Cincinnati was built on beer. But to the rest of the country, we're newcomers to the craft

What do we have to do to win respect?
Posted at 7:37 AM, Jun 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-30 07:37:58-04

CINCINNATI — When it comes to craft beer, Cincinnatians sure think they know their stuff. It's a city built upon brewing, they say. It's our legacy, they say.

But on a national level, we're arguably still a fly-over city, even though in recent years our cups — or, in this case, growlers — overfloweth.

The greater metropolitan area now includes nearly three dozen craft beer makers. Nine Giant Brewing recently opened in Pleasant Ridge, and two others — Woodburn Brewery (East Walnut Hills) and Queen City Brewery (Blue Ash) — are coming online soon. Others are pouring — pun intended — millions into expansions that promise more — and better-tasting — brew.

So exactly when will the rest of the country take notice?

Who's to say it hasn't?

SmartAsset named Cincinnati the No. 10 "best city for beer drinkers" in a March poll. Fortune’s recent list, "10 under-the-radar cities" in the craft world, gave the Queen City a nod based on the fact the number of breweries in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky has "tripled" over the last five years. Rhinegeist, arguably one of the fastest-growing craft breweries in the entire country, was second in a USA Today poll of "best new breweries" nationwide. The Over-the-Rhine beermaker, mind you, celebrated only its third anniversary this past Saturday.

But that logic only goes so far. Most lists have a common theme. We're "new." "Under the radar." "Up-and-coming." In other words, far from unseating top picks like Portland, Oregon, San Diego and Denver.

Bobby Slattery, founding partner and director of operations at 50 West, said he pays no mind to such lists. He's busy concocting events like July 9's Punch Out festival. (More on that later.)

Maybe that's a good thing. Many polls, including this 2015 Thrillist article from writer Andy Kryza, don't include Cincinnati at all. That's not all that unusual — nor all that offensive — minus the fact that Cleveland, our arch-nemesis to the north, made this list. WCPO reached out to Andy and — short of questioning his allegiance to the Browns — asked, "Why?!"

Kryza said Cincinnati is "definitely" on his radar as a "growing city" for beer, but it also seems — at least in his West Coast opinion (he lives in Portland) — "to be pretty self-contained."

It's tough to find our beer outside of Buckeye borders, he lamented.

"Having had great beers like Rhinegeist and MadTree (which we called the most underrated brewery in the entire state)," he said, "I know there's fantastic stuff coming out of the city. But I can't find it.

"From the outside looking in, it looks as though the city is content to pump out great beer without as much hooplah" as, say, Cleveland, whose Ohio City neighborhood is seeing a "craft-beer explosion similar to Portland in the '90s," he said.

"Perhaps it's simply churning out great beer in the shadows … and while that's great for the people of Cincinnati, well, to the rest of us, you're hoarding," he said. "Send that love out West, is what I'm saying."

Rivertown's working on it, though.

One of earliest craft beer adopters in the city, Rivertown Brewery has quietly expanded its national footprint. Where Rhinegeist and MadTree make headlines, Rivertown now boasts one of the most versatile lineups of liquids.

Founder Jason Roeper started small in small-town Lockland in 2009. Rivertown recently broke ground on its second location in Monroe, a projected 34,000-square-foot facility, and is looking to grow its network of states by 30 percent this year.

Currently, it distributes in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, which are obvious choices, but also Tennessee, Florida and Massachusetts. By the end of the summer, Rivertown will add Georgia to the list, and by the end of 2016, Pennsylvania.

"We are unique in Cincinnati in that respect," said co-owner Lindsey Roeper, Jason's wife. "It's always been Jason's dream to be a regional — even national — brewery. For us, we love Cincinnati. Cincinnati's our home. This is where we came from. This is where we started. And we love being here. But our dreams and our intentions are much, much larger. And with business, if you're not growing, you're dying."

Monroe will boost max production — if they brewed 24/7/365 — from 25,000 to 30,000 barrels a year in Lockland to 150,000. The new facility, which also will feature a 4,000-square-foot restaurant, slated to open in November, and a 2,000-square-foot patio, is a more than a $2.7 million investment.

Lockland, by the way, will remain online as a taproom and for smaller-batch brews.

"This will take us to the next level for sure," Roeper said. "This year, next year, by 2018, we want to link up all the way between Florida and Massachusetts and really focus on the eastern seaboard. Once we have that filled in, we're going to start moving out west as well."

So watch out, Kryza.

Local Breweries Don’t Have Big Footprints Elsewhere

But outside of Rivertown's nearly seven-state stretch, many Cincinnati breweries simply don't reach out of the region. The reason why is up for debate. Is it ownership aspirations? Lack of capacity? Scale?

For Fifty West, one of many local breweries seeing growth — its recently debuted expansion will up production to 7,000 barrels by the end of the year — there's such a void locally its owners aren't even thinking outside the city. At least not yet. There's enough need here for now.

Fifty West recently tapped a $1.5 million expansion.

"We can't fulfill the demand where we are right now, so the last thing we want to do is take our product and throw it into, say, Michigan, when you want to get it in Cincinnati, and you can't get your hands on it here," Slattery said. "This expansion allows us to simply fulfill the draft needs in the city. You're going to start seeing Fifty West on draft in a lot of places you didn't before, and the reason you didn't see it wasn't because they weren't asking for it, it's because we couldn't make enough to give them."

