Firehouse Grill Announces Brewery Grand Opening Weekend

Note: This is the first “real” post in a very long time. It seems appropriate that it’s announcing a brewery opening.  When we went into mothballs a couple years ago we had somewhere around 35-40 breweries in town.  Now we’re north of 60.  We seem to have missed a couple. Sorry about that.

Firehouse Grill & Brewery Logo It’s not that unusual for breweries in Cincinnati to open in historic locations. Throw a rock in OTR and you’ll likely hit an old brewery building that someone is thinking about putting a brewery in.  Don’t be throwing rocks in OTR (or anywhere else), though.   You could put someone’s eye out.

Blue Ash probably isn’t  where you’d expect to find a historic brewery building, though.  And you’d be justified if you expected the building to be more than 23 years old. This is craft beer history we’re talking about, here, so the time-scale is a bit … compressed.

Firehouse Grill has been operating since 2011 as a gastropub in the building at 4785 Lake Forest Drive in Blue Ash that was once home to Watson Brothers Brewing. That brewery, along with such places as Main Street, Barrelhouse, and Oldenburg, form a group that operated in the 1990s and are collectively remembered among the longtime Cincinnati beer community as “ahead of their time.”

There must be something about operating in a building that once housed a brewery that gets into the woodwork. Owners Molly & Bob Davis announced in late June of last year that they’d be adding a brewery to their operation and today they’ve announced their opening weekend:  February 20-23, 2020.

The addition of a brewery always seemed inevitable, to be honest.  Firehouse has long been one of the stalwarts in the local beer community. They’ve consistently sponsored events featuring local craft beer in creative ways. Last March, for example, they hosted an event called “New Brew Fest” that showcased many of the (then) newest breweries in town so people see the range of what the city and region offers.  Less than a year later, they’re one themselves. As Molly Davis put it in an email, “We’re the newest brewery in Cincinnati (until the next one opens!)”

Veteran Cincinnati brewer Justin Chaney (Swine City, Common, Brink)  is Head Brewer. He’s planning to have five Firehouse -produced beers available opening weekend:

  • Sycamore Blonde
  • Blue Ash Brown
  • Summit Saison
  • Aviator Amber
  • Flightpath IPA

With two more — a Belgian Wit and a Stout — on deck for later.  The balance of the 40 taps at the bar will continue to feature a mix of local, regional, and national beers.

Planned activities include a $8 keep-the-glass special, swag givaways, tours of the 4-barrel brewhouse, food specials incorporating their beers and probably more. You can check their website or Facebook page for specifics about hours and such.

There’s one more connection between the old and the new that deserves mention. The decision by Firehouse to name its beers after local Blue Ash landmarks and lore has precedent in the very name of the brewery that preceded it at that location. There were no Watsons involved in starting Watson Brothers Brewing.  The name came from aviators Hugh and Parks Watson who founded the airport that eventually became the Blue Ash Municipal Airport. It operated for 91 years before closing for good in 2012. (hat tip to the indispensable Gnarly Gnome for that last tidbit)

As a final note I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to saying “and you can check out our event listings for all the info,” instead of linking elsewhere, but, alas, I don’t think the new event calendar system will be up and running soon enough for this event. I’m working on it. Writing posts where I link to the evil Facebook is encouragement to get the darn thing done.


1  Attention Hamilton County health inspectors: That’s a metaphor!

Blank Slate Brewing Company closes

Blank Slate Brewing Company
#RIP June 2012 – August 2017

This one hurts. A lot.

Blank Slate Brewing Company has closed, effective immediately. Tom Aguero1 and Jesse Folk over at Brew Minds posted this to the Facebook page earlier today:

We have received multiple confirmations that Blank Slate Brewing Co. has ceased operations effective immediately. As one of the original, and best, local breweries – this is truly a loss for the whole region. Please keep Scott and his employees in your thoughts today, as this is surely a hard moment for him and his team.

They wouldn’t put something like that out there unless they were sure, so I started checking around with more than a little bit of dread. And damnit, it checks out. You couldn’t have screwed this one up, guys?

It’s like a death in the family. I’m way too familiar with what that feels like so I know exactly what I’m saying when I say that. I can’t imagine what Scott and everyone else is going through.

