A look at the quest to land a local brewpub
by Kevin J. Gray
Dayton is an amazing city. It is affordable, easy to navigate, with acres of green space and a vibrant arts community. Beer geeks thrive in the passionate brew culture, with Dayton’s committed homebrewing community and world-class bars, restaurants and carry-outs featuring a rich selection of east coast, west coast and everything in between.
Yet, for all its treasures, one institution absent from the Miami Valley is the brewpub. While Daytonians love craft beer, we can’t sustain a local source for it. Xenia was once home to Miami Trail Brewing Company and Centerville housed Thirsty Dog Brewing, but since Miami Trail closed in 2000 and Thirsty Dog five years later, Daytonians have been parched for a local fix.
Although Dayton is the one major city in Ohio without a brewery or brewpub, Ohio, as a whole, lags behind its midwestern neighbors in terms of total breweries. Wisconsin’s brewers rank 110 percent more numerous and Illinois clocks in at 150 percent. Michigan, the leader in midwestern beer production, nearly doubles Ohio’s numbers, with many establishments operating as small, local brewpubs.
Why The Drought?
Why is it that the craft beer industry as a whole sees nearly double-digit growth year after year, while Ohio sputters along? One theory among industry insiders is that the state, through antiquated licensing laws, stifles the industry.
Ohio brewers are required to obtain an A1 liquor permit, at a cost of $3,906 annually, regardless of the size of the brewery. If that brewer wants to open a brewpub and sell on premise, he or she is also required to purchase an A1A liquor permit, for another $3,906 annually. Opening a brewpub from scratch is a costly endeavor, with estimates starting at $250,000 to build from the ground up. However, transforming an existing bar or restaurant to a brewpub can be done for as little as $50,000. And in those cases, $8,000 is a significant portion of the load. In contrast, the comparable Michigan brewpub license is $100. Small wonder Michigan has so many brewpubs!
Brewpub License for Ohio
One Miami Valley resident is working to bring common sense to Ohio licensing laws. Eric Zamonski is a locally raised graduate of the University of California-Davis Master Brewer’s program (one of the nation’s most prestigious). Zamonski worked at various levels of the brewing industry on the west coast before returning to Ohio in 2007. Upon his return, he was dismayed to find how few brewing establishments existed. He began to investigate and quickly uncovered the $8,000 answer why.
Zamonski spent the next year meeting with state representatives without making much headway. Now, he is spearheading a grassroots ballot initiative that would bring Ohio’s brewpub laws closer to Michigan’s model. Under his Brewpub License For Ohio proposal (BLFO, pronounced Bill-foe), Ohio would create a new brewing license, one that existing holders of the D-class permit (the liquor license required for bars and restaurants) could attain for an additional $100 annual fee. This new license would allow existing establishments to brew and serve up to 2,000 barrels annually.
He has nearly cleared the initial hurdles and expects to begin gathering the 140,000 signatures to get the issue on the statewide ballot in the next few weeks. Working with homebrew clubs throughout Ohio, he expects to hit this target sometime later this fall. The State Assembly will review the proposal and either enact it or allow it to go to ballot in the following election cycle. Given that there is likely to be little opposition to the proposed law, Zamonski is optimistic that the legislature will enact it as is.
The brewer sees great potential in Dayton. With a gleam in his eye, he cites all the reasons why Dayton could be a great brewing capital: the thriving and enthusiastic craft brew culture, the legacy of invention, the strong manufacturing know-how, the ample and available warehouse space and the large confluence of engineers and other science and technology-minded folks (who tend to be great brewers and staunch supporters of the craft brew scene).
It turns out that Dayton may not have to wait for BLFO to become law before it sees a return to brewpubs. In late April it was announced that a new brewpub-in-the-works had purchased the old All-America Pawn Shop building at 431 E. Fifth St. in the Oregon District. Dubbed Toxic Brew, the brewery is led by Jason Hindson and Shane Juhl. The pair is currently renovating the building and working with their investors to secure the necessary equipment. They expect to begin operations in the first half of 2012. Prolific and experienced home brewers, they envision a menu bookended with IPAs and imperial stouts, filled out by a list of their own favorite styles.
And the brewers also share Zamonski’s vision for Dayton. When asked whether the city was large enough to handle more than one brewery, Jason replied, “It would be great to have another brewpub in town. Obviously, there would be competition but I think it would be friendly competition because we’d both play off one another. Then Dayton becomes more of a destination for brewpubs.” Shane took the sentiment one step further, adding, “[Dayton] could be the next Portland, Ore. or Denver, Colo. or Ashville, N.C. That’s what we’re hoping for, and to get in on the ground floor.”
Dayton has a lot going for it. A brewpub and a change at the state level to the arcane licensing levels might just be enough to push it in the right direction.
To learn more about the BLFO campaign, search BLFO on Facebook.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.