A few weeks ago another “brewery” in Cleveland’s Ohio City area opened its doors for the first time. Not only is Nano Brew Cleveland’s newest “brewery”, it’s also billed as Cleveland’s smallest with a custom built half-barrel system. That’s right, while some other breweries make batches in the hundreds of barrels, Nano Brew will make their beer 160 pints at a time! Some of you playing along at home may make similar size batches in your garage! So who are these guys? A start-up run by a few award-winning home brewers with day jobs, right? Wrong. Nano Brew Cleveland is the brainchild of Sam McNulty, the owner of Market Garden Brewery and beer baron of West 25th Street. The opportunity arose when the previous proprietors, “Garage Bar”, went from up against the ropes to down for the count, and the partners at Market Garden jumped on the space down the block from their flagship’s location.
While the approach is somewhat unique in the Northeast Ohio craft beer scene, nano (or “pico” or “bucket”) brewing has been a trend nationwide for a few years. There’s no official definition of a nano brewery according to the Brewers Association, but these types of operations generally brew less than 3 barrels at a time, less than 1,000 barrels in a year and, if we’re generalizing, are typically either restaurants and similar establishments entering the “house brewed” game or home brewers looking to go pro without the hassles of raising huge amounts of capital. In Ohio, anyone can apply for a license to sell their own beer and there is no minimum capacity requirement, so there are few barriers to entry for nano brewers other than a $3,900 a year permit.
Some nano brewers are gaining steam and notoriety around the country – notably, Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Vermont and Hess Brewing in San Diego have both established solid reputations for innovative and tasty beers brewed on a very small scale. I was just at Hess Brewing recently and was amazed by the quality of the beer coming out of a space smaller than most storage lockers on that TV auction show in a business park away from other bars and restaurants. With their success, Hess is already facing some capacity issues and the brewery recently announced an expansion into a facility where their flagships won’t have a chance of running out on busy weekends. Closer to home, Rockmill makes excellent Belgian influenced beers one barrel at a time, handcrafting their artisanal ales with organic ingredients on a farm outside Columbus. However, I have no doubt that the biggest factor holding Rockmill’s tasty beers from success on a bigger stage is the price point – for example, similar quality Wit Beers from larger producers sell in the $6-8 range and even organic Wit Beers like the excellent Kili Wit from Logdson’s from Oregon sells in the $10 range while Rockmill’s is $13 (and that’s their least expensive beer).
Why would an established brewery like Market Garden open such a small sister operation?
Let’s survey the landscape of the current beer industry. What Market Garden is doing isn’t exactly unprecedented. Just last year, Upland Brewing in Indiana (coming to Ohio soon!) opened a similar sized operation in Indianapolis. Upland’s main brewery in Bloomington cranks out almost 10,000 barrels a year, but their Indy taproom creates R&D batches by the half-barrel. With Upland, however, it’s important to note that an unspoken intent was to skirt around a state law that doesn’t allow growler fills unless there’s brewing at a specific location. Other similar sized breweries run “R&D” systems that are a bit too big to be considered “nano” – for example, Dogfish Head has a 5 barrel system at their Rehoboth, Delaware pub where owner Sam Calagione and his bevy of brewers have been known to experiment with practically every ingredient under the sun. In true R&D fashion, successful recipes developed on the pilot system are rolled out as soon as they can be scheduled on the production system, plus, thanks to the larger-than-nano size batches, there’s enough to last at the pub to build a buzz and get a wide array of feedback from loyal patrons. While visiting Stone Brewing last month, I saw the small 1 barrel system where head brewer Mitch Steele gets creative and brews R&D batches that may, eventually, become the next “Enjoy By”, “Vertical Epic” or “Anniversary” beer once perfected and polished for prime time. But Stone knows that R&D is for, well, research and development and not public consumption or sale. After all, how could a small system create consistent, affordable brews for a high turnover location?
Therein lies the rub. Or should we call it the gimmick?
The more I think about this situation, the more I come back to one thought: there are zero legitimate reasons for a successful, established brewery like Market Garden to create a new business based on such small batches of beer and I think this “brewery” is more of a gimmick. It may also be an attempt to capitalize on a lack of ingenuity and risk-taking, as well as a way for Sam McNulty to stack the deck and show progress towards a solitary vision he wishes others shared.
Let’s dissect my argument. First off, what makes Market Garden successful and established? I’m basing that assumption on the fact that McNulty has claimed that, since opening the Market Garden brewery in 2011, the beer has been selling faster than it can be made. In several interviews, he has even hinted at opening a production facility to make beer for retail and for taprooms across the state. I can personally attest from my sporadic visits that many of the “staples” in their portfolio will run out from time to time, and the mere fact that they have the capital to purchase more properties certainly indicates success.