Blank Slate is the brewery I’d name if someone asked me to name a favorite brewery. I hate that question because I really don’t have a favorite per se. I spend way more time than is healthy hanging out at breweries and when I do there’s a beer there that, at that moment, is the greatest beer in the world. And I probably went there FOR that beer. So when people won’t let it go, I’d interpret the question as “What brewery are you most in awe of?” And then it was easy: Blank Slate. No question. Scott bootstrapped that place from Day One. You didn’t have to talk to him very long to know the place ran on a razor’s edge financially. He made it work.

Until, apparently, it didn’t.

I don’t know the details. They aren’t any of my business. I know owner Scott LaFollette well enough to know that the decision wasn’t made quickly or impulsively. I’ve never asked him a question where there wasn’t a beat or two while he thought it over before he answered. I know there are things he’d never compromise on. If this is what he thought he had to do, then that’s it. Everybody is going to want to second-guess this. It’s human nature. I get it. But no one had more skin in the game than Scott. I’m not going to insult him by thinking I’m somehow smarter than he is. I will think less of you if you do. I trust he couldn’t come up with a way to make the business work and put out the product he wanted to put out. Scott has integrity. I mourn with him. I don’t criticize him.

I speak of the brewery as if Scott were the only one there. That’s not at all true. The people he hired are top-notch. They made the place what it is … er … was. (Oh, I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.)

When he had time Scott blogged about the brewery. Just after he opened he wrote this:

The success of Blank Slate Brewing Company is defined by the following (in no particular order):

1. Make the best quality beer that we possibly can.
2. Always be approachable to our customers and never forget where we came from.
3. Further the local beer industry as best we can through our words and actions.
4. Make enough money to pay the bills with enough left over to keep a roof over my family’s head, food on the table, and take my wife on a vacation somewhere farther than 10 miles away sometime in the next 5 years!

The first three were accomplished many, many, many times over. I’m guessing it was that last one that did it. It’s been five years.

So Blank Slate Brewing  is apparently no more. That’s a damned shame. The people who made Blank Slate are still with us.  Thank them. Support them how you can.

There’s a lesson here, as there is in any tragedy. This is what happens when chasing the new and the distant and the rare becomes more important than who’s making it.  You want local?  Support local.  You want great local?  Then support the places that are making great beer. Not the trendy. Not the newest. Not the flavor of the month.

Not everybody is going to make it. The choice of who does is up to you.


1 I’ve been dealing with some medical stuff and missed that Jesse was working with Tom over at Brew Minds now. My apologies for the misattribution.

Quarter Barrel Brewery’s Crowdfunding Campaign

Quarter Barrel Hamilton image
Clicking the image opens the GoFundMe page.
Oxford, OH brewpub Quarter Barrel Brewing announced a $40,000 crowdfunding campaign on July 12. The GoFundMe-based campaign is intended to support the construction of a second, larger, location in Hamilton, OH. Construction at the corner of Main and B streets has begun with plans including a five-barrel brewery, a restaurant with a farm-to-table menu similar to the Oxford location, and a rooftop deck overlooking the Great Miami River and downtown Hamilton. Plans are for the location to open sometime in Fall.

It’s not news that a local brewery is launching a crowdfunding campaign. It would be news, in fact, if a month went by where one of them wasn’t. Besides the familiar Kickstarter and GoFundMe sites, there is at least one crowdfunding platform (CrowdBrewed) specifically dedicated to raising money for breweries.  One analysis of 587 campaigns found that barely half of those efforts succeeded with an average of a just over  $21,000 raised. Play your cards right and  you can await death and taxes in a taproom that was part of an inevitable crowdfunding effort.

How to talk about crowdfunding is also a problem.  We’ve written about efforts here in the past and have reposted  announcements for others on Facebook and Twitter. Carla and I have both contributed to different ones under our own names in the past. We disclose that fact if we write about the campaigns while they’re active.  This particular campaign falls in that category.   We were only asked to publicize the campaign and were not offered (nor would we accept) anything other than whatever is included in our chosen pledge level. But there are so many campaigns. We could never write about — much less contribute to — all of them.

