockmill, CBC, and Elevator Brewing Co., in particular, have done a great job figuring out new styles and recipes that keep pace with consumer taste and demand, Castore says.
The hard part is keeping up with that demand. Barbee, Bean, and Elevator Operator Dick Stevens all say matching production with sales is their biggest challenge.
Elevator, which launched in Marysville in 1999 and relocated to Columbus the following year, typically brews 24 beers, 12 of which are made at its brewery; the other 12 are made at its brewpub.
Elevator offers a variety of light and dark beers, which helps distinguish it from other local microbreweries, Stevens says.
Horny Goat, a porter that made its debut in 2009 to honor Elevator’s 10-year anniversary, has been rereleased and there are plans to bottle one of the microbrewery’s draft beers, but Stevens declined to say which.
Rockmill has a new product in the pipeline, but “no sense of a release date yet,” Barbee claims.
CBC’s award-winning summer lager, Summer Teeth, will be available in early April and new bottle offerings will be out later this year. Bean says he is not a liberty to disclose specifics at this time.
The three trendwatchers we interviewed all say Central Ohio is ripe for brewery startups, though Castore did note that it is not easy to obtain bank financing for a new venture and just as difficult to find private capital.
“Minimum investment totals several hundred thousand dollars of equipment,” he says. “Underfunded/capitalized breweries create a huge workload for themselves that can potentially sink a new business.”
For those already in the game, the emphasis should be on quality and taste.
Keep making solid and interesting products, Castore advises.
“I think that local breweries should keep in mind this year that the competition is growing and the craft beer lovers in town are raising their expectations,” Hill says. “I also think that they need to remember that while the vast majority of beer lovers I know are ‘hopheads,’ it is difficult for some to make that leap right away when their palates aren’t mature. A milder but still well-produced ale that is used as a stepping stone introduction to craft beer drinking is important for gaining new customers.”
Along those lines, Marks says the more breweries appeal to the consumer, the better their sales −and reputations− will be.
To learn more about Columbus Brewing Co., located at 535 Short St. in Columbus’s Brewery District, visit ColumbusBrewingCo.com.
To learn more about Elevator Brewing Co., located at 165 North Front St. in downtown Columbus, visit ElevatorBrewing.com.
To learn more about Rockmill Brewery, located at 5705 Lithopolis Rd., N.W. in Lancaster, visit RockmillBrewery.com.
Photos provided by Elevator Brewing (top) and Rockmill Brewing/Brian Kellett (center).