All About Beer: The words “environmentally and socially-conscious” appear first in a list of attributes that describe your company. Where did that commitment start?
Pat Conway: It’s been an evolution. My brother Dan and I almost immediately had a recycling effort at the brewery back 24 years ago. Now we have the three waves in our logo. The logo has barley crisscrossed at the top, centered with hop cones. Underneath the words “Great Lakes Brewing” we have three waves that represent our Triple Bottom Line: we felt it was important to emphasize, beyond the financial, the social and environmental. As it’s turned out over the years, the social and environmental aspects have gained in popularity with our consumer base.
We’re part of the one-percent-to-the-planet strategy giving back to the community. We’ve got our Burning River Fest, which I think is going into its twelfth year, where we give money to groups that work primarily in the area of water quality. I think we’ve doled out over $350,000 to groups that work in that sphere. So it’s not “green-washing”: it’s a living, breathing part of the company.
Great Lakes is located in a historic part of Cleveland.
The buildings were actually built in the mid-nineteenth century. One was a livery stable, which is now our beer garden. Another building where our taproom and beer cellar are, was called Market Tavern. The other building was the Herman-McLean Feed and Seed, and now that’s our little brewery restaurant and dining room. The corner building was the Silver Dollar Saloon and upstairs was a burlesque house—now that’s our corporate offices on the upper floors and the first floor is retail. Our production brewery across the street was the stables of an old brewery called Schlather Brewing Co.
Cleveland had 30 breweries in the 1870s, and we’re in the center of where a lot of the brewing activity took place. The whole campus just reeks of charm. There’s nothing like old red brick buildings to conjure up the romance of brewing days past.
You once told me there are bullet holes in the brewpub wall.
That was Eliot Ness. Our mother was his stenographer. When he put Capone in jail in Chicago, he came to Cleveland to run the police and fire department, and my mom used to take dictation from him. One of his favorite watering holes was Market Tavern. There’s a stunningly beautiful tiger mahogany bar replete with bullet holes: somehow, they’re associated with Ness. My mom questioned the veracity of the story, because she said he never carried a gun, but I said, “Well, maybe somebody shot at him.”
That was the connection that led you to name the beer Eliot Ness Amber Lager.
It was the connection with our mother, but also with the Market Tavern. It’s one of the oldest bars in the city: it’s been there since the 1860s. A 38-caliber bullet is still lodged in one of the columns.
No souvenir hunter has tried to pull it out with a penknife?
No, we’d shoot ‘em.
How has the city changed, and how have you changed since opening?
We are absolutely part of the urban renewal that took place in this neighborhood. This was a rough neighborhood when we came in over two decades ago, and now it’s going through another renaissance. It’s being touted as an area for organic and craft products, and some of the high-end restaurants have popped up here. There’s another brewery, with another one being planned.
Right across the street from us is the century-old West Side Market, an indoor-outdoor market that has great fresh sausages. At any point you can walk over there and the guy comes by in a white jacket with a side of beef over his shoulder. There’s only a couple of these open-air markets left in the entire country: Pike Place in Seattle would be another one, also Philadelphia has one, and Detroit, but there’s not many left and that just adds to the tone and tenor of the neighborhood.
How many beers do you distribute?
We have five year-round and five seasonals, and the four high-gravities. And then we have a handful of one-offs.
And the Christmas Ale that everyone fights to get ahold of.
Yeah, the Christmas Ale has a real cult following. It’s an enormously expensive beer to make. We’ll spend close to a half a million dollars just on honey just to make that beer. We’ll probably get over 20 semis of honey, and we sell every drop. —Julie Johnson