So why talk about any crowdfunding effort at all? Part of what I think sets small, local, breweries apart from their much, much larger kin is the community-building that happens as a result. I’m not aware of any business that wouldn’t be thrilled to have people just send them money. Heck, you can send me money.1 I’m pretty sure I can dig up a sticker somewhere. But that’s not really what these appeals are about. They’re about forging a connection between a brewery and someone who lives in that community.2

Quarter Barrel’s owner and brewer Brandon Ney has captured that sentiment perfectly in his appeal:

If you’ve never opened a restaurant before, then allow us to applaud your life choices. It isn’t cheap. A brewpub, even less so. Taken as a whole, including the build-out and property, the capital outlay for this project is over a million dollars. We are seeking to crowd fund under four percent of the total budget, or about forty thousand dollars.

Crowd funding is like your cousin asking to borrow money that you both know you’ll never see again. But we sincerely reject the idea of asking for something for nothing. So we are offering several considerations in return for your generous donation. This way we all ultimately come away with something: the best restaurant and brewpub in Butler County.

Carla and I have known Brandon through our involvement with the U.S. Open Beer Championships. The only reason we don’t stop at Quarter Barrel when we’re in Oxford is if they’re closed. The beers brewed there are outstanding. The Lavosh flatbreads are the healthiest thing with which I have an unhealthy relationship. There are other things on the menu. I’m sure they’re delicious, but I always get the Lavosh. Oxford technically falls outside the Hoperatives coverage area, but the Hamilton/Middletown/Monroe corridor is becoming a very important part of the Cincinnati beer scene. Quarter Barrel will join Municipal Brew Works in making sure each end of the Main Street bridge is close to a brewery.

Later this week we’ll be featuring a crowdfunding appeal that is equally dear to our hearts. Stay tuned.


1 But if you’re liking the idea of sending us money, remember you can always leave a tip over there in the right sidebar. Just saying.
2Please don’t misunderstand me. We have breweries here in town that serve large regions and still make community-building central to their efforts. Crowdfunding is one way to build a personal connection. It’s not the only way.

 

Where Do We Go From Here?

“You’re the Hoperatives, right?”

I’m sitting at the bar having lunch with a friend the other day. It’s a  cozy place I like a lot and don’t get to often enough. We were actually on our way somewhere else when a fruitless attempt at avoiding holiday traffic put us out front. The point was to have lunch and catch up and my friend had never been there before. There was a convenient parking spot out front, so I called an audible and here we were.

We’d both ordered a beer and the owner overheard us talking about them. It’d been forever since I’d been there, but he remembered me. There was a thing he wanted to bend my ear about.  The three of us wound up talking about it and about a dozen other things on and off for the rest of the time we were there. We eventually decided we need to get back to other things. We paid our bill and we were on our way. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience.

The owner had frequently apologized for joining our conversation and we’d both assured him it was fine. The topic was interesting, but it’s not what this is about. The point of this story is that things like this happen all the time. The only thing a little unusual about the other day is that Carla wasn’t there. We’ve both noticed we’re more likely to be recognized when we’re together than when we’re solo. It’s become a part of our lives.

Yesterday was a bit of a milestone for Hoperatives. We turned eight-and-a-half. Anyone who’s ever been an eight-year-old knows it’s very important to recognize that half year. Carla and I will have been married 19 years in just over a week. Intellectually I understand that we’d been married more than 10 years before we ever started working on this, but I honestly don’t remember what it was like not having Hoperatives be part of our identity. I don’t know if that’s actually a good thing mental-health-wise, but mental health has never been my strong suit, so I’m OK with it.

I know this is sounding a little like a eulogy. Or maybe a lot like a eulogy. That’s not the point of this either. We’re not shutting down Hoperatives. Not today, anyway. What we are doing with it is an open question. That’s the point of this. Where do we go from here? (Hey!  I have a title!)

An occupational hazard of being human is that you develop these little scripts to get you across the social landscape from Point A to Point B. The one that applies here is the one about how there were only four breweries and one brewpub in Cincinnati when we started. When we told people what we were doing we got one of two questions (that we still get to this day): “Do you sell hops?” 1and “Do you home brew?”2. Carla has described Hoperatives as an informational website for several years now. When someone asks me what it is I freeze like a deer in the headlights. I never quite know what to say. Then again, that’s true of most things people ask me about.

The thing is, “Why Hoperatives?” has always been a little vague. Over the years we’ve done things and then stopped doing them when there didn’t seem to be a need for it anymore. We used to give out Hoperatives numbers. If you search for “Roll Call” in the search box over there to the right you can still find it. More than 400 folks have asked for a number over the years, but we never really had any plans for what to do with them other than thinking it was a fun idea. If you have a Hoperatives number you’ll be happy to know that there is no list of email addresses associated with it. There’s no danger of spam because we never got that organized.

