"Beer is always freshest at the source," says Fat Head's brewer Matt Cole.
That seems like the most obvious testimonial in the world, but until recently, it wasn't all that easy to accomplish. Before 2012, it was all but impossible for a small brewery to open up its doors to thirsty fans. But thanks to recent legislation, Ohio is experiencing a tasty wave of new brewery-based taprooms. In contrast to a brewpub, tap or tasting rooms focus almost exclusively on beer made on premises, selling neither booze nor food.
In the past, breweries that wanted to operate a taproom were compelled to buy an expensive second permit in addition to their already expensive main brewing license. Thanks to House Bill 243, signed into law in late 2011, small breweries can sell their products onsite without purchasing that costly second permit. Subsequent legislation sweetened the pot even further, significantly reducing the cost for that main manufacturing license. Now, instead of paying roughly $7,800 per year to run a taproom, breweries need pay only $1,000.
"We're taking advantage of the new legislation," says Garin Wright of Buckeye Brewing, who after years of brewing says now is the time to open a taproom. "What you are going to start seeing as a result of this legislation is more nano breweries with limited budgets opening taprooms."
These changes clear the way for tiny upstart breweries like Cleveland Brewery, which is setting up shop in a storefront on East 185th Street. Paying $7,800 per year to brew and sell 60-gallon batches of beer would have been absurd, but now these guys and others like them can brew, sell beer by the pint for on-site consumption, sell beer to go in cans, bottles, growlers and kegs, and self-distribute their product to neighborhood bars and restaurants, all for $1,000 per year.
Other elements of the legislation also will spur the birth of new taprooms, explains Mary MacDonald, executive director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, a nonprofit tasked with advancing the industry statewide. "To open a taproom, you used to have to build two separate restrooms. Now, they can get away with just one unisex restroom."
More surprising, perhaps, is the provision that allows so-called "taprooms" to be built up to a half-mile away from the brewery. That little detail helped seal the deal for Wright, who said that he never opened a taproom because he didn't want people traipsing through his workplace.
"We're putting it on the other side of the building, by Ray's Indoor Mountain Bike Park," explains Wright, adding that it makes sense to piggyback off the success and presence of Ray's, which attracts riders from all over the Midwest. Called Tapstack, a reference to the brick smokestack that rises above the industrial park, the 75-seat taproom will serve only Buckeye beer and offer no food.
The best taprooms take advantage of the industrial surroundings, immersing guests in the sights, sounds and smells of the brewing process. That's the case at Fat Head's production facility in Middleburg Heights, where taproom visitors drink fresh-brewed beer in the middle of a humping 25-barrel brewery.
"There is no separation whatsoever," Cole says.
That will be the case, too, at Platform Beer when it opens in a couple months in Ohio City. The 99-seat taproom will be situated smack dab in the middle of the brewery, says partner Paul Benner. "The idea for us is to have the customer really experience the brewing process. Most breweries segregate the brewing area from the drinking area, other than maybe a little window."
At Platform, all that separates the brewing and boozing areas is a low concrete curb with railing.
The above-mentioned taprooms join others in existence such as BottleHouse Brewery in Cleveland Heights and Indigo Imp downtown. But others will surely follow now that the barriers to entry have been significantly lowered while the demand for the product continues to soar.
"The consumer has gotten to the point where they realize that fresher beer is better beer," says Buckeye's Garin Wright. "If you can find good beer that is made and served locally as opposed to beer that's shipped across the Mississippi, that's a great thing."