So why am I penalizing this organization for their success?
I’m not. Well, not exactly. I love this scene and I like to see successful businesses get their share of the spotlight. However, I insist that those in the center of that luminous glow must be the breweries making the best quality beers and focusing on positive, beer-focused contributions to the Cleveland craft beer community. So it follows that my biggest problem with Nano Brew is that the business has intentionally disadvantaged itself when it comes to substance, then, adding insult to injury, the highly specialized style or marketing angle of the “brewery” sets it up as more of a moon eclipsing others than a star shining over the landscape of Cleveland craft beer.
Let’s talk style and get the obvious out of the way.
Nano Brew Cleveland is poised to follow in the footsteps of its parent company by putting style before substance. What could I possibly mean? Market Garden uses Facebook as a soap box for everything Ohio City, and I get they have pride in their neighborhood, but I don’t live there and, quite frankly, I don’t care about council hearings, the hostel opening up down the street, or what woodworking artists are setting up shop in Cleveland’s near West side. I care about beer, and I expect breweries in the social space to focus their message to include a vast majority of beer-related content. Ohio City is not an island. You have the potential to draw customers from across the county, even as far as Akron, Canton and Youngstown. Why would you alienate these people with local minutia that doesn’t even relate to your product on a constant basis?
So there you have it – Market Garden’s social media priorities are all out of whack. But why do I think Nano is going to follow that path? It’s simple – not only is Nano a bike themed “brewery”, it is, in my opinion, more of a bike focused operation than a beer focused operation when it comes to message and image. The “brewery” has invested in setting up an on-premise bike fixing station where patrons can have access to every tool necessary to get their bike back on the road. While many of you are cooing at the idea of being able to fix your bike and enjoy a pint (and I even agree this concept is cool given that Cleveland was just named one of the top 10 bike-able cities in the US), the “brewery” has gone over the top to the point of being exclusionary to those who are not bicyclists in the social space. On Nano’s Facebook page, active since April 2012, the word “bike” appears 46 times while the word “beer” only appears 40 times. Look at this visualization I created where I dissect Nano Brew’s Facebook page into different themes – green is beer related, while red is bike, blue is all neighborhood, and yellow is food and self-promoting posts about McNulty businesses (white is user submitted content).
The worst thing of all is that this concept is not original – see Hopworks in Portland if you want to learn about the country’s best (GABF winning!) bicycle themed brewery. And, of course, New Belgium needs to be mentioned for their brand’s nod to two-wheeled transportation. I’m sure some people love bikes and beer, but find a way to appeal to the beer lovers first, then make the beer loving bikers your most passionate fans and followers. Reading Nano’s Facebook page today, I see their long-awaited “Bike Box” has arrived. You would think they won “Small Brewery of the Year” with the list of shout-outs and huzzahs! Look in the mirror – when is the last time you showed that much passion for one of your beers?
Now we move on to our examination of substance, also known as the really scary part.
This “brewery” has handicapped itself from the get-go. With such a small scale brewing operation serving a pub with 60-ish seats and a 200 person outdoor space, there’s really no possibility for house-made beer to take center stage. Let’s go back to basics here – by definition, a brewery is a company where the primary business activity and focus is creating and selling house made beer. Even if we set aside the facts that the economics and the miniscule scale of brewing volume don’t favor a high-turnover business in a trendy, well-traveled part of town (look at my previous examples of Hess for how a nano scale forces off-the-grid location and Rockmill for how nano destroys a product’s ability to compete on price), the fact that this “brewery” would literally have to be brewing 4 batches every single day to produce a mere 600 pints shows that Nano Brew isn’t primarily in the business of creating and selling house made beer (not to mention they would need a giant farm of tiny fermenters, but let’s not even put on our brewer helmets and go there). Instead, the “brewery” is admittedly the outsourced R&D arm of Market Garden and the presence of the small brew system is, undoubtedly, a device intended to attract attention, publicity and business, or, as Mirriam and Webster define it verbatim, a gimmick.
