CINCINNATI -- Life takes a person in all sorts of directions; what you once thought was your path may just be a detour to your true calling. And sometimes the biggest of achievements can come from the smallest of beginnings.
That is the story of Mount Carmel Brewing. It started as a homebrew hobby in a basement and is now one of the oldest and biggest of the Tri-State’s craft breweries.
The story begins with owners Mike and Kathleen Dewey. Mike worked in construction and Kathleen was in real estate. The couple would buy homes and rebuild them back when the market was hot. The home where the brewery is located now was intended to be such a project, but they liked it so much they decided to stay.
During Mike’s construction days, he was brewing in a barn at his home and creating larger and more elaborate brewing systems. He said his wife suggested he try selling the beer since it was starting to get pretty good.
Mike said the brewing industry encompassed all his interests so it was a natural fit.
When Mount Carmel was officially licensed in 2005, Mike moved the brewhouse to the basement of his home. They could only brew about 60 gallons of beer at a time, or enough for about four kegs. The beer was sold in growlers and their first client was a gas station down the street.
Once the beer started catching on, they were getting requests from grocery stores and other businesses. Mike was working 100 hours per week just to keep up with demand.
The Deweys built an expansion to the back of the house to hold a new brewery and upgraded the brewhouse to one that would produce 250 gallons at a time. The couple had to drive to Asheville, N.C. to pick up the equipment. All the while they were still producing the beer in growlers.
Dewey has some advice for anyone who thinks they want to start their own brewery. He recommends you work at a brewery for at least a year before you make some serious moves to get into the business.
“Make sure you want to do it. There’s a difference between starting one, working at one and owning one. At the end of the day it’s been the most difficult yet rewarding experience. The first six years were brutal but the last couple years have been great,” Mike Dewey said.
About four years ago, the brewery switched from growlers to 6-pack 12-ounce bottles. Initially they had to use the same machine that was filling the growlers to fill the bottles. That meant they had to fill about 40,000 bottles one at a time by hand. The new bottling machine fills about 40 cases per hour. The Deweys also added more fermenters to the brewhouse, allowing them to create multiple batches of beer per day.
Now they’re using 1,000 gallon fermenting tanks and they produce about three batches of beer per week, or about 3,000 gallons of beer.
The Deweys have also had to increase their staff. They’ve grown from a one-man operation to having three full-time employees. Mike said his workers are the reason for his success. He’s been lucky to get a crew that is constantly continuing their education in the industry and can be relied upon.
All this change has been a mirror image of what has been going on locally. Mike said when they first started the bars would ask if they could always have the beer in stock. Fast-forward to 2013 and now bars will clamor for beers they can only get one keg of because that’s what people want.
“If you had asked me two years ago about how I felt about there being 11 different local breweries, I would have been skeptical that there was enough market for it, but it’s hard to argue with numbers and say that ‘more breweries present has hurt sales;’ if anything the gradient has been in the exact opposite direction,” Dewey said.
He said the co-marketing the breweries partake in and the exposure they get was a big part of that.
Mike said he’s done his fair share of brewing but now he’s focusing on creating better equipment for the brewery, improving efficiency and finding better ways to do things to keep the beer flowing.
He said that there have been so many commodity increases in the past few years, it’s a constant fight to keep costs down. Since 2005, the Deweys say they’ve been able to increase their margins at the brewery while decreasing their costs. In doing so they’ve been able to pass on those savings to consumers.
The brewer said he is excited for the continued, sustained growth of the industry both locally and nationally.
“Most of the people I see going to these craft beer shows are younger than I am so I suppose I have nothing to worry about [laughs],” Dewey said.
Dewey said it’s great that there are so many more breweries in the region. With more breweries, there’s more exposure for the product and the chance to get people involved, Dewey said. He also said there are also more resources for the brewers who are just starting out.
“When I started I didn’t have a brewery to run up the street to and borrow 50 pounds of yeast from. There are so many disadvantages to being the only guy in town, and now there are a lot more resources for people to take advantage of,” Dewey said. “It seems like all the local guys are sticking together and really taking the spotlight at a lot of local events and that’s terrific. You can’t do that with just one brand, you need a lot of brands to do that. What I tell people who don’t drink craft is this, ‘Not drinking craft beer is like having the same sandwich every day and no one would do that.’”
Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO photojournalist
Mt. Carmel Brewing is located at 4362 Mt. Carmel Tobasco Road in Cincinnati.