Microbreweries in Dayton look to carry beer into a new frontier.
The Beer Revolution has hit cities throughout the country, but it landed a haymaker in Dayton.
At this time next year, the region will have 12 operating microbreweries; four are open, while eight more are slated to start tapping next year.
“It’s about time it got here,” says Patrick Hindson, co-owner and general manager at Toxic Brewing Co., which is located in the heart of the Historic Oregon district. With its list of Belgian, Bavarian and American brews—topped off with some head-turning flavors and spices—Toxic is part of a new wave of breweries that’s redefining Dayton’s relationship with beer.
The area experienced a brewery movement almost a decade ago, but it quickly fizzled. Loosened state laws and a thirst for craft homebrews has created a perfect storm for beer enthusiasts. The movement in Dayton parallels beer transformations in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. They all edge Dayton in size but the
community’s support and love of beer rivals them.
“Knowledge of beer is only growing, and [beer] screams local. People are super stoked to be a part of it,” says Hindson. “It’s really what’s sparking the movement.”
Dayton’s Love of Beer
Washington Irving said, “They who drink beer will think beer.”
Take a peak at Dayton’s history and Irving’s statement is grounded in fact. For more than 200 years, the Miami Valley has had beer on its mind.
While local beer had been brewed in small doses, the mid-1800s saw huge population increases in Dayton, including an influx of German immigrants. The newest Americans trekked from rural areas to the cities and brought their thirst for lager along.
“Almost all the brewery owners from pre-Prohibition were German born or first-generation Germans,” says Tanya Brock, manager at Dayton History’s Carillon Brewery, a 19th Century brewery opening next year at Carillon Park. “While beer historically had a place in Dayton and across the American landscape in general, it was the Germans that added lager to the list.”
Compared to large Midwest cities of the era, Dayton’s beer production was not uncommon. But it did outproduce other cities of similar size. Prior to Prohibition, Dayton had a couple large breweries that provided beer throughout the region. In 1889, Sachs-Pruden’s brewing company produced 140,000 barrels, while the N. Thomas Brewery produced 80,000. Other smaller operations produced roughly 10,000 barrels a year until 1904 when several breweries merged to create the Dayton Breweries Company. It was a booming industry until the “Noble Experiment” sobered it up. But the city bounced back and managed to keep its signature on beer production. “Dayton impacted brewing as a whole, thanks to the invention of Freon gas in 1928,” says Brock.
The gas allowed for controlled refrigeration, storage and transportation, but it wasn’t until 1959 that Dayton-native Ermal Fraze developed the first pull-tab can while at a church picnic. His new invention offered an easy way to drink mass-produced carbonated beverages enjoyed by millions. It took more than 60 years, but Fraze’s pull-tab sowed the seeds for today’s beer renaissance.
The New Beer Culture
Corporate brands in Yellow Springs are as popular as houses that hand out apples during trick-or-treat. The village’s reputation for organic lifestyles and a free spirit mindset is well established. It’s also a ripe environment for a locally owned and operated business, especially one centered on beer.
“This town has been so supportive of what we’re doing,” says Lisa Wolters, co-owner and manager at Yellow Springs Brewery. “It’s always supportive of the folks who try to make a living here.”
Wolters and her husband, Nate Cornett, opened Yellow Springs Brewery in April. With a gravel parking lot and industrial park serving as the brewery backdrop, the adjoining taproom offers a rustic and unpretentious environment for imbibing.
The slogan, “Crafting Truth to Power,” is also rooted in Yellow Springs’ culture. The tongue-and-cheek expression is based on the saying, “Speaking Truth to Power,” which was—oddly enough—coined by Quakers in the 1950s to protest fascism and totalitarianism. Wolters and Cornett are calling for a similar stand against mass-produced beer juggernauts.“We want to bring attention to the big guys who produce just a small selection of beers,” says Wolters. “The word that we’ve embraced is authenticity, and we’re artisans crafting lots of different choices for folks.”
At any time their taproom has 16 to 20 different taps pouring various seasonal beers. Their brewery is a microcosm of the beer revolution going on throughout Dayton, Miami Valley and United States. According to the Brewers Association, craft beer sales saw a 17 percent increase in dollar sales from 2011 to 2012.
The trend in brewing local and drinking local is evident 20 miles to the west at Lucky’s in the Historic Oregon district. The swivel stools, long wooden bar and a blue-collar feel make it the perfect place to catch a happy hour beer after a long day. Don’t expect to sip a domestic draught, though; all 20 of their taps pour microbrews, including Yellow Springs and Toxic.
“I feel like a vast majority of drinkers in Dayton are more focused on the craft,” says Kathy Roll, a Lucky’s bartender. Like many in her profession, Roll can gauge a drinking trend easier than most. She can say, without a doubt, that Dayton microbrews are on a prosperous track. “There are people that still like domestics, but for the most part, Miller Lite just isn’t cutting it anymore,” says Roll. “I’m always hearing people saying, ‘I want to try something new.’ It’s about evolving your palette as opposed to sticking to the same thing.”
No “I” in Beer
At Fifth Street Brew Pub in St. Anne’s, $125 buys more than enough rounds but it can also purchase a lifetime ownership of the bar. With more than 2,200 owners, Fifth Street is one of two co-op-owned bars in the United States where members serve as the ownership. The nonprofit bar drew inspiration from a similar establishment in Austin, Texas, but Fifth Street, deriving its name from the street on which it’s located, had little trouble finding eager members when it opened in August.
