CLEVELAND: The craft beer industry was still in its infancy when brothers Pat and Dan Conway founded a small brewpub in a struggling neighborhood near downtown.
They couldn’t even find pint glasses to stock their new bar so they bought gin shakers by the thousands. They also had trouble buying valves, filters and other brewing equipment.
But one thing wasn’t in short supply: Customers.
Eager beer drinkers, ready to experience something other than the national brands, lined up outside Great Lakes Brewing Co. on Sept. 6, 1988, to sample Ohio’s first craft brewery.
Twenty-five years later, beer fans still have a seemingly insatiable appetite for Great Lakes. It’s grown into the 19th largest craft brewery in the nation with distribution in 13 states and Washington, D.C.
Buoyed by an obsession with quality and popular brands such as Dortmunder Gold, Edmund Fitzgerald, Burning River and Christmas Ale, Great Lakes has become a leader in the industry (it was one of the first to put “Enjoy by” dates on its bottles) and in the Cleveland community (it’s credited with helping to turn around its moribund Ohio City neighborhood and is now a tourist attraction).
The brewery also has been around long enough that it’s referred to nationwide with the hallowed title “heritage brewer” — one that helped shape the modern beer industry.
“Looking at Great Lakes’ influence, they … are known for being award-winning producers of many classic styles of beers, forward-thinking environmental stewards and, yes, one of the heritage craft brewers who have helped further the beverage of beer in the U.S.,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, a trade group in Boulder, Colo.
“Twenty-five years in business is a rare and wonderful craft brewer celebration to reach.”
Great Lakes has been holding celebratory events and brewing special beers throughout the year leading up to a day-long anniversary party planned Friday. (See sidebar for details.)
“It’s been a good ride,” Pat Conway said. “It’s almost been a blink of an eye.”
The Conways beat significant odds to hit their silver anniversary, which they share this year with other heritage brewers such as Deschutes and Rogue in Oregon, Goose Island in Illinois and North Coast in California.
Plenty of breweries that started in the 1980s and 1990s flopped. In Cleveland alone, those names include Crooked River, Western Reserve, Wallaby’s and Firehouse.
Great Lakes had everything going against it.
For starters, Pat Conway, a former teacher, and Dan Conway, a former commercial loan officer, had no professional brewing experience. But they were smart enough to recognize that shortcoming and brought on two brewing veterans to set up their operation.
The Conways credit Thane Johnson and Charlie Price, who had both worked at Cleveland’s last production brewery, Christian Schmidt, for the quality of the beer and their early success.
Great Lakes also was starting when craft beer — it was called microbrew back then — wasn’t even a blip on the radar.
Then there was the location itself. Ohio City was an ugly, rundown, crime-ridden neighborhood. Sure, the venerable West Side Market and St. Ignatius High School are there, but that was it at the time.
Across the street from the brewpub, there was a communist book store and a small urban park, a popular hangout for the homeless.
It was hardly the bar, restaurant and brewery mecca that it’s turned into today.
A relative who also happened to be a Cleveland police homicide detective told the brothers in no uncertain terms: Don’t open there.
But the Conways, unabashed supporters of Cleveland and perhaps romanced by the fact that their grandfather, a city street cop, had directed traffic nearby, pushed forward anyway.
After signing a lease on the building — the former Market Tavern, a hangout for local politicians, including Elliot Ness — the brothers, puffed up with pride, brought their wives to Ohio City to show off the property. They stumbled upon a fists-flying street brawl.
“We were proud about our new prospects and we wanted to show our wives, and here we show them the underbelly,” Dan Conway said.
The Conways kicked around many names: Conways, Brew House, North Coast and Western Reserve. In the end, Great Lakes was the most powerful.
“It’s one of the most recognizable geographic names in North America, if not the world,” Pat Conway said. “One-fifth of the fresh water is the Great Lakes. Seventy-five percent of the U.S. water is the Great Lakes. The name was great. We used to tease Crooked River: What would you rather be, Crooked or Great?”
Those early days were both frustrating and exhilarating.
Great Lakes was overwhelmed by customers and the food wasn’t up to the Conway standard. Many operational kinks needed to be worked out.
Then, there were those defining moments.
In 1990, the brewery won its first medal at the Great American Beer Festival, a gold, for its Dortmunder Gold. It has won 11 more at the prestigious event over the years.
Those early medals were most special because Great Lakes was an unknown at the time.
“Going out to Denver and winning medals year after year, that was a really cool thing,” said Andy Tveekrem, a former Great Lakes brewmaster who now co-owns Market Garden Brewery and Nano Brew Cleveland right around the corner from Great Lakes. “The Great American Beer Festival was largely a Colorado thing, and we’d win medals for porters and IPAs and pale ales and guys would be like, ‘Hey what are you doing taking all our medals?’ ”
At first, Great Lakes made only draft beer, available at the brewpub. But they soon branched out into bottling and distributing.
The first off-premise account was the West Point Market in Akron. Great Lakes chose strategic spots as their first partners, making sure that their philosophies on quality meshed.
West Point, an upscale grocer, was an obvious choice.
