For every brewer working at places like Great Lakes, Fat Head’s, Buckeye Brewing, Market Garden and Portside, there literally are thousands more waiting in the wings, tinkering away on jury-rigged equipment in out-of-the-way places. Some of them will begin to cultivate a following, either through beer competitions, festivals or handles at the local taproom. For the best of the bunch, the next logical step is to invest in a small brewery, where they can brew more beer, reach more customers, and begin to build a lasting brand.
Increasingly, there’s another path, one that doesn’t require taking on investors, wrangling with local, state and federal regulators and spending fat wads of cash on equipment. It’s called “gypsy brewing,” a practice that falls under the larger umbrella of contract brewing. Those are precisely the people that Justin Carson and Paul Benner of Platform Beer
will seek to serve when they open Gypsy Brewery, a large-scale brewhouse dedicated to itinerant brewers.
“I got this idea before we even opened Platform,” explains co-owner Carson. “Paul and I visited like eight to 10 breweries and it really stuck out to me that so many of them had been around for 10 years and haven’t outgrown their tasting room.”
Often, a small brewer will seek out a local brewery with excess capacity with which to partner, working alongside the brewer to craft a batch of beer. But given the explosive growth of craft beer in Ohio and elsewhere, good luck finding a brewery with “excess capacity.” Gypsy Brewery will be committed to working with brewers in need of equipment, availability and expertise.
“We approached this from our own eyes as Platform – from a brewer’s eyes,” says Carson. “If this entity was around the corner from us and belonged to somebody else, what would be advantageous for us?”
The outcome of those discussions led them to a formula whereby Gypsy charges a flat rate per finished barrel of beer, absorbing all other costs associated with the process, including rent, insurance, equipment, ingredients, expertise and labor, to name but a few. The finished product is then picked up by a distributor and delivered to waiting accounts.
“You have to be a licensed brewery in Ohio, but that doesn’t mean you need to have a location,” explains Benner. “What you have is a host and tenant brewery. We’re the host.”
Carson and Benner could not have found a more appropriate home for their new venture if they tried. They recently got the keys to the former Leisy Brewery, a warren of hulking brick buildings less than a mile from their Ohio City brewery. Spread across multiple floors in multiple buildings dating back to the turn of the century, the 120,000-square-foot space soon will begin to take shape as the only such brewing facility in the state and region.
After clearing out the complex, which had been vacant for a decade save for squatters and urban explorers, the crew will move on to pouring the concrete floor, adding new plumbing, and shoring up the roof. The first batch of equipment, slated to roll in this coming fall, will include a 30-barrel brewhouse, six 60-barrel fermenters, and a cold-storage room. There is near-endless room for growth in the space.
Not everything needs to be constructed from scratch; after all, the facility once was home to one of the largest breweries in Cleveland.
“That’s what so cool about this facility; it was a brewery,” says Benner, pointing out features like the two-story grain silo they hope to repurpose. “All the drains. All the glazed tile on the walls for easy cleaning. To redo the room in this tile would cost more than what we paid for the entire building.”
One of Gypsy’s first clients likely will be Kyle Roth, the inaugural graduate of Platform’s incubator program, whose nascent Ferndock Brewing has enjoyed a fast start. Roth has partnered with Cleveland developer Rick Semersky to build a new brewery in Roth’s hometown of Sandusky, but it’s not slated to open until 2017.
“For us, we’re looking to build up the momentum that we started through Platform, and are continuing to do with other breweries like Catawba Island Brewing,” says Roth, whose popular Sandusky Pale Ale is impossible to keep flowing given the lack of capacity. “We’re brewing from hand-to-mouth to keep our name out there.”
Even when Roth’s brewpub is up and running, he says he’ll rely on Gypsy to brew large batches of his flagship beers.
“We’ll be able to brew larger batches like our Sandusky Pale Ale without having to turnover our smaller brewpub system that many times,” he says. “Basically, the more beer you can make at one time, the more money you can make. It takes about the same amount of time to brew a 30-barrel batch as it does to brew a 10-barrrel batch, so it makes sense to go bigger. And the extra product helps to extend your reach into the market.”
Other tenants lined up include Renee DeLuca, who recently revived her father’s seminal beer New Albion, which he founded in Sonoma, California in 1976.
And, of course, there’s Platform Beer, who likely be will Gypsy’s largest tenant brewer. With new and future caned ventures like New Cleveland Palesner, Speed Merchant white IPA, and Ester Belgian Christmas Ale rolling off the lines, the added capacity is a necessity.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, says Carson.
“There is nothing like this anywhere close to here,” he says. “We believe that we’ll find a lot of regional breweries that have either run out of space or are in between facilities or they figure that this model is a better fit for them.”
To some extent, he adds, this is what Platform has been about since the start.
“Platform is all about helping to start good local breweries in and around the area,” Carson explains. “This is our way of taking it to the next level by bringing in new jobs to leverage a bunch of other breweries here in Cleveland.”