Great Lakes raises stakes

By Marty Nachel

When the tiny Great Lakes Brewing Company opened up in Cleveland in 1988, no one could have predicted the unprecented popularity and growth it would expericence in its first seven years of existence. The GLBC, as a brewpub and a bottling brewery, has received more widespread acclaim than any other brewery away from the west coast.

Locally, Great Lakes Brewing was a welcome sight for Clevelanders thirsting for a hometown beer; the last of the city's 29 breweries -Christian Schmidt- closed down in 1984. Brothers Patrick and Daniel Conway decided to start what was then a small brewpub operation in a blue-collar neighborhood near the famous West Side Market. The building that was chosen for the site was originally two buildings that date back to 1860- McClain's Feed & Seed and The Market Tavern. The huge mahogany bar and barback from The Market Tavern are still in place and in use, making it the oldest bar in Cleveland (the barback has two bullet holes of unknown origin, occasionally and incorrectly linked to Eliot Ness. Ness, for whom one of the GLBC beers is named, became Safety Director in Cleveland after his stint in Chicago busting up the bootlegging operations during prohibition).

The brewhouse equipment was installed in the restaurant on the first floor of what used to be the feed and seed store. The raw material storage room and laboratory is situated behind the brewhouse and the fermentation and aging room is located on the lower level. Downstairs, adjacent to the fermentation room is another dining area with rugged sandstone walls called the Beer Cellar. Here, diners can not only view the aging tanks but they can also watch barrels being rolled out for tapping. There are also three other dining areas; The Market Room is an enchanting Victorian room that overlooks the historic West Side Market, The Great Lakes Room celebrates the history of the region with nautical artifacts and brewery memorabilia, and the Rockefeller Room, reported to be John D. Rockefeller's first office in Cleveland, is said to be perfect for intimate business meetings. Alongside the brewpub, the outdoor beer garden is one of Cleveland's most charming patios and the perfect place for a casual lunch or cocktails.

While the beers were quickly recognized for their consistency and quality, they were known but to the few who could get to the brewpub to sample them. In order to increase the beers' acceptance, it became paramount to bottle a limited quantity and distribute them to local retail stores. In 1989, the flagship Dortmunder Gold was hand bottled for just four accounts scattered around the city. The brothers Conway would hand deliver these cases of beer on their way home from work. Shortly thereafter, Great Lakes Brewing began winning medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Not just any medals, mind you; these were gold medals and they were won consecutively in 1990, '91, and '92. When word quickly spread to other retailers that Cleveland's award-winning brewery was selling its beer in bottles, the retailer list eventually grew to over 30 by the end of 1992. Of course, this hastened the anticipated expansion. One month short of its fifth anniversary, the Great Lakes Brewing Company completed a $250,000 augmentation, complete with new fermentation tanks. A faster, four-at-a-time Micro Master bottling machine also increased bottling capacity from 30 cases a day to over 200. With increased aging capacity, brewing frequency was doubled from once daily to two brews every day. Total barrelage shot up 300% from 1992's 2,000 barrel output to 5,000 in 1993.

Even as Phase one of the expansion was still underway, the Conways had their eyes on various properties for phase two of the project. The GLBC had already moved into the back half of the vacant Fries & Shuele building next door in order to access the loading dock for the increased shipping and receiving traffic. It made sense to acquire more space in the same building and install a new brewhouse in that space. Original estimates for the increase in barrelage were pegged between 15,000 to 20,000 barrels and the cost for such an expansion was estimated to be about $750,000.

Meanwhile, Great Lakes' Edmund Fitzgerald Porter took yet another gold medal at the GABF in 1993 and Burning River Pale Ale garnered a silver at the same event. Up to this point, Great Lakes Brewing, under brewers Thaine Johnson, Andy Tveekrem and Tim Rastetter had amassed six medals (4 golds, 1 silver and 1 bronze) in five years. This is in addition to the numerous accolades bestowed upon the GLBC beers by local clubs, professional associations and the press. Perhaps the largest jewel in GLBC's crown came in September of 1994. The Chicago-based Beverage Testing Institute, an independent company that conducts blind tastings of beer, wine and spirits, named Great Lakes Brewing Company the Microbrewery of the Year, 1994. This honor was bestowed after three of the four GLBC beers scored high enough to take gold and platinum awards. Additionally, the brews earned the coveted "best buy" recommendation, based on the ratio of the score awarded in the judging to the price of the beer.