Eight years ago today. An unplanned coincidence. Also:  6:36 AM?

We used to do Hoperatives Happenings as a way for people to gather and geek out about beer without having the overhead of a beer dinner. We introduced folks (and ourselves) to places that embraced better beer. We stopped doing them when it became too hard to schedule them because there were too many other events going on. There just wasn’t a need anymore. So we stopped.

We did a blogging conference in conjunction with the Cincy Winter Beerfest for a couple of years. By the end of the second one we knew there wasn’t a reason to have a third. It was pretty obvious “Peak Blogging”  had come and gone.

More than a dozen people have written for us at one time or another. “Traveling Tuesdays” came out of the fact that many of us sought out better beer locations when we were traveling for business or pleasure. But folks have lives. They move on. They have jobs and families. Loving beer and writing about beer are two different things. Most of the regular writers were friends before they wrote for us. Now they’re friends who used to write for us. The right thing remains.

We used to do previews of new local places and beer reviews.  The reviews stopped early on because it’s a rat hole you can never climb out of. People love the reviews they agree with and hate the ones they don’t.  Thus it was, is, and ever shall be. Since we weren’t trying to change anyone’s mind, it seemed like a lot of effort for no good end.  News faded out more slowly.  All of our major local print publications do a great job with beer as a beat, as do several of the broadcast outlets. By the time we quit doing news, we were pretty much just running press releases.

So what’s Hoperatives now? Here on the site, it’s mostly event listings. It’s incomplete because it relies on a very few people emailing us, but otherwise it’s an aggregation of events that Carla finds posted on Facebook. A weekly summary gets sent out to a mailing list. We have a Twitter account that I update on occasion and Carla handles the Facebook side. We’ve suspected for some time that the Facebook reach is much wider than the site. It definitely triggers more social interaction. Perhaps because that’s what it’s designed for? Facebook wasn’t close to being the media gatekeeper it is now when we launched, but now it is.

There’s really only one thing that’s been a constant with Hoperatives: We’ve never turned a profit doing it. That’s not a complaint. We never had a plan and we’ve executed it flawlessly.  There was a time we were part of the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s blog network and that mostly covered the hosting fees and a bit more. That ended a couple of years ago when they changed their strategy. We haven’t — and won’t — run the numbers but over its life there’s no way it’s been anything but a loss financially.  Then again, so are Bengals season tickets. I think we’re ahead on that.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating by saying Hoperatives has changed our lives for the better. You probably can’t say that. It would, be kind of weird if you could. Many, many, many of you have told us how much you appreciate what we do. That’s different.  I’m proud of the perch we’ve had watching the beer scene mature here. We’ve been welcomed by brewers, distributors, and fans. Once in a while, we’ve been able to be part of bringing the parts together. A small part. I can’t honestly say there’s anything that wouldn’t have happened in the beer scene had we not existed. And that’s as it should be. We’ve been more than fortunate.

I said earlier that this isn’t a eulogy, but it’s also not a “business-as-usual” post. Hoperatives has to evolve or go away. We’ve been close to hanging it up a couple of times but it seems we find something new to start doing and run with that. Maybe we will this time. Maybe we won’t. What I can say is that we have until Sunday, December 31, 2017 to figure it out. That will be nine years to the day since we put up our first test post to make sure I’d gotten WordPress installed correctly. By that date, we figure out what we can do to be a unique part of the Cincinnati beer scene, or we call it a whatever-you-call-nine-years. We don’t know what that will be. If we did, I’d be working on that instead of writing this. We like being a resource. We’re committed to the Cincinnati beer community. It has to be something that’s worth the time we invest. Beyond that, it’s just spit-balling at this point.

We’ll come up with something or we won’t. We’re always open to talking ideas over a beer.


1  No.
2  Not really. There are so many professionals out there willing to do it for me in exchange for small amounts of money.

Sad day for Cincinnati beer

The Cincinnati beer community has lost one of its greatest boosters. Mike Cisneros, Sr. the founder, host, and heart of the Cincy Brewcast, passed away last night from a stroke.