“We wanted 500 members in the first six months, but we got 900 in 90 days,” says David Tickel, Fifth Street shareowner and general manager. “It’s still kind of weird for me to think about.” The bar reflects the current trend in brewing where community is just as important as beer. Tickel says all membership fees and bar income pays for refurbishing the establishment and nearby brew house. The whole operation is located in a 150-year-old two-story home with hardwood floors and wooden beams that capture Dayton’s historical roots.
Outside is a patio with picnic tables situated between the bar and brew house, where Darren Link, Fifth Street brew master, creates concoctions for a December tapping.
“It’s a mixture of exciting and terrifying,” says Link. “I’m getting some pointers though.” Link—who is creating stouts, Belgian brews, harvest ales, porters and a specialized hoppy brew—is learning from a cooperative of his own.
He and a fraternity of brew masters, including Nate Cornett of Yellow Springs Brewery, Pete Hilgeman of the Dayton Beer Company, and Shane Juhl of Toxic Brew Co. share a collective interest in brewing.
“We all started as home brewers so there is kind of a common ground among us,” says Hilgeman, a 27-year-old brew master who opened the city’s first microbrewery in more than 50 years. The University of Cincinnati graduate, who double majored in marketing and international business, says his love of brewing stems from the beer commercials during the Super Bowl. His work and interest have paid off. After opening in May 2012, he’s already making plans to expand his operation to supply a growing demand.
All four agree that brewing is a labor-intensive process that includes a lot of cleaning, a barrel full of patience and an ability to learn from your mistakes. They share tips and advice without viewing each other as competitors. They say it’s necessary for an industry in its infancy and an unlimited potential on the horizon. “Some people talk about a bubble bursting, but people aren’t going to stop drinking beer anytime soon,” says Cornett. “We’re all in this together, and if one of us does well, we’ll all do well.”
Distributing the Spirit: Dayton’s Heidelberg Distributing Company celebrates 75 years
It started with one man and one truck in 1938. Seventy-five years later, it’s morphed into a sprawling operation that distributes beer and spirits to 26,000 retailers in Ohio and Kentucky.
Albert Vontz, a German immigrant determined to live the American dream, started driving a delivery truck from Dayton to Heidelberg Brewery in Covington, Ky., which was known for Student Prince and Heirloom Beers. Heidelberg Brewery was sold in 1946, but Vontz stayed in business and kept the Heidelberg name.
Albert Vontz Jr. joined his father’s business in 1947 and purchased the Cincinnati and Dayton branches of Anheuser-Busch in 1959 and 1962, respectively. For the next 50 years, the Dayton-based company expanded to ten locations, including Toledo, Youngstown, Columbus and Cleveland.
Heidelberg now distributes 13,500 products with a fleet of 300 trucks and 630 suppliers.
Distilling the Buckeye Spirit: Dayton-based distillery is on the forefront of vodka renaissance
The economic downturn dashed many entrepreneurial dreams, but three family members found a silver lining. Brothers Jim and Chris Finke, and brother-in-law Tom Rabasek, operated businesses in 2009, and, like many small business owners were facing dire times. “I called my brother in Texas and he said, ‘What are you doing more of these days,’ ” recalls Jim. “Jokingly, I said, ‘Drinking.’ He said, ‘Perfect lets make vodka.’ ”
Jim says his brother linked him and Rabasek up with a friend in Texas who had experience distilling spirits. Four years later, Buckeye Vodka is on the forefront of vodka distilling in Ohio. “The whole business plan was to make an ultra premium vodka and do it better,” says Jim. “Microdistilling is in its infancy, and we feel that microdistillers will do to the vodka industry what microbrews have done to the beer industry.”
Jim says most store shelves are crowded with commercial brands that charge high prices for subpar vodka. With a third of liquor store sales stemming from vodka, the trio saw a niche in an industry long-considered recession proof. “After the recession, people were sacrificing quality for quantity,” says Jim. “We thought we could provide a real need.”
The owners invested in high-tech filtration and distillation systems to ensure a high-quality product. After several filtrations, the owners sample each batch against large name brands to ensure better taste and quality. If it’s not smooth, or if impurities are detected, the product is filtered back through a state-of-the-art, 20-foot column still. Because of their technique, Buckeye Vodka has won awards from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and New York International Spirits Competition, and several other international accolades.
Their success is partly due to Rabasek, who owns and operates Dayton-based water delivery service, Crystal Water Company. Rabasek felt the economic pinch after several area companies closed up. It was a void filled with vodka. “Sixty percent of vodka formulation is water, so it was a natural fit,” says Rabasek. “I never thought I'd be making vodka, but it’s definitely a lot of fun.”
Buckeye Vodka is shelved throughout Ohio and parts of Kentucky. With a red buckeye leaf, blue lettering and a white frosted bottle, it’s a distinct Midwest product, inside and out. Buckeye Vodka uses Ohio-grown corn as homage to the people who made the spirit possible. “Dayton has really opened their arms to us,” says Jim. Jim and Rabasek are experimenting with new flavors, but a commitment to their current product is above everything else. “We don’t want to lose focus on our product,” says Rabasek. “Our personal attention makes sure we’re as good as anything on the shelf.”