Buckeye Brewing Company could never make the opening montage of Laverne & Shirley. There are no conveyor belts or big, stainless-steel vats. There's just Garin Wright and equipment that would fit into a broom closet. And Wright freely volunteers that Buckeye is the smallest brewery in Ohio bottling and kegging its wares. Even its motto acknowledges this: "Small batches. Big beer."
Wright seems to enjoy visitors' reactions to the unimpressive equipment: a single vat, one boil tank, and a series of white plastic buckets -- the kind you might use on a fishing trip. "Don't you picture huge tanks?" he asks, cheerfully. "We have people come in here, and they'll say, 'Where's the brewery?' And I have to say, 'You're looking at it.'"
"It" does not look like a brewery that survived a major market shakeup. Or one that just inked a deal to distribute its wares throughout the state. Garin Wright knows this. "We hear it all the time: 'I can't believe how small you are,'" he says.
Wright has paused for a moment, after a frenzy of activity: There's a repairman to pay, equipment to check, a warp-speed tour for a reporter. He's 31, but looks younger, a coil of energy who talks fast and walks even faster. "I do everything here," he says. He's not bragging; he's one of just two full-time employees.
When Wright and his father, Bob, discovered brewing in the late '90s, the microbrew market was growing by 50 percent every year nationally, says Paul Gatza, director of the Association of Brewers. Ohio was no different. The state had just 15 breweries in 1993; by 1999, that number had risen to 64, according to state statistics. Most of the newcomers were inspired by the rich, craft-style beers from the Northwest, such as Sierra Nevada or Pete's Wicked Ale, which were riding a tidal wave of sudden popularity.
In that crowded field, Buckeye Brewing Company might well have been voted "Least Likely to Succeed." Cleveland was awash in entrepreneurs with dreams of regional dominance and expensive brewing equipment. The Wrights had neither. They just wanted to make good beer.
And they didn't even know how. Garin had played around with fermenting in junior high because he was curious; Bob and his buddies had made some "pretty bad beer" in college. That was it. Garin admits that his learning curve as a brewmaster was "ridiculous." "I had no idea what I was getting into," he says.
But Bob was a gambler. He'd given up teaching and coaching three decades earlier to start a design/contracting business in his basement. The company had found real success, and by 1997 he was ready for another venture. He took out a second mortgage, invested $350,000 in equipment, and set up shop in a leased storefront in Bedford Heights, installing his son as head of operations.
Since then, most of the Wrights' competitors have gone the way of grunge bands and dot-com start-ups. Craft-style beers continue to hold about 3 percent of the total beer market, just as they did at their peak in the late '90s. But business has consolidated. Locally, breweries closed in nearly every neighborhood of the city: Western Reserve in midtown. The Firehouse in Cleveland Heights. Wallaby's in Westlake. The Diamondback downtown.
Buckeye was different. The other guys invested in Cadillacs: fancy stainless-steel vats, big brewing equipment for serious volume. The Wrights chose the Gremlin. Their system has a three-barrel capacity, which means each batch is 100 gallons of beer -- enough for just six kegs.
As business has grown, the smallness of the system has led to great frustration. Says Bob Wright, "It's like brewing a single cup of coffee at a time when you need 1,000 cups."
Still, the frugality of the venture saved it. "That kept us alive and kept us in business," Bob says. "We could see the common ingredient in the other brewers' failures: overexpenditure and not building a good name for your beer first."
When the economy tanked and other breweries crashed and burned, the big new systems wound up being auctioned for a pittance. In time, Buckeye bought three of them, each capable of quintupling its operations. But in each case, the Wrights couldn't nail down a lease on a bigger building. So they resold the equipment and waited for their moment.
They're convinced now that it's arrived. While a number of pubs still brew for their own eateries, Buckeye has just two serious local rivals: the Quarryman Taverne in Berea and Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Both have their fans, but neither has a corner on the market. Quarryman makes a niche beer in every sense of the phrase -- it actually comes in champagne-sized bottles instead of 12-ouncers. And, thanks to its enormous popularity and growing regional success, Great Lakes has become almost too ubiquitous for microbrew trendinistas.
Buckeye's reputation is growing. The brewing biz may offer more opportunities for self-congratulation than Hollywood, but that doesn't make the accolades any less important. This year, Buckeye took second in the nation in the prestigious Alpha King Challenge, arguably the competition for high-hop beers. Two of its beers placed in the 2002 Great International Beer Competition.
Locally, about a dozen beverage stores now carry Buckeye bottles; hipster bars like the Lava Lounge, the Bop Stop, and the Grovewood Tavern feature it too. More tellingly, the Wrights recently signed up with a distributor who plans to take their bottles to Columbus, Athens, Dayton, and Cincinnati.
The only thing limiting growth, Garin claims, is capacity. "I end up turning down people who call me and want to put the beer out," he says. "But we're strapped. We just can't make enough beer with this system."
So the Wrights are looking for a new building, perhaps in Lakewood. They're also looking for yet another, bigger brewing system, and -- for the first time -- investors.
The plan might work. Just ask Patrick Conway. In 1988, he and his brother, Dan, opened their brewery in Ohio City. Their system had a seven-barrel capacity, Conway says, hardly bigger than Buckeye today.
The brewery developed a reputation for quality that exceeded size. "We wanted to make sure anything we did, we did well," Conway says. Today Great Lakes Brewing Co. is a regional giant, shipping beer from New York to Wisconsin.
The Wrights' aspirations aren't quite that high; they would gladly settle for Ohio. In spite of everything, they're well on their way.