There you have it. But maybe that term has been sensationalized a bit in this day and age. To be fair, the pricing on Nano’s house brews is on par with what I would expect, but there is no reason this place couldn’t have been a tap room without the “brewery” claim. So why did this happen? What caused this gimmick to become a reality? I can’t help but conclude this is a self-serving move for Sam McNulty to prove that his failed idea of the “Ohio City Brew Trail” is working. Here’s a healthy slap of reality Sam – I respect you and your passion, and I truly appreciate your desire to revitalize a neighborhood with great potential, but there’s only one destination brewery in Ohio City and the name on the door is “Great Lakes”. To mention Market Garden or Nano Brew in the same sentence is disrespectful to a pioneer in the Ohio craft beer industry and their 24 years of world-class products. The fact that you convinced a Slovenian grocer down the street to brew house beers doesn’t strengthen your case. Unless at least TWO established, world-class, award winning destination breweries set-up shop in the area, your rally cries are falling on deaf ears. You should be promoting the North East Ohio beer scene, or the Cleveland beer scene. In my opinion, you’ve gotten so fixated on Ohio City you’re forgetting about the bigger picture. You want your ship to rise so badly, you’re focusing on the harbor and forgetting about the sea.
Furthermore, Nano Brew cements Market Garden’s feet firmly in place as Cleveland’s most boring brewery. Most breweries these day do experimentation and diversify their product lines under one brand umbrella. Not to mention, other professional brewers don’t do R&D on the public’s dime. Why should we put any faith in the parent company’s ability to challenge our palates anyway? Market Garden is such a risk-adverse organization that the brewery had no less than 3 sub-6%-ABV lagers on tap the last time I visited. The worst part is that this these guys don’t even get experimentation right. So far Nano has offered, wait for it, a black IPA and an American Amber Ale. The Amber Ale was par for the course – an average beer I would expect to taste in a home brew competition, anything but avant-garde. The Black, or “dark” IPA (as they called it) was horrendous compared to beers like Stone Sublimely or Brew Kettle Black Rajah. It lacked the most important element of an IPA – hops. What’s worse, the roast smelled slightly like the backside of a camel in the Saharan sun. The word “groundbreaking” seems to have stopped entering the equation once construction on the building finished. Here’s my opinion on why the product offerings seem so safe and mediocre…I think Head Brewer Andy Tveekrem hasn’t ever been pushed to be a creative type. Tveekrem, AKA the “Striking Viking” has the resume of a star including stints at Great Lakes and Dogfish Head, but dig a bit deeper into his actual role and some of the luster fades away. Let’s face it; Great Lakes brewers follow tried and true recipes the Conways (Great Lakes owners) have approved while everyone at Dogfish Head is just echoing Calagione’s battle cries. Tveekrem has never been put in a role where creativity and recipe formulation take center stage, but I personally hoped he would embrace the opportunity and emerge with something new and, at the very least, full of personality. Instead, Nano has thus far perpetuated Market Garden’s lowest common denominator approach to craft beer, creating beers that taste OK but nothing that wows me or gets Ohio City or Ohio at large noticed. That’s not good enough, and, if the current leadership doesn’t bring home hardware at the GABF or World Beer Cup in the next year or two, I highly recommend considering a change. Give assistant brewer Jen Hermann the chance to take the lead; those of us who have witnessed her great knowledge and strong passion and palate know she possesses enough creativity and personality to make your brand stand out in a male dominated industry!
At the end of the day, when you add it all up, I can’t help but conclude that Nano Brew is not a brewery at all – this is just another tap house – a beautiful and unique tap house, but a tap house nonetheless. Is it wrong to have an identity and angle? No, but when the focus is on bicycle culture further distracts from weak product offerings and perpetuates a preposterous plan to put Cleveland on the map of the national beer scene by emphasizing quantity and ignoring quality, we all lose as craft beer consumers. I had a great time visiting the space to take my photos for this article, but the 2 house beers were the weakest I tried that day when compared to the 22 guest taps. In stark contrast, the same day I was at Nano, Fat Heads had 15 of their own beers on tap. In fact, Nano had 2 Fat Heads offerings, equaling the number of house beers. If I had to guess what brewery I was at based on the tap list alone, the three Breckenridge beers on tap would make me guess Denver and not Ohio City. This is the first brewery I’ve ever been in that had more taps from a guest brewery than of their own beer.
What can be done? Is all lost? NO! I want to see Nano and Market Garden succeed. But, success doesn’t just mean financial viability – success for a Cleveland Brewery means great products and positive contributions to our community and culture. For that to happen, there are several points that need to be addressed. By stating here, Nano Brew can begin overcoming my objections and stated obstacles and become a positive part of the Cleveland Craft Beer scene. Here are my helpful suggestions, in no particular order:
- Get rid of the dumb “wear your bike helmet get ½ off your first pint” promotion. Seriously, I live in the suburbs because West 25th street is still permeated with bums and drug dealers and the schools are poor at best. Sorry to those who love their neighborhood but I saw a drug deal go down at 3:00 in the afternoon right in front of the Bier Markt last time I was down there, and it wasn’t some kid selling pot – we’re talking a giant baggy of white rocks. Point being, don’t penalize me because I’m not in biking distance. Sure I could drive down and bring a bike helmet, but, come on, start a program to reward loyal customers who choose to spend their hard-earned dollars at your establishment without geographic prejudice – you can be a bike friendly bar but you don’t need to be a non-bike exclusionary bar. Your awesome staff makes everyone feel comfortable and welcome; don’t make the marketing angle detract from their generosity and graciousness.
