Ohio-made beer is hot.
So are wine, mead and spirits.
Small breweries, wineries and distilleries are popping up at a record pace across Ohio.
And many, many more are on the way, as passionate amateurs are turning their alcohol-making hobbies into full-time professions. Fueled by the buy local and local food movements, many of these small businesses are riding a wave of sentiment against big, national brands.
The Ohio Department of Liquor Control handed out more alcohol-manufacturing permits in the first six months of this year than it did all of last year.
The number of distilleries — making anything from whiskey to vodka to gin — nearly doubled from eight to 14. Meanwhile, brewery and winery permits jumped 18 percent and 11 percent, respectively.
There are now 70 licensed beer manufacturers and 164 wine makers in the state. Five years ago, there were only 44 beer makers and 114 wine makers.
“Our society is undergoing a cultural revolution,” said Bill Owens, president and founder of the American Distilling Institute in Kentucky. “We want to buy local. We want to meet the maker of our products. It’s a renaissance to get away from corporate America. Corporate America has run this country into the ground. Now it’s our time to take it back.”
Alcohol-related examples are everywhere in Ohio. The year-old Watershed Distillery in Columbus has been earning acclaim for its spirits. The state’s newest brewpub, Alexandria’s, opened Friday in Findlay. And Market Garden Brewery and Distillery — Cleveland’s newest brewery that opened over the summer — is making beer and spirits.
Then there are places on the cusp of opening, such as Blank Slate Brewing Co. and Double Barrel Brewery in Cincinnati, Toxic Brew Co. in Dayton, BottleHouse Brewery in Cleveland Heights, Cleveland Whiskey in Cleveland and Crafted Artisan Meadery in rural Suffield Township in Portage County. The list goes on and on.
“It’s a national trend,” said David Goodman, director of the Ohio Department of Commerce, which oversees Liquor Control. “It’s not just happening in Ohio. There’s a lot of folks who are finding the opportunity to enter into a small business like this, and people’s tastes seem to be headed in this direction.
“It’s like anything else. People just find that there’s a market for it, and that market gets filled.”
Kent Waldeck, the 33-year-old owner of Crafted Artisan Meadery, is typical of the trend. A longtime homebrewer, he had a dream to turn his hobby into a professional career.
When he and his wife moved back to Ohio from North Carolina, they bought a model home along rural state Route 43 and renovated the small sales office on the side of the house into a commercial meadery. Mead — a beverage fermented with honey and other spices — has been named one of the year’s top food trends by Forbes.
Waldeck’s operation should open to the public early next year. He kept his full-time marketing job and plans to be small, selling out of his home at first.
“It’s a good time to be doing something like this in the state right now,” he said. “Consumers are more savvy than they used to be. They are seeking out unique products and local products.”
Business is brewing
Meanwhile, BottleHouse owners Brian Benchek and Dave Schubert are renovating a former 6,000-square-foot warehouse along busy Lee Road near Cleveland Heights High School into a brew-on-premise business and tasting room.
People will be able to come in and make their own beer, and also buy Benchek’s and Schubert’s creations.
Benchek, 35, a tattooed former glass blower, and Schubert, 40, an engineer with a braided ponytail, both live in the residential neighborhood with their families and are able to walk to work. The goal, they said, is to become part of the surrounding community’s culture. “We don’t want to be just a brewery,” Benchek said.
That attitude is prevalent among these new entrepreneurs. They aren’t getting into the business necessarily to become the next Samuel Adams or Jack Daniel or Kendall-Jackson.
“It’s a lifestyle and about a quality of life,” said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association in Geneva. The rise in alcohol manufacturing is great news for the state’s bottom line.
“We are an economic engine,” Winchell said about Ohio wineries.
Impact on economy
The state wine industry was estimated to provide a $582 million impact on the state economy, according to a 2008 study. At that time, there were 120 wineries and 4,100 people working in the wine field.
The impact is much greater today, Winchell said.
A similar 2009 study by the Beer Institute and National Beer Wholesalers Association estimated that the beer industry directly and indirectly contributes $7.7 billion a year to the Ohio economy.
Goodman, the Ohio commerce director, said the state is reviewing alcohol regulations to make sure the state isn’t impeding business and job growth.
He cited a pending state bill that would allow the creation of more micro-distilleries, which produce less than 10,000 gallons a year. State law limits the number of those businesses to counties with populations over 800,000 — and only one in those counties.
“We recognize that there is a trend here and there are a lot of small-business owners who want to get into this,” Goodman said.
Even with the growing number of alcohol producers in the state, industry leaders believe there is plenty of room to grow for Ohio-made alcohol. For example, Ohio wines hold only a 5 percent share of the state market.
Whether small alcohol manufacturers can capture the attention of more Ohioans, though, is unclear. That will depend on the product itself.
“In the end, people like to drink good stuff,” Waldeck said.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his beer blog at www.beer.ohio.com.