Leslie Basalla-McCafferty is the co-author of the new book Cleveland Beer: History & Revival in the Rust Belt. She also is the co-operator, along with her husband, of the Cleveland Brew Bus.
Question: What did you learn while writing about Cleveland breweries?
Answer: I don't even know where to start in replying to this question. My co-author Peter Chakerian and I split the writing and research behind the book into chronological segments. I covered the founding of the city through the beginnings of Prohibition; he covered Prohibition through the end of old-school local brewing in 1988, as well as a chapter on the breweries that didn't survive the early 1990s microbrewerry boom, and I picked the story back up with the founding of Great Lakes through the present.
I found the the older brewing history of the city, and particularly the biographies of some of the beer barons, to be really interesting. Isaac Leisy, founder of Leisy Brewing Company, and his brothers August and Henry, for example, were Mennonites -- an affiliation that you would think would be contradictory to a career in beer -- and in fact, both brothers sold out their shares within a few years, probably because of religious guilt -- leaving Isaac and his heirs in sole control of one of the city's largest brewing fortunes. Andrew Oppman, founder of the Oppman (later Phoenix) Brewing Company was another guy with an interesting life story -- one that included emigrating from Germany as a teen, being attacked by bandits in Kansas, sailing from California to Panama in a trading ship, and surviving the Great Chicago fire before settling here in Cleveland! It's fascinating stuff.
Q: Why did you invest in the Cleveland Brew Bus?
A: The short answer would be because talking about beer is the coolest possible way to make a living, short of making and drinking beer! The long answer is a little more involved.
My husband Brian and I started working for the original owners of the Brew Bus, Bob and Shelle Campbell, in March 2014, after I left my post as manager of Market Garden Brewery. I had gotten to know Bob and Shelle through running the brewhouse tour program there. The company, which they had started as a hobby business, had grown much more quickly than they expected, and they were overwhelmed. Once we proved that we were worthy of their trust and taking good care of their "baby," they pretty much relinquished control of most day-to-day operations to us -- within two months I was handling all the booking and administrative duties as well as guiding the tours. It was pretty much a logical progression of events for us to take over ownership.
For me, it's a dream job -- I've worked very hard to cultivate my craft beer knowledge, and I love sharing it with people. More than that, I love Cleveland -- I've always been a champion of this city, and I love to show off all the great things happening here, and all the ways beer and brewing has become a driver of development and investment in the city. Breweries are literally changing the faces of our neighborhoods, and I think that's great!
Q: You’ve operated the Cleveland Brew Bus for several years now. What’s been the funniest or craziest experience so far?
A: We really like to emphasize to our guests that the Brew Bus is more about tasting and learning to appreciate different styles of beer and understanding the brewing process than it is about consuming mass quantities of alcohol. We actively discourage people from treating the experience like a party bus, and will turn away bookings from people who we suspect are just trying to get drunk.
That said, the potential always does exist for people to get a little silly, or out of hand -- especially when a single group, like a bachelor party, has the bus to themselves and doesn't feel the pressure to behave that comes with being among strangers. I prefer to not recount the unpleasant incidents, so one of may favorites (and it's quite tame, really) was the busload of guys who randomly struck up a sing-along of popular, cheesy hip-hop hits of the late 1980s/early '90s. I think it started with "Ice, Ice Baby," then rolled into the theme from "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air." I then kicked in my own contribution -- I think Brian was slightly horrified to discover that I know all the words to "The Humpty Dance."
Q: There’s a concern that the craft beer industry – thanks to the phenomenal growth over the last few years – is reaching a saturation point, particularly in some areas of Ohio. Are there too many breweries here? If yes, why? If no, why not?
A: I'm going to give you more answer than you want on this one. I don't think there are too many breweries in Ohio, but I do think we may be reaching a tipping point in terms of breweries with regional/national aspirations moving into widespread distribution or expanding their distributed offerings. Anymore, there are SO many breweries with SO many beers available here -- both our locals and the big national players like Oskar Blues, Stone, New Belgium, et al -- that competition for cooler space in retail stores and tap space in bars is getting fierce. At some point, the store and bar managers are simply going to run out of room, and get very selective about what they choose to carry.
NOW, on the other hand, I think there's still a ton of room for small, truly local breweries that focus their efforts on serving their neighborhoods and hometowns. There are huge stretches of Greater Cleveland that do not currently have a brewery, but could easily support one. The whole south-southeast quadrant of the county -- Independence, Broadview Heights, Brecksville, and spreading into northern Summit County - Macedonia, Richfield, Hudson -- has absolutely nothing. Other than The BottleHouse and The Cleveland Brewery (which is only open in Fridays) the east side is pretty bare until you get out into Lake County, and my neighborhood, Kamm's Corners, is seriously dying for a brewery.
You also have to note that people, especially young people, are changing their patterns of consumption -- instead of shopping at the mega-mart or a humonguous supermarket for their daily essentials, they're opting to buy bread at the bakery up the street, visit the local butcher shop, and get their produce at the neighborhood farmer's market or greengrocer. As people gravitate towards this more localized model of consumption (and city planners and mayors place more and more emphasis on revitalizing downtowns and creating dense, walkable communities), I see no reason why small breweries shouldn't become a standard amenity of any town or neighborhood -- much like the local coffee shop or diner -- nor why they wouldn't thrive. AND, if those little places brew really good beer that wins awards and gains cult cache, they won't need to expand -- people will come to them.
Q: Which beer – any beer in the world – do you wish that you created/invented and why?
A: I'm going to go with Saison DuPont. I am a Saison fanatic -- it is a unique style of beer with such a distinctive flavor. And while DuPont isn't nearly my favorite example of the style, it is, commercially-speaking, the granddaddy, benchmark example, from which almost all the other variants derive inspiration. I like that stateside brewers are really starting to embrace saisons and use them as a bit of a blank canvas, to which they are adding all kinds of interesting ingredients and unexpected flavors. Saison may never capture popular imagination the way that IPA has, or sours are now doing, but it's a style where there is always room for a new twists and innovation, as well as one that, when brewed to the classic style specs, is nearly always fantastic.
Editor's note: The Five questions with ... feature appears every Friday on the Ohio Beer Blog. If you are an Ohio brewer and want to participate -- or you want to recommend someone to participate -- email me at email@example.com.