CINCINNATI -- It’s time to take your taste buds on a trip and the highway to get them there is Fifty West. And as the Mariemont beer makers might say, it’s about the journey AND the destination.
The brewery and tapas restaurant is the brainchild of brewmaster Blake Horsburgh, general manager Whit Hesser and distribution/expansion manager Bobby Slattery.
The journey began in 2008 when Slattery's family bought the building that now houses the brewery. As the family debated what to do with the property, Slattery was working at Hahana Beach when Hesser came in and started talking about opening a microbrewery.
Slattery said that while working in the restaurant and bar industry, he had heard people come in and talk about opening such venues often so he initially laughed off the idea. It wasn’t until Hesser sat him down and laid out a business plan that Slattery said he got serious.
Co-owners Bobby Slattery and Blake Horsburgh take a seat on their vintage van that sits in the parking lot.
“You know what, when you hear about all the people who have been having success, it’s all about how many tap handles you have. And everybody wants to hear the word ‘local.’ You want to know that your ingredients are coming out of the garden down the road, that your beer is being brewed locally. Local is the hot word,” Slattery said.
It’s that attachment to local that really sealed the deal and the pair spent the next two years fine-tuning a plan. During that time, Slattery took Hesser and Horsburgh’s beer to local experts to see if their brew had the mojo needed to sustain the business and the tasters seemed to be convinced.
Slattery said the name Fifty West came from a chance encounter he had years earlier when a motorcycle rider came in from the road. The rider said he was in last place in a cross-country cycle race from Sacramento to DC and he just wanted a beer. That’s what spurred Slattery to remember that Highway 50 was a coast-to-coast roadway and had a rich history in Americana.
“They used to call Route 50 the ‘Main Street of America,’” Slattery said.
>>Want to get a taste of Fifty West and meet the #9beer team? Come to our tweetup tonight: https://www.facebook.com/events/166801823509130/
While restoring the property during the building phase, the trio said they learned more and more about that history and how the property tied into it. Slattery said people actually came in and donated items related to US 50 that will be incorporated into the look of the brewpub and will help tell the story of Fifty West. He said part of the fun has been talking with people about the trinkets and souvenirs and hearing everyone’s story about their experiences on US 50.
Fifty West owners name their beers stick to their "travel" theme when naming brews.
“We think of this business as one big road trip. So it’s like we’re on a road trip on 50, so every beer that we brew would be a different trip on 50,” Slattery said.
The brewpub officially opened for business in November 2012. It’s currently set to produce about 1,000 barrels per year. The brewers are waiting on equipment to double that capacity to 2,000 barrels per year. They said the equipment is being shipped from overseas and they hope to be brewing on the new system sometime in September.
Slattery said right now they have to be selective on how many bars and other venues they send their beer to because they have to produce enough to keep their own taps filled. The expansion will help them reach a goal of selling the beer to 50 percent of the bars currently demanding it.
“Once we expand, you will start to see us at bars around the city. Bottling or canning is the next step and requires us to move into a production-oriented facility. I don't have a set time frame for when this will occur but it is definitely on our radar. When this happens you'll see us everywhere,” Slattery said. “We've identified a few potential locations for a production facility, but making quality beer is the most important thing to us. The first step is prove to ourselves we can execute doubling our current production and keeping the quality where it needs to be. Once we've done that we'll get real serious about taking the next step into a large-scale production facility with bottling and canning capabilities.”
The way the Fifty West team tells it, finding a demand for their beer won’t be a problem. When they opened, they thought the crowd would mostly be a mix of locals and craft beer fans. Their customers have proven to be more than just the stereotypical beer lover.
“I would have never predicted the crowds that come in here. It’s not just a local crowd or a young crowd or an old crowd. It’s just this interesting mix of people. It’s experienced craft drinkers and inexperienced craft drinkers that are just interested in what’s going on,” Slattery said.
All that success isn’t coming without some growing pains though. Slattery said there have been weekends where people will have to wait sometimes three hours to get food and the brewpub is filled to the brim with customers.
The words tradition, innovation, craftsmanship and patience guide the company's business philosophy.
Slattery credits much of the success to the beer and the man behind the beer: Horsburgh. Fifty West’s brewmaster said he got his start in brewing while working at restaurant in college.
After graduation, he decided to study brewing at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago and worked at the Rivertown Brewery in Lockland before starting Fifty West.
Horsburgh said the vestiges of his philosophy degree can be found in the virtues he posted as directional markers in the brewery. He said dedication to tradition, innovation, craftsmanship and patience guide his beer-making process.
“It’s more like alchemy. It’s like science and art at the same time,” Hosburgh said.
In addition to an impressive array of beers on tap, Fifty West also has an ever-expanding barrel-aging program. Hosburgh said the brewery has some barrels from Buffalo Trace and from some vineyards but they’re always on the hunt for more. The team said they want to have the ultimate beer experience and barrel aging is part of that.
The food is another distinct aspect at Fifty West. While many of the brewers in town have food partners that come in while the tap room is open, Slattery said his team made the choice early on to have a restaurant on-site as well.
To that end, they hired Chef John Tomain, who aims to be Cincinnati’s premiere “beer chef.” Slattery said they try to only serve foods that are in season and that the menu will constantly rotate to pair the food with beer that will compliment each other.
Fifty West offers a rotating menu that is pair with their local craft brews.
The team said they are proud to be part of Cincinnati’s resurgent beer culture and have enjoyed the relationships all the local brewers have.
“The brewing industry is very unique. It’s more camaraderie than it is competition,” Horsburgh said. “I’ve always advocated for more breweries around the city. They would only help share the knowledge, experience and wealth of information there is not only for each other but also for their customer base.”
The team said more collaborations, such as they’ve done with MadTree Brewing, could happen in the future and that all the breweries routinely share ingredients and knowledge when the need arises.
Horsburgh also has some tips for homebrewers hoping to expand their craft.
“Go to your local brewery and talk to the brewers and learn as much as you can,” Horsburgh said.
“Just because we’re brewing professionals doesn’t mean we necessarily have more knowledge than a homebrewer might. It’s all about sharing knowledge and learning from each other. Besides that, it’s all about experimentation. … You can make great beer at home and I advocate to just keep trying things and learn how to tweak your recipes and make things more specific.”
Fifty West grows their own hop vines on the back patio of the brewhouse.
Fifty West is located at 7668 Wooster Pike in Cincinnati.
It can be found online at: http://fiftywestbrew.com/
Tap room hours:
- Wednesday: 4pm - 12am
- Thursday: 4pm – 12am
- Friday: 4pm – 2am
- Saturday: 12pm – 2am
- Sunday: 11am – 12am
Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO Digital photojournalist
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