Ohio’s brewery boom

By Matt Reese

Ohio has a unique history with breweries and the agricultural production to supply them.

OCJ field reporter Brianna Gwirtz wrote a great story about hops production — a formerly fairly common crop in the state to supply a once prolific brewing industry. The ups and downs of Ohio breweries and growing conditions often ill-suited for quality hops production eliminated commercial hops in Ohio (though I will say my mother always had a hops plant in the garden when I was a kid). That has changed though, in recent years as Ohio’s brewing industry has seen a remarkable resurgence.

In doing her research for the story, Brianna also talked with Mary MacDonald, the executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association and wrote up the following: When McDonald started her job in 2013, the state had a total of 58 breweries. Today there are 398 breweries in Ohio and today’s craft brewing industry employs around 9,000 people in the state. On average, 45 to 50 new Ohio breweries have opened each year in the last 9 years. This is not coincidence.

McDonald said that in July of 2013, Ohio lawmakers passed Senate Bill 48 to lower the cost of an A-1c permit. Craft beer manufacturers are required to have the A-1c permit in order to manufacture beer and to distribute beer in containers to retailers or for home use. Permit holders cannot exceed brewing more than 31 million gallons in a calendar year.

“The permit used to be around $4,000 and now it’s only $1,000,” MacDonald said. “The legislation change lowered the barriers. Now craft brewers can serve samples in a taproom to customers and then distribute kegs or cans. It helps to grow their brand and market really effectively. Each state determines their own alcohol laws, and Ohio has done a really great job of supporting those businesses.”

In recent years, Ohio’s brewery boom has taken off to the point that Forbes recently highlighted Cleveland, with its 40+ breweries, as a national destination for brewery lovers in “Cleveland is gearing up to be America’s next big craft beer destination.” With a long and rich brewing history, Cleveland had no operating breweries from 1984 to 1988 as consolidation in the industry wiped them all out. The opening of Great Lakes Brewery in 1988 set the stage for the Cleveland’s newly bestowed destination status.

In the opposite corner of the state, Cincinnati has been said to have been “built on beer.” The city’s first commercial brewery was opened in 1812. In the mid-1800s, the city had 35 breweries producing 30 million gallons of beer and in 1890 Cincinnati was named the Beer Capital of the World, according to cincinnatiusa.com.

Columbus too has a storied history with breweries worth some study. According to TouringOhio.com, German immigrants settled on pastures and farmlands in Columbus in the early 1800s and eventually formed what is now known as German Village and the Brewery District. Louis Hoster was the first brewer among the German immigrants opening the first brewery in 1836. The combination of the Scioto River and the Columbus Feeder Canal (a spring-fed ravine) made an ideal setting for the brewery industry. The canal, 11 miles long, 40-feet wide, and 4-feet deep, opened in 1831, connecting Columbus to Lockbourne and eventually, to the Ohio River, providing distribution opportunities.

While Ohio has a long history of brewing, our state also played a key role in the Temperance Movement and the push for Prohibition that shut them down. According to Ohio History Central, many Ohioans were early leaders in the American Christian Temperance Union. Ohio formed the Prohibition Party in 1869 and in the early 1870s a Prohibition National Convention was held in Columbus. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in Cleveland in 1874. In 1906, Ohio passed a State Law enabling townships to vote themselves dry. Within two years, 57 of Ohio’s 88 counties did so. Then, Ohio was a key state in the push for Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that put Prohibition in 1919, enacted in 1920 and overturned in 1933 with the Twenty-first Amendment. Some breweries switched to produce near-beer or soft drinks and were able to survive during these years, but most did not.

Ohio breweries have been big business, massive success stories and complete failures. They have also been a catalyst for legitimate social outrage, political unrest, and some of the most controversial legislation in history. Ohio breweries were also once an important market for agricultural production and offer some interesting opportunities today with both hops and barley production. Modern breweries throughout Ohio have proven that in today’s truly interconnected globe, sometimes local is still best. Today, the production of high-quality hops and barley for brewing ingredients is a growing market in Ohio. In terms of hops, the Napiers featured in Brianna’s story have been industry leaders of quality production in northeast Ohio.

Whether you love them or hate them or somewhere in between, it is impossible to dismiss the storied history of breweries (and distilleries, another niche market for some farms) in Ohio that have been unavoidably tied to agriculture, politics and, for some, matters of faith.

Cheers to the modern boom of Ohio’s brewers and the fine farmers who supply them!

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