Buckeye Beer: Is It Time to Pay More Attention to Ohio?

ohio-beer-header

Lately, it seems we’re reminded almost daily about craft brewery growth. Whether it’s anecdotal evidence from our local paper or the hardened fact that we’re on pace for 1.5 breweries to open every day.

But sometimes the success of this sector of the beer industry can surprise you, especially in “emerging markets” for those of us looking in from the outside. All around us, local interest for beer is frothing over and the supply is meeting new demand.

Which led me over the last six months to wonder: what’s up with Ohio?

While you’re certainly likely to find increased craft beer sales just about anywhere – if only for the sake of brewery growth numbers – Ohio has presented an interesting case. In August of last year, craft dollar sales in Ohio supermarkets were almost double the U.S. average (39.9 percent vs. 20.2 percent) and Goose Island (even if it isn’t “craft”) saw sales of its brands increase by 80 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, more “boring” brands like Yuengling saw decreases in sales.

ohio beer aisle

Peek at the beer aisle inside a Cincinnati-area Kroger. Photo courtesy of Tom Aguero.

For all of 2014, supermarkets in Columbus specifically saw a surge in craft sales, which constituted a 20 percent share, receiving comparisons to craft-heavy markets like Portland (OR) and San Diego.

“We may not be trendsetters, but we are the force behind trends that last,” said Frank Seta, a buyer at Cincinnati’s Brentwood Spirits and Wine.”I worked with a sales guy that said ‘if you want something to take off, create it San Francisco, LA or New York and make sure they buy it in Ohio.’ ”

The odd thing is, this rise of interest in Ohio isn’t the first for the state. In the days before Prohibition, Cincinnati was considered the “Beer Capital of the World” and Columbus had almost 12 times as many saloons as churches.

“When my book, Ohio Breweries, came out at the end of 2011, there were 49 breweries in Ohio, which included Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Samuel Adams,” said Rick Armon, a reporter with the Akron Beacon Journal who also writes “The Beer Blog” for Ohio.com. “Today, there are well over 100. Every little town in Ohio is getting a brewery now. Heck, there are breweries popping up in villages with populations less than 3,000 people.”

Put in context with growth seen among supermarkets, and there appears to be a population ready for a change in what they drink. Beer-focused bars and bottle shops offer an important, but perhaps sometimes niche, view into consumer behaviors, but it’s the supermarket, the bastion of the average beer customer, where the groundswell of a trend is worth noticing.

ohio 12 packs

Collection of 12-packs in Cincinnati-area Kroger. Photo courtesy of Tom Aguero.

Kroger grocery stores, one of the largest food-retail companies in Ohio, saw an increase of about 30 percent in craft beer sales in 2014. That figure applies for 109 stores in the Cincinnati/Dayton area and 123 stores in the Columbus area, which covers Toledo, Columbus, south through Portsmouth, and east through the Ohio Valley, according to Kroger’s Rachael Betzler, public relations manager, and Jackie Siekmann, media and government relations manager.

“In fact, that 30 percent growth number has been consistent for the past five years,” Siekmann added.

Naturally, distributors are also reaping rewards.

Cleveland-based Beverage Distributors, Inc. was up about 20 percent in volume growth to large retail chains like Kroger and 99 percent overall in 2014. Neil Mentzer, Jr., craft/import brand manager for Beverage Distributors, said interest is so high, the company developed a craft-specific sales team to manage craft brands and accounts in Cleveland.

Mentzer noted that nearby (but in Pennsylvania) Rivertowne Brewing was up 95.9 percent in sales for Beverage Distributors for 2014. Like so many states around the country, the growth of of craft in Ohio seems to have been heavily driven by localized and regional options, but bigger craft players are following, too.

In the last two years, breweries like Oskar Blues, New Belgium, Boulevard, Deschutes and SweetWater have entered the market.

“In one year, our store went from 150 SKUs to 375 SKUs and we are over 400 now,” Seta said of Brentwood Spirits and Wine.

Again, this may sound normal for many locations around the country, but Ohio hasn’t just shown a thirst for the quantity of beer now available, but the state is also putting out high quality brews.

According to BeerGraphs, seven Ohio breweries are ranked in the top-25 breweries according to their Beers Above Replacement rating in the “Mid-Atlantic/Industrial” region, which covers DC, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania:

Rank Brewery
4 Fat Head’s
5 Great Lakes
7 Jackie O’s
9 Hoppin’ Frog
13 Thirsty Dog
16 Columbus Brewing
25 Brew Kettle

In addition, nine beers are ranked in the top-25 in the region:

Ranking Beer Style Brewery
3 Head Hunter IPA Fat Head’s
4 White Rajah IPA Brew Kettle
6 Hop JuJu DIPA Fat Head’s
7 Bodhi DIPA Columbus Brewing
10 Christmas Ale Winter Ale Great Lakes
17 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Wee Heavy Wee Heavy Thirsty Dog
18 Bourbon Barrel Black Maple Porter Jackie O’s
19 Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter Porter Willoughby Brewing
21 Barrel-Aged B.O.R.I.S. Imperial Stout Hoppin’ Frog

… and that doesn’t include the variety of awards Ohio breweries have picked up recently or other research that points toward Ohio and Midwest states as being a new epicenter for high-quality beer.

Perhaps most important, in-state residents have more money to spend on extra cost of craft beer compared to macro counterparts. The median household income in Ohio went up $2,000 from 2010 ($46,093) to 2013 ($48,081) and is even higher in metro areas like Cleveland ($49,358), Cincinnati ($53,378) and Columbus ($54,079).

All this is perhaps buoyed by a greater influx of Millennials, craft beer’s biggest segment, into places like Cleveland and other large Ohio cities.

At a time when craft beer is growing wildly, perhaps it should be no surprise that Ohio is among the states showing the greatest growth, given the its historical connection, increase in breweries and consumer demand. But when beer enthusiasts show a strong West Coast (IPA) bias and find rapid growth on the East Coast, it’s easy to overlook what’s happening elsewhere.

So maybe it’s time to give a second look to our Buckeye Brothers in Beer. What’s brewing with Ohio? Lots.

state with beer

Editor’s note: In a follow-up post, find additional details from my reporting on this piece.

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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3 thoughts on “Buckeye Beer: Is It Time to Pay More Attention to Ohio?

  1. Something important to note about the drop in Yeungling is that they came into Ohio with a very heavy roll out. Every store had at least 1 massive display of Yuengling cases setup for months after the initial launch. One thing is for certain though, I know at least 5 Bud/Miller/Coors diehards who tried Yeungling at launch and are now craft beer enthusiasts.

  2. Pingback: Reporter’s Notebook: Ohio and Craft Beer | This Is Why I'm Drunk

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