The Conways delivered the beer themselves. Sometimes in a van. Sometimes in their mother’s old station wagon.
“We used to have some of our best meetings in those 45-minute drives there and back,” Dan Conway said.
Great Lakes gave the grocery store a refrigerated cooler, which was placed up front.
“Once the customers tried it, they just couldn’t get enough,” West Point owner Rick Vernon recalled. “It went on from there.”
West Point held a birthday party for the brewery earlier this year, and baked a cake the size and shape of a beer keg.
“What always impressed me about those two, they had a passion for it, man,” Vernon said. “I have a lot of respect for them. It wasn’t easy for them and they did it. … At the time, it was a pretty radical thing to do. When they opened up their brewpub, people thought they were nuts.”
Great Lakes has been a major player in the craft industry.
Putting the “Enjoy by” date on its bottles was an example of that obsession with quality. Great Lakes doesn’t want people to drink its beer past its prime.
Some brewers put a date on the bottle that says when it was bottled. What does that mean to the average beer drinker? Pat Conway asked.
Instead, Great Lakes researched how long each of its brands remains fresh. That’s the date that appears on the bottle. Stouts last longer than India pale ales, for example.
It also has served as an inspiration for future brewery owners and been a breeding ground for award-winning brewers.
Plenty of Great Lakes alumni now run their own places. In addition to Tveekrem, they include Matt Cole at Fat Head’s Brewery in Middleburg Heights, Geoff Towne at Zauber Brewing Co. in Columbus and Dan Malz at Portside Distillery in Cleveland.
There’s also Tim Rastetter, who heads the brewing operation at Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. in Akron.
Cole and others said they learned about teamwork, quality and how to make beer the right way at Great Lakes.
“The caliber of the beer was top notch,” said Cole, who has won five medals at the Great American Beer Festival in the last four years. “It was a great stepping stone for me and made me a better beer maker.”
The company has been built upon a “Triple Bottom Line” philosophy — one that the Conways promote as much as their beer itself.
Its economic, social and environmental goals focus on donating to community organizations, using green practices and even doing its own farming at the Pint Size Farm at Hale Farm & Village in Bath Township, and the six-acre Ohio City Farm near the West Side Market.
Great Lakes also has held the Burning River Fest every year since 2001 to benefit the Burning River Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports local waterways.
The Conways attribute their success to surrounding themselves with happy, competent workers — in addition to that quality thing, of course.
Whether it’s the beer, the history, the philanthropy or something else, Great Lakes has turned into a tourist destination and attracted loyal, sometimes rabid, followers.
There are stories about people waiting outside the brewpub in costume on Halloween just to get the first taste of Christmas Ale, which is released for the season then. Or the tales of travelers at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport buying an extra suitcase just to stuff it with Great Lakes beer. The brewery plays up the fact that its bar in the brewpub includes bullet holes and an actual bullet, rumored to have come from the gun of Eliot Ness himself.
“We can’t believe how many people say, ‘I’ve traveled the country. I’ve traveled the world and I still love Great Lakes beer. There’s just something about the character … and they’re so balanced and professionally crafted,’” Pat Conway said. “Maybe every brewery in the country has people saying that. I don’t know.”
On a recent day, Tony and Debbie Pirtle from Floyds Knob, Ind., sat at the bar eating lunch and drinking beer. It was their second visit.
Their son Aaron, a beer fan, had recommended they stop by when they were in Cleveland. Great Lakes didn’t disappoint the first time — the reason for their second stop.
“It has rich history and the beer is really good,” Debbie Pirtle said.
With so many breweries opening, Great Lakes faces much greater competition.
Craft beer drinkers tend not to remain loyal to a single brand like their grandfathers did. Many also are all about what’s new.
It’s tougher for a regional brewer like Great Lakes to chase trends, such as the intense India pale ale craze, because of its size. But that hasn’t stopped the brewery from releasing immensely popular seasonal IPAs like Lake Erie Monster and Alchemy Hour.
“Does everything have to be friggin’ IPA?” Pat Conway asked with a laugh.
And the brewery still has fun, whether it’s putting out brewpub-only releases or making commemorative beers to honor the 100th anniversary of the West Side Market (Butcher’s Brew) or the start of the baseball season (Rally Drum Red Ale) or boxer Johnny Kilbane (Fighting Heart Irish Red Ale).
Earlier this year, Great Lakes garnered international attention by re-creating an ancient beer that would have been enjoyed by people in Sumeria about 4,000 years ago.
One of the biggest challenges facing Great Lakes, though, is its location. The production brewery has no more room to expand. The company is in discussion with the city about what to do. In the meantime, the brewery is renovating an adjacent building into a visitor and conference center.
There are no immediate plans to expand its distribution footprint to other states. Pat Conway is fond of saying that 65 percent of the nation’s population is within a 500-mile radius of Cleveland. Knowing that beer is perishable, he wants Great Lakes sold only where he knows it will be enjoyed fresh.
And he’s not really sure where Great Lakes will be 25 years from now. He hopes the brewery is still focused on its current market.
“That seems like a good day’s work to just satisfy that thirsty region,” he said.