- Post more social topics about beer and cool it with the bicycle and Ohio city stuff unless it directly relates to the brewery. At the very least, let us know what beers are on tap and what the vision/direction is for each house-made beer. What makes a beer a Nano Brew beer? Is it just the silly spelling and capital ‘N’s? Sorry, but if you spent as much time and passion on the marketing/angle/personality of your beer as you do on your property and social presence, the suds would be, at the very least, interesting. Twitter would be a nice alternative for the off-topic gossip, but your Twitter account hasn’t tweeted in months, and if it were anything like the Market Garden account, it would just send me to Facebook anyway. Can you say #socialmediafail?
- Focus on the beer and stop pretending you even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as GABF winning breweries like Fat Heads, Great Lakes and Brew Kettle until you’ve not only been in the end zone but you’ve actually won a ring. If you focus on the size of the batches of beer as the thing that makes you unique, someone will come along with a smaller brewery. It’s easy to do – in fact, I could rent a storage locker, get a $3,900 permit and brew my beer a pint at a time just to rub it in your face. Instead of the lowest common denominator, prove yourself through the quality of your product and then you can make the claim you make the best beer in Ohio City. That’s a title you can hang your bike helmet on.
- Please encourage, nay, insist on safe biking – I would even recommend not serving more than one or two pints to those who do bike down to your establishment. As far as I know, BWI or BUI is a crime like DUI or DWI, and, with the congested traffic in the area and the potential for devastating accidents at moderately low speeds, riding a bike intoxicated is a bad decision. In a way, encouraging people to ride down and have a pint while fixing their bicycles is as irresponsible as the oil change shop handing me a martini while I wait for my car to be serviced. Unless they’re riding a bicycle built for two, make sure patrons don’t put themselves and others at risk. A recent Facebook post encouraged people at Ingenuity fest to bike over and have a “pint or five”. I hope there was a joke I missed!
- I love the space and the service is excellent, so half the battle for loyal customers has already been won. I think the “Nano Brew Crew” is hungry to prove they’re up there with the best in the business. So please keep these talented, passionate people on the payroll and keep educated and friendly faces as your representatives to the public. The bartenders at Nano are ten times the cool of those at Market Garden, so props for the upgrade there with respect to the friendly factor! Don’t loose that edge like other places have done after the year or two year mark. Make these people proud by letting them pour awesome house made beers to people who love bikes, and to the majority of us too.
- A claim was put out that the guest taps would feature local beer but so far there have been breweries from states as far away as California on tap regularly and many deserving locals (Brew Kettle, Willougby, Cellar Rats) have yet to show up. Don’t try to hoodwink people by throwing around the “l” word – it does a disservice to the education of those just getting into craft beer and really turns off us veterans.
- The space seems a tad cold. More personality and some wall decor would go a long way. While the metal vibe of Garage Bar is long-gone, you could do a bit more to make this place feel unique and beer-centric. The bikes in the window are a start, but the vibe is a bit vanilla.
- Finally, remember, I take the time to write these articles because I love you all, especially those of you I’ve had the honor of calling my friends. I understand many will disagree with me and that’s fine, but don’t question my intent as I won’t ever criticize you if you personally have affection for or affiliation with Nano. I really want to see you all succeed and I hope my ramblings can help. At the very least, while I know I’m probably not your favorite person right now, I hope I’m not banned from enjoying a pint from time to time. The thing many people don’t grasp right now is that we do NOT need more breweries in Cleveland for the sake of having more breweries. We need more passionate brewers bringing world class beers to the table, pushing our scene forward and making us stand out above all the other cities where average is good enough.
Disclaimer – What preceded this disclaimer is my personal opinion, if you disagree, I’d like to read your response in the comment field below, but please, let’s keep this civil and productive. I write this with total respect to any individual’s right to pursue whatever business plan they see fit, and with a deep-seeded desire to see Cleveland emerge and finally get our dues as the next brewing hot spot in the country. I love this scene and I’m willing to stick my neck out to keep it moving in a positive direction, even when that includes pointing out the missteps of big players in the Cleveland Craft Beer business.
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