Entrepreneurs from five Ohio breweries, distilleries and cider houses participated in a panel with Ohio University’s Center for Entrepreneurship on Wednesday, Feb. 22.
Among these were Bobby Slattery, co-owner of Cincinnati’s Fifty West Brewing; Jason and Michelle Warren of Nelsonville’s Multiple Brewing; Jimmy Stockwell, co-owner of Athens’ Little Fish Brewing Company, and Kelly Sauber, co-owner of Athens’ West End Cider House and Meigs’ Fifth Element Spirits.
The panel comes at an important time for craft brewers. According to one 2016 Ohio Craft Brewers List, the number of craft breweries has grown from about 25 to 119 in the past few years. In June, Gov. John Kasich signed House Bill 37, eliminating Ohio’s 12 percent ABV limit for beer. This action alone opened up the freedom for brewers to create bolder and more flavorful recipes.
At the panel, micro-brewers discussed what it means to be a craft brewer today. As the industry booms, some fear that the craft brewing “bubble” will burst, and the excitement of the culture will wear off in a few years.
“People have always asked me, for the last five years, ‘When’s the bubble going to burst?’” said Slattery, who had such a large demand at the beginning of Fifty West’s opening that they could barely keep up with brewing and eventually opened more tanks in a building across the street. “It’s not like (eventually) all these breweries are going to go away. There’s going to be different types of them. Some will succeed in some areas, and some will succeed in others.”
Slattery said that he had to find ways to make Fifty West stand out. Waiting longer than other Cincinnati breweries to begin packaging their beer, he said, was a strategic move.
“We had a strategy when we opened, but we didn’t think big enough. All these breweries were coming in the market, and they all started going into package. The easy answer was to roll out packaging,” Slattery said. “But we were like: how will that make us any different than anyone else? We’re going to be draft only…when we finally roll it out, people are going to be asking for it. They’ll want it.”
The brewers also discussed the pros and cons of using local ingredients. Kelly Sauber, who owns both a cidery and a distillery near Athens County, said that when he was a brewer, it was almost impossible to use all local ingredients. Making cider was much easier to go fully local, although more expensive.
“Is it worth it? Yes,” Sauber said. “I think the quality of the product shines through with the flavor profile.”
Jimmy Stockwell of Little Fish Brewing Company echoed the importance of local ingredients, and also touched on being a smaller brewery in Athens, where Jackie O’s Brewery’s business is booming.
“You’re there to build friendships and relationships more than (you are to) drink beer…although that’s part of it,” he said with a laugh. “But we were content to be a little fish inside this growing brewing industry.”
Jason and Michelle Warren, who are content with owning Ohio’s smallest brewery at only 1,100 square feet, talked about the importance of community within the craft brewing industry, no matter where that community is.
“A lot of times we feel that breweries are trying to out-hop each other; we try to focus on balance,” Jason said. “Nelsonville is low income. It’s small. We thought we could develop it into a craft beer community…we didn’t want to become the next Stone.”