Triumphantly, phase two of the expansion was completed in the spring of 1995 (the inaugural brew took place on Friday, April 7, the day before the visit for this profile). A new German-made Krones bottling system should easily handle the load produced by the new thirty barrel Century Manufacting brewhouse that is dedicated to the production of bottled product. The fifteen barrel brewhouse in the brewpub can now get back to the business of brewing one of a kind specialty batches for on premise consumption along with the list of award-winning regular brews. Together, the dual systems will increase the potential output to over 12,000 barrels a year. All told, over one million dollars was invested in the latest expansion to relieve the pent-up demand for the Great Lakes beers in Cleveland and niche markets throughout the country.

Overshadowed by all the excitement and talk of beer and brewing, the food aspect of Great Lakes Brewing Company is like the forgotten stepchild. The brewery restaurant, as a matter of fact, is holding its own with favorable write-ups appearing in Bon Apetit and USA Today and The New York Times. The full-service kitchen at the brewpub serves both lunch and dinner. The cuisine is inspired by Cleveland's rich cultural heritage as well as the bounty of Ohio. The hearty, bistro-inspired menu is designed to complement the freshly brewed beer. The menu includes many salads, homemade soups, walleye and perch (in season), a sausage sampler, Market Street ribs, crabcakes, and a brewmaster's pie made with andouille (Cajun) sausage, spinach, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, that is not to be missed. Other savory favorites include a spicy Artichoke Crock and lightly breaded and sauteed calamari. Be sure to ask about the special "Fare of the Day" that features the freshest food of the season. All pastries and desserts are homemade- try the signature chocolate concoction, Ciccolata.

Back to the beer. The regular brews, now available in bottle and on draught, include Dortmunder Gold, Moon Dog Ale (traditional bitter), Commodore Perry Pale Ale, Burning River Pale Ale, The Eliot Ness (Vienna style lager), and The Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. Seasonal bottlings include The Rockefeller Bock (April-May), an Oktoberfest (Sept.-Oct.) and a spiced Christmas Ale (Nov.-Dec.). The in-house beer menu changes constantly but is sure to include one or more of the following selections: a wheat beer, Conway's Irish Ale, Best Bitter, Emmett's Stout, Winter Warmer, Ohio City Ale, Nasferatu Red, and The Holy Moses. Though none of these offerings is bottled, patrons are invited to bring in their own closed container to have it filled with the great taste of Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Brewing Company is easy to find on Cleveland's west side. From downtown, take the Hope Memorial bridge to West 25th Street. Market Street is one block north and the brewpub is to the left. Lot parking can be found just to the west of the brewery. The GLBC has a small on-premise gift shop visible from streetside. Hats, jackets, sweatshirts, T-shirts, pint glasses, mugs, canvass bags, key ring bottle openers and a limited selection of cold beer can be purchased here. Be sure to pick up a copy of MUCH ABREW- the brewpub newsletter. Some of the dining areas can be rented for banquet facilities- call the brewery for details.

Great Lakes beers:

Moon Dog Ale - Coppery-orange. Hop aromas evident. Fairly well malted, medium bodied. Perfect malt-hop balance. Finish bittering is even handed.

India Pale Ale - Coppery-gold. Hints of D.M.S., hop aroma slow to emerge. Hop flavor kicks in early; caramel malt character takes a back seat. Bittering is to the extreme, though still palatable. A hop head's "wet" dream.

The Eliot Ness - Golden-amber. Malty nose has fruity notes. Malty sweet entrance, some toasty flavors within. Subtle fruitiness detected at midtaste. Balance is towards sweetness; hop bittering gives just enough of an edge.

Dortmunder Gold - Bright golden colored. Initial whiff of D.M.S. fades to hop bouquet. Sweet grainy palate. Creamy mouthfeel. Delicate malt sweetness has trace of bittering balance. Very tasty.

Burning River Pale Ale - Copper-orange. Effusive hop bouquet with citrus aromas. Mild malty palate dries toward finish. Hop flavor and bittering overtake dry malt flavors. Sharp but pleasing citrusy tang intensifies in aftertaste.

Edmund Fitzgerald Porter - Dark brown; dense small bead head. Hint of hop aroma gives way to dark grain aroma. Well balanced sweet malt character with intense dark grain flavors. Medium bodied and creamy. Mild grain astringency and moderate bittering blend to offset maltiness. Great beer!

Imperial Stout - Opaque black beer sports dense tan head. Black malts sufficiently evident and aromas of licorice and treacle dominate the nose. Semi-sweet molasses-like midtaste. Dry astringent grain character and viscous creaminess have mouth-coating quality. Interminably long finish. A one-of-a-kind heavyweight sipper!

1995 Marty Nachel


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