Josh Engel, a Cincinnatian and craft beer lover who pens the blog Raging Hop, is betting biggest on the likes of Rhinegeist and MadTree to take Cincinnati to the top. MadTree is building a new $18 million brewery in Oakley. But it's hard to gain traction overall when others in the city — like Fifty West — don't can or bottle. Sure, you can get Nitro Stout or 10&2 Barleywine, a 2016 World Beer Cup gold medal winner, on tap, but it doesn’t resonate in the same way, Engel said. It's more easily lost in the shuffle.

"If you're going to go to a bar, you're probably going to have a beer here and a beer there, and you're probably going to get a different one every time," he said. "It doesn't necessarily last as long in your mind, like, 'Oh yeah, I've had Rhinegeist before.'" (Slattery, by the way, said the decision to forgo packaging is intentional, but, "10 years from now, we love the idea of Fifty West six-packs in your fridge.")

"Cincinnati breweries don’t have big footprints outside of Ohio yet," said Engel (who is not related to the writer of this piece). "We don’t have a Rogue or Dogfish Head. But when you think about the actual Cincinnati brewery scene, outside of Rivertown or Mount Carmel, a big chunk of these breweries haven't been around for more than three years or so. So even though they've grown super fast, they're still pretty young."

That's perhaps Rivertown's biggest advantage, for lack of better words. When it opened, taprooms weren't even allowed legislatively. And its sales figures still reflect that. Lindsey Roeper said 70 percent of Rivertown's beer is sold in package. Thirty percent of its volume is draft. And only 3 of that 30 percent comes from pours at its Lockland location.

"We've really had to earn every drop we've sold," she said. When asked how their expanding distribution aids in the city's big-league standings, she added, "I think it just brings more positive attention to the city. Cincinnati has grown so much; it's been amazing to see how far we've come with food and beer and wine and even spirits, too. I definitely think Denver, Portland, those are the meccas, but I feel like we are getting to that point. In my mind, the more that a Cincinnati brewery gets out there in a meaningful way, the more people want to see what's going on."

No Longer Defining Beer by How Cold It Is

We've got the history, for sure. Cincinnati, quite literally, was built on beer, until Prohibition forced many beer-making empires to close. But that only takes you so far these days. So what else will gain traction?

Staying unique, Slattery says.

"If you're going to make a mark on a national scene," he said, "how do you do something that's so different people talk about it in other states?"

Beer festivals are far from few and far between. And pedal wagons and bus tours are becoming increasingly common. So Slattery's team brainstormed another kind of event: the upcoming Fifty West Punch Out Beer Festival.

Eight Cincinnati breweries will square off in five one-on-one amateur boxing matches. He said participants have been training for the past several weeks to prepare. The event will be held at Fifty West's new Production Works facility on July 9.

"We think it's something people are going to talk about up in Cleveland. Maybe it's something they start talking about down in Asheville," he said. "'Did you hear what the breweries up in Cincinnati did? They came together and created this boxing event.' We're just trying to come up with additional, unique ways to bring people together, because Cincinnati is no longer defining its beer by how cold it is. It's no longer just about that.

Fifty West co-owners Bobby Slattery and Blake Horsburgh.

"We used to be a beer town just because we were a bunch of Germans who brewed beer. Now we're becoming a beer town because we have a bunch of kick-(butt) breweries that are making fantastic product and creating great experiences. It's a challenge for us everyday to figure out, how do we continue to push the envelope? To get on a national scale, you have to keep doing great things."

One reason Cincinnati drops in the polls — compared to a Portland or Denver — may be, too, for sheer volume. Portland, for example, blows us away. Kryza said there are 80 or so breweries in the city proper. In Colorado, between the Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins triangle, there are around 72.

Cincinnati, in case you're counting, sits at roughly 30, depending on your definition — if you're bringing, say, Covington's Braxton Brewery or Great Crescent in Aurora, Indiana, even Downtown's Rock Bottom, a chain, into the fold.

Still, Jason Brewer, who handles sales and distribution at Listermann Brewing Co., said we shouldn't strive to be like a Denver. Listermann has received nationwide attention as it hunts for a new head brewer to replace Patrick Gilroy, who is leaving the industry. Brewers from all across the country are interested in relocating here to make beer, he said, and Listermann's decision could come as soon as this week.

"Resumes keep coming in from all over: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, as far west as California, as far east as New York," Brewer said. "It's very flattering, especially considering some of the breweries these guys are coming from. I would like to think that’s an attribute to Listermann and the respect people have for our beer and the different things we're doing. Some of the applicants have even said that. But I would not discount interest in Cincinnati's standing as a destination beer city.

"We're always going to be the underdog," he added. "Being Cincinnatians, we have this chip on our shoulder; we're not San Diego, we're not New York, we're not Denver, and we're (darn) proud we're not. The underdog role fits where we're at right now, which is a city that's making really good beer."

And in terms of volume, Cincinnati will get there. Slattery says the bubble is far from bursting.

"Count the neighborhoods in Cincinnati (there are 52 alone in the city), and that's how many breweries we'll be supporting in 10-15 years," he said. "I guarantee it."