Mike combined his passion for beer with his passion for making media. I only had a few chances to hang out with him, and I’m always going to kick myself for not finding more opportunities. You always assume there will be time.

Carla and I extend our heartfelt sympathies to his family and friends.

Annual April Fool’s Day Post

April 1 snuck up on me this year. In past years we’ve published a review of Cincinnati water, covered the announcement of a brewery sponsored by the Second Primitive Chuch of Satan (Reformed), and announced the secret collaboration between Dogfish Head and AB-InBev. This year?  I got nothing.

I called up my old friend Anton Spargewater a couple of days ago talk the situation over.

“Dude. You know I’m an imaginary character, right? ” he said, “Don’t you have anything better to do?”There's more to life than beer, but who cares?

“How do you know you’re not the real one and I’m the imaginary one, huh?” I countered, “Bet you didn’t think of that, did you?”

“I’m glad you called because otherwise I’d be backing away from you slowly right now,” he said. “By the way, why are you calling? And why go to the added step of imagining a phone call rather than, I dunno just having me talk to you in person?”

“I’m not currently wearing pants.”

“Oh. Thanks for that image,” he said, “even imaginary characters can have nightmares. Look, what do you want?”

“Can’t come up with an idea for April Fool’s Day this year.”

“And that’s my problem how?”

“You’re always in them.”

“Painfully aware of that. Still waiting.”

“So I was wondering if you had any ideas?”

“Imaginary char …” Pause.  “Oh, screw it.  You’re not going to drop this, are you?”

“Nope”

“OK, fine.” He’s clearly exasperated now. “The whole idea of April Fool’s is to come up with a ridiculous premise and try to sell it as real, right?”

“Right.”

“And you write about the beer world, right?”

“Yes,” I say, “When I can think of something.”

“Fine,” he says, “What have you got that’s nuttier than reality right now?”

“What did you mean?”

“The holier-than-thou owner of Lagunitas sells out to Heineken for a billion dollars and does it with a straight face. Stone is about to open a brewery in Germany because what the hell do those people know about making beer? There are more breweries in operation now than at any time in the history of the United States and all you read in the popular press is how craft brewing is under siege.”

“But AB-InBev…” I begin.

“…will probably be jerks because that’s their business model,” he says without missing a beat, “Somehow ‘big is always bad,’  but as best I can tell Starbucks is having trouble finding locations for new stores because Oskar Blues is already building a brewery there. And nobody says a word.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“I’m a fictional character,” he says, “and you asked for my opinion.  Bite me.”

“Sorry.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he says without drawing a breath,”and let’s not even talk about the stunt beers. I used to think the ultimate would have been Dogfish Head and BrewDog doing a collab called “Publicity Stunt.” But now you have a arms race to find the most disgusting place to culture yeast.”

“You’re talking about that Polish brewery, aren’t you?” I ask.

“If you link to them, I will end you.” he says flatly.

“No worries,” I say, ” ’tain’t gonna happen.”

“I hate you,” he says, “Keep that up and  I’ll come up with an actual corporeal existence so I can kick your ass.”

We were silent for a long time. It was really quiet. My imaginary cell phone service is really good. It only drops calls when I try to contact reality.

“We done?” he asks.

“Think so.” I say.

“Sorry you called?”

“Not as sorry as the people reading this.”

“Meh. Whadaya gonna do?”

“Hey, good talking to you,” I say, “give my best to the missus.”

“WHAT?” he screams, “I’m MARRIED? When were you planning to tell me that?”

“Gotta go,” I say quickly, “Toodles.”

And I hang up.

So that’s why there’s no April Fool’s Day post this year.

Maybe next year.

Traveling Tuesday: Carillon Brewing, Dayton, OH

When I was an undergraduate I went to a college in East Texas. We used to joke that it was three hours from Houston, three hours from Dallas, and fifty years from anywhere. Going to Carillon Brewing Company in Dayton is a little like that. It’s only an hour or so from Cincinnati, but the whole idea of the place is to take you back to the middle of the 19th-century so you can have a beer.

Carillon exterior
It rained the day we were there. This photo courtesy of Carillon Brewing Co.

Carillon Brewing  is a fully-licensed brewery and restarurant located on the grounds of the Carillon Historical Park. The park itself is an open-air living museum with 30 or so buildings. The idea is to give people a real sense of what it was like to live in Dayton in the 1850s rather than sticking artifacts behind glass in display cases. There’s a modest admission fee to the historical park area, but it’s free to visit the brewery and restarurant.

image
The brewing area. Everything is gravity-fed and heated by wood fires. Racking between brewing vessels is via open half-pipes.

