Kelly Sauber seems to know the name of every farmer from whom he sources ingredients, as well as the distance, in miles, of their farm from his own, which is home to his Dancing Tree microdistillery in Shade, Ohio, about an hour and a half southeast of Columbus.
“My raw ingredients are grown primarily by friends, from producers I have had a couple beers with, recently,” Kelly said. “I like to know that the people who grow our ingredients have the same concern for wholesome, healthy food as I have for my family.”
Kelly began brewing beer over 20 years ago when he couldn’t find beers that interested him on retail shelves. After finishing the Craft Brewer’s Prep Program at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago, he was hired to help launch Brew Master’s in Cincinnati, and went on to work at the Marietta Brewing Company for 12 years before leaving to launch Dancing Tree.
“As a brewer, I was always trying to find ways to utilize local ingredients,” said Kelly. “I found myself limited to flavoring ingredients rather than the primary malts. Ohio’s native fruit the Pawpaw was one of the first local products I used back in 2001 with my locally famous Pawpaw Wheat beer. This became such a hit, I tried to find other ways to bring local growers into the brewing scene. I then tried spruce tips, spicebush, sassafras, raspberries, ginger and locally supplied coffee beans. After brewing professionally for over 14 years, I was ready to continue my education, and use a larger percentage of local ingredients in my products.”This led him to distillation, where he is not restricted to using malted barley as the primary sugar source, instead using mostly grain based sources like corn, which grow in abundance in Ohio. Kelly then finds flavorful ingredients primarily from local farms, and carefully selects the sources for the crops that don’t grow in Southern Ohio (juniper, vanilla beans, rose hips) based on values and quality.
Dancing Tree currently has three spirits on shelves. Two vodkas: a seasonal distilled from Vidal grapes grown at nearby Shade Winery, and a year-round-availability vodka distilled from corn grown on two nearby family farms. The distillery also produces a grain-based gin made with wild-harvested spicebush berries, rosehips and juniper berries.
In October, Dancing Tree will release a grain-based coffee vodka made with locally-roasted Peruvian coffee beans. Kelly said he is also working on small batches of a Sorghum Cane based rum and an Elderberry Brandy. Dancing Tree will release a Corn Whisky, aged in American white oak barrels, in 2015 or later, followed by a Malt Whiskey made with 100% Briess Organic 2-Row Barley Malt, which you can be sure you will forget about before you actually see it on a shelf (2020 or later).
A classic 1890 farmhouse on the Meigs County farm is currently being renovated to be used as the distillery’s tasting house. Kelly hopes to have the space open for tours, tastings and retail sales sometime this fall.
You can find Dancing Tree’s spirits in stock at Weiland’s Gourmet Market in Clintonville and Campus Liquor on High Street; Brother’s Drake Meadery and Sage American Bistro are serving Dancing Tree behind the bar.
Photographs by Steven Turville. Steven is a working photographer and student of photojournalism at Ohio University based in Athens, Ohio. He is available for assignment and commercial work throughout Ohio. More of his work can be seen at his website.