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Are Columbia Tusculum's three breweries too much of a good thing? The brewers say no

'Hey, this is a cool neighborhood'
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 02, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-02 12:17:27-05

CINCINNATI -- They say birds of a feather flock together.

For a trio of east Cincinnati breweries, that sure seems to be the case.

The three -- Blank Slate, Bad Tom Smith and Streetside, the area's newest brewery -- are separated by a mere two miles. Their proximity is unique in that only one other neighborhood in Greater Cincinnati -- Over-the-Rhine -- can lay claim to such a cluster.

The proprietors behind the businesses, which encompass both Linwood and historic Columbia Tusculum, claim their closeness is a good thing -- there's talk of collaboration, even, such as their very own craft brew trail. But can all three survive? Only time will tell.

"If you had asked me when we opened, 'Would there be two other breweries in this neighborhood?' I would have said, 'Of course not,'" said Scott LaFollette, owner of Blank Slate. "But as the brewery business has boomed in Cincinnati, it's only logical that, eventually, breweries are going to come up close to other breweries."

For Blank Slate, the neighborhood's earliest adopter, Columbia Tusculum seemed its best bet -- but for the most logical reasons. When LaFollette started operations in 2011 in a small warehouse near Lunken Airport, taprooms weren't allowed, per Ohio law.

"We were really just looking for a space with high ceilings and a loading dock," and the community checked all the boxes, he said. "But it struck me as up-and-coming. If we were to (serve beer here down the road), it could be an interesting place to do so."

And interesting it has been. Laws changed, and Blank Slate debuted a 45-seat taproom in late 2014 as part of an addition that also increased capacity. LaFollette says roughly 25 percent to 30 percent of the brewery’s current revenue comes from such "inside" sales. Another expansion project -- now complete -- will ultimately boost production three-fold.

He said he's "a little bit" surprised with the new tally of breweries nearby. Bad Tom Smith debuted in adjacent Linwood in 2012, and Streetside joined the fold a five-minute walk away earlier this fall.

"At the same time, all three of us bring different things to the table: different experiences, different products," LaFollette said. "That's where having breweries close together can actually be beneficial. For me, I'd love to see if we could bring the community together but also sound the horn, if you will, to the rest of the city and say, 'Hey, this is a cool neighborhood -- come check us out.'"

Kathie Hickey, one of the proprietors behind Streetside Brewery, hinted at joint future collaboration but said any plans are still "premature."

The bar inside Streetside Brewery. (Photo by Andy Foltz.)

The Hickey family -- owners Kathie and husband Brian, and their son, head brewer Garrett -- has resided in Columbia Tusculum for years and wanted to aid in its revitalization. So they built anew at the site of the former East End Cafe, which was badly damaged by fire.

Kathie Hickey serves as secretary for 3 East, a three-community business association for Columbia Tusculum, East End and Linwood, and as president of Columbia Tusculum's Community Council.

"This part of Eastern Avenue is starting to be revitalized, and somebody had to step in. Why not us?" Hickey said.

She doesn't see her neighbor brewers as competitors: "We all send people around the corner to check out each other's beers," she said. But she hopes her business can stand out as more of a community gathering place. In December, Streetside will start opening at 8 a.m. There's plenty of coffee and Wi-Fi bandwidth to go around.

"It's like whenever a new restaurant comes in, people go, 'Oh my gosh, can we support it?' Well, yeah, we can; it just brings more people in," she said.

LaFollette said they've had some preliminary discussions -- like possibly trying to organize more formalized events. John Vojtush, owner of Bad Tom Smith Brewing, mentioned creating a craft beer trail similar to Kentucky's Bourbon Trail, but obviously on a much smaller and more condensed scale. Plans could start to develop over the next three to six months.

"Any small community can support one craft brewery. And the East Side can support more," Vojtush said. "Really, you can go all the way up to Fifty West or up to MadTree or Tap & Screw (which is planning a second location in Oakley), and you're developing a nice corridor on the East Side.

"When you've got five, six, seven (breweries), all within a five- to seven-mile radius, that creates a real nice experience for people who want to spend a Friday or Saturday trying out beers," he said.

Whether the neighborhood can ultimately support all three -- or even more breweries down the line -- only time will tell. As LaFollette put it, "there's no crystal ball." Blank Slate and Bad Tom Smith are close to maxed out at their current locales. If larger spaces were needed, would both move to stay?

"It becomes tricky looking for a larger industrial building in a neighborhood that doesn't have any large industrial buildings," LaFollette said. "But we'd definitely do everything we could to find a suitable space in the same area."

Vojtush is less optimistic. He has made no secret that he thinks their address is less than ideal; Vojtush and Sheryl Gittins joined the Bad Tom Smith fold as majority owners last year and are eyeing bigger regional plans. Although East End has seen a big change in the last decade -- both in terms of safety and traffic, he said -- more is needed.

"It's not like we're going out telling everybody we're moving, but if you look at our facility, our space is extremely tight," Vojtush said. "And even though we've been there four years, we've had people drive up and down Eastern Avenue who didn't know we were here. We're just not visible to a lot of people. But I will also tell you, there's a very good possibility we could leave our current taproom where it's at today, and open another location in Cincinnati.

"It has nothing to do with the fact that (another brewery) is here," he said. "If anything, we wish they had been there a couple years ago. That's one thing we've seen: the craft beer community and the industry itself, plays an important role in economic development growth. Who knows what other kind of growth there can be, especially when you can use craft breweries as a hub to grow around."