The building looks old, but it was actually completed in 2014. Construction techniques from the 1850s were used everywhere modern building codes allowed.

image
It’s clear a lot of care was taken to blend education into the experience of being at the brewery. This is one of a series of diagrams on barrel heads that explains what you’re looking at as well as the brewing process itself.

One of the implications of both the building’s construction and open wooden brewing vessels is that wild yeasts and other bacteria have taken hold in the brewery. Think sour beers are a modern thing?  Think again. The day we were there we had a sour Porter that was really quite good — as long as you like sours. Not every beer there is a sour, but there are flavors you’re going to encounter that are quite different from today. There’s a Coriander ale with peppers, a beer containing beets and another containing squash.

Barrels
Barrels are constructed in an on-site cooperage.

If you’ve had enough historical exploration for one day, the brewery also serves beers from other local breweries. The food features locally grown and processed ingredients. When we were leaving from our visit we saw a young lady churning butter on the back porch. You don’t see that at Applebee’s. Spent-grain bread is baked in the ovens and is delicious. The non-alcoholic root beer is really, really good.

image

All-in-all you owe it to yourself to make the trip to Dayton and spend a little time at Carillon. You’ll learn something and you’ll have a good beer. Pretty hard to go wrong with that.

Old meets new image
The employees are all in period dress, but there are modern conveniences. You don’t need to bring chickens to barter. They take credit cards.

Short’s Brewing Entering Ohio and Indiana Markets

Good news for people I know who go to Michigan frequently. After the second week in March I will no longer be asking you to bring me back Short’s Huma Lupa Licious. The Bellaire, MI-based brewery has announced that it has chosen Cavalier Distributing to distribute its beers in Ohio and Indiana on March 19. Events involving brewery representatives won’t start until the week of April 4 and have not yet been announced.

Short's Brewing Logo

I first encountered Short’s four years ago when I made a couple trips to Detroit on business. I stumbled on the Grand Trunk Pub and it’s all-Michigan beer lineup. I tried Huma Luma Licious IPA because … well … look at the name!  and I fell in love.  It’s a citrusy hop bomb. If you like hop bombs, you’ll like it.  If you don’t, well, they make other beers as well.

The initial lineup distributed in this area will be Huma Lupa Licious, Bellaire Brown (an American Brown Ale), Soft Parade (a rye ale infused with pureed strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries), Space Rock Ale (a reduced-gluten beer) and the seasonal ControversiALE (American IPA featuring Simcoe hops). Cavalier will also distribute three ciders from Starcut Ciders, also owned by Shorts. Pulsar is a semi-dry cider, Octorock a semi-sweet cider, and Squishy is a semi-sweet cider made from cherries.

February was the first month Short’s beer was distributed outside the state of Michigan. They announced out-of-state distribution on January 28, 2016 and began distributing in eastern Pennsylvania two weeks later. They are launching in Illinois this week and will add western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana the same mid-March week. Their announcement of the move notes that they increased their distribution in Michigan by nearly 25% in 2015 and made the decision to distribute regionally to “… allow for sustained growth amidst the increasingly crowded market.”

Specific events will be listed on This Week in Beer or Tastings and Tappings  as they are announced.

 

Sierra Nevada: Craft Beer Walt Disney World

The meaning of the word ‘craft’ in ‘craft beer’ is a never-ending discussion among beer folk. That’s partly due to the fact it’s most often discussed when people are drinking. No one knows when to shut up. It’s also because it’s something people are willing to believe is real without the parallel need to know exactly why one beer is “craft” and another isn’t. “I know it when I see it” is as much as anyone can really argue. Yes, there’s the Brewers Association (BA) definition, but that’s the outcome of a political process, not a statement of objective reality. And that’s not a criticism of BA. I don’t think they claim otherwise. If you’re going to form a club where you don’t want some folks joining, you’re going to have to have criteria. Otherwise, why have a group?

I had occasion to think about this during the 2015 Beer Bloggers & Writer’s Conference in Asheville, NC last month1. One of our activities was to go to the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s brewery just south of town in Mills River. It’s gorgeous; there’s no other word to describe it. It’s difficult to avoid a comparison to an attraction at Walt Disney World in Florida as you drive in. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

It’s not a theme park attraction, of course, it’s a working factory. And yes, breweries are factories. It’s not the way we like to think of them, but it’s what they are. It’s a place where raw materials are processed using semi- or fully-mechanized means that result in a packaged product suitable for mass distribution. Any beer that’s sold is the outcome of an industrial process that’s been refined and perfected over generations. There’s not much romance in that, but there it is.

It’s pretty clear that Sierra Nevada made the decision to build a brewery that could also be a showcase. Everything is labeled. All the production areas are visible behind glass or accessible by large groups of people (or both). It’s a working brewery, but it’s also meant to be seen. I had the opportunity to have an informal conversation with an employee who was involved in the process of bringing the facility to life. The conversation was interesting, but it really was informal and I don’t feel right quoting her directly because we weren’t explicitly on the record. Two things stand out in my mind, though. First, the company was very excited to be able to build a new facility from scratch. The original brewery in Chico, CA grew in bits and pieces as demand required. You can always plan for the future, but it’s always harder to expand an existing facility than build one from the ground up. The second thing is that a tremendous amount of work went into the planning. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have a feeling that somewhere there are storyboards that mapped out how the building and grounds were to tell the story Sierra Nevada wants to tell. That story includes beer, the company itself and its commitment to minimizing the environmental impact of a large industrial operation. It tells that story well.

Carla and I spend a lot of time giving money to the Walt Disney Corporation, so when I say there’s a Disney quality to the Mills River brewery, I mean that as a compliment. When a Disney property is really clicking for me, you experience the outcome of an excessive obsession to detail in both facilities and customer service. That’s what I saw at Sierra Nevada. I know, however, that calling something “Disney-like” can be considered a pejorative for some people. “It’s fake,” goes the thinking, “it’s the imitation of a thing and not the thing itself. Shock Top or Blue Moon or any of the other ‘crafty’ beers are the real beer Disneys.” That’s a discussion that goes beyond what I’m trying to write about here, but sufficed to say I know the mansion isn’t really haunted and it’s all fake, but I love the Haunted Mansion anyway. That’s how I can use Disney-like as a compliment.

So we’re on the busses heading down to Mills River from Oskar Blues in Brevard and I happen to be in the front seat of the lead bus. We arrive in front of the brewery and I get off the bus. There are a dozen or so folks on either side of the door inside and they’re clearly a welcoming line. A guy in blue jeans walks up to me and sticks out his hand and says, ‘Hi, I’m Ken Grossman. Welcome to Sierra Nevada”

I never really understood what it meant to “nearly plotz” until that moment. The founder of Sierra Nevada. Brewing legend. KEN frickin’ GROSSMAN is introducing himself to me! So of course my only response was to gurgle incoherently. I have a way with words. A really, really bad way. After everyone else on our bus had a similar opportunity to be star-struck, he proceeded to take us on a tour of the brewery. Then we went down to the river for a pig roast and a little oompah music. Sierra Nevada collaborated with Germany’s Brauhaus Riegele to produce a memorable Oktoberfest beer and the brewing team from Germany was there. A camera crew was also there. Here’s one of the things they put together from the footage. A disturbing number of the people in this spot are beer bloggers. 15-seconds of fame, baby:

I recommend the Oktoberfest, by the way. Marzens aren’t my absolute favorite style, but I enjoy them when the season rolls around. Brauhaus Rieglele’s recipe relies heavily on Steffi Malt which gives the beer a slightly lighter, sweeter character while still having good body and mouth feel. Steffi has been used in German brewing for decades, but it’s not as popular as it once was. Grossman said that they bought as much as they could get their hands on in order to make the beer for the US market, and that meant buying some of the malt from Riegele’s stock.

I like the video in that it shows Grossman’s easy-going demeanor. The quip about taking off the coat is a good example. They don’t explain it in the piece, but the day we were there was warm for Asheville, reaching the the mid to upper 80’s. The jacket is a German jacket that he’d admired when visiting the brewers in Germany when the collaboration was in the planning stages. It turns out that the Riegele brewmaster’s wife makes them, so Grossman and his son both ordered one. They were wearing them when we showed up to the brewery, but these are definitely cold-weather jackets. I’m surprised they lasted in them as long as they did. For the record, the Riegele brewmaster didn’t stay in his the whole time either.

Ken Grossman fixes door

So the Friday trip was great, but that’s not where my meditation on what puts the craft in craft brewing started. That had to wait until Sunday. We decided to go back to the brewery before coming back to Cincinnati. We wanted to try out the taproom and it’s less than five hours from Asheville to home, so it was a no-brainer. We get there, park and get in line to get a table. Our name is put in, and I’m sitting on a bench in the waiting area. I’m messing with my phone and suddenly I realize there’s someone standing in front of me. “Hey,” says Ken Grossman, “Did you have a good conference?” I think I was a little more coherent this time, but I still think of it as “Meeting Ken Grossman II: The Re-Plotzing.” Luckily, Carla came over and saved me socially, as she tends to do pretty much all the time. We make small-talk for a minute, then he heads to the front door to do what I’m pretty sure he walked that way to do in the first place. The front door was sticking and he noticed that people were having trouble getting in and out. So he went over to work on it. That’s him leaning over and holding the door as they try to figure out what’s binding things up.

And that’s when the light bulb went on. I have no idea how much money Ken Grossman is worth.  Lots. Probably more than lots. But he owns a brewery and when he saw something wrong, his first thought was to go over and fix it. Because the brewery is something that matters to him. I’m not saying that it’s the complete and total definition of what makes a beer a craft beer, but a good part of it is that at the top there’s someone there for whom the brewery is the thing. Throw a rock at any of the breweries in Cincinnati — and I’m definitely including Sam Adams in this — and you’ll find a focus on making great beer that starts at the very top. I vaguely know who the AB-Inbev CEO is.  I’m sure he knows something about beer and I’m sure he’s nice to his family and pets. I have no idea how long it’s been since he’s been in a brew house on two consecutive days from more than an hour each. In my mind, cluttered as it is, that’s what makes craft beer to me.  Do I know something about who is responsible for it being here? Is there an actual person behind it all? That’s important to me. That’s the craft.

And when we left the brewery that Sunday, the door worked perfectly.


1DISCLAIMER: To receive a discounted rate to the 2015 Beer Blogger and Writer’s Conference in Asheville, NC, we agreed to write two posts about the conference. This is one of them.

Blank Slate to Focus Its Efforts to Meet Demand

Blank Slate Brewing has announced that they will begin to limit their distribution to Hamilton County starting this week. In a blog post on the brewery’s website, owner Scott LaFollette gave the reasoning behind the move:

As we have begun to grow and make a name for ourselves in the local beer world it has become increasingly difficult to support all of the bars and restaurants throughout this fairly large distribution area that are interested in carrying our product. Recently we have had to turn down numerous opportunities to attend events or otherwise be involved in happenings around town simply because we just don’t have enough beer to go around. Our goal from day 1 has been to stay as local as possible and to never “bite off more than we can chew” as they say. Over the last few months we have had a lot of difficulty keeping even our closest neighbors supplied with beer so we have decided to reduce our distribution territory for a while. This will allow us to adequately serve SOME people instead of inadequately serving a LOT of people.

So. Effective this week you will only be able to buy Blank Slate in Hamilton County Ohio. I apologize to those bar and restaurant owners outside of Hamilton County who have been supporters of us in the past. This decision wasn’t made lightly and I hope that you will still support us when we are ready to resume selling in your area. Again, thank you for the support.

Given that Carla and I live in Northern Kentucky, I can’t say I’m doing back flips over this, but it’s impossible to argue with the logic. And, to tell the truth, if I were to try to do a backflip it would go very, very badly. So Scott’s really probably done me a favor. Thanks, Scott. I owe you. In all seriousness, though, it’s always been remarkable to me that Blank Slate was able to distribute on both sides of the river from the very beginning and add on the taproom as well. This is a move of strength, not weakness.Blank Slate Brewing Company

When we talk to Scott about the brewery we’re always struck with how every move he makes is made with extreme care. Go read his whole post. That comes through in every word. I’m in the middle of writing a piece about what makes the ‘craft’ in craft beer. I have no idea when I’m going to be finished with it, but now I have a new thing to consider. Making a move like this is what a craftsperson does. A widget-maker would try to figure out how to cut corners and keep something — anything — out there. This is a good example of the craft in craft beer.