"We're hidden pretty good," says Matt Vann, owner of the Jolly Scholar. "I always say that we're the hardest brewery in Cleveland to find."
Jolly Scholar's location, tucked into a building on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, is just one of the challenges Vann faces that his competition does not. Despite being a captive audience, many students don't even reach legal drinking age until halfway through their undergraduate studies. Those who are old enough to drink disappear for nearly three months each summer. And then there's the staff, which experiences significant turnover with each new scholastic calendar.
None of that is news to Vann, of course, who replaced a generic food service provider in this space 13 years ago to open Jolly Scholar. He started out in 2005 with four beer taps, two of which were devoted to macro suds. Responding to the rise of craft beer, the owner later upped the number of tap handles to 24. Hard alcohol also found a home on campus at Jolly Scholar, which seems to fly in the face of the whole helicopter parent era.
"The agreement is that we want to be the responsible enabler," says Vann, asserting a better-here-than-there mentality. "Nobody is going to care about these students the way we are going to care about them."
Vann's conscientious handling of his unique situation is precisely why, when approached a few years back with the crazy idea of bringing a brewery onto campus, university leaders didn't slam the door in his face. In fact, they even chipped in for brewing equipment and offered up a vacant space that, as luck would have it, sat just beneath the barroom floor.
"Nobody on campus wanted this space, and it just so happened to be perfectly underneath us, so everything kind of aligned," says Vann, showing off his subterranean brewhouse.
Vann is a seasoned home brewer, but as owner, manager and chief bottle washer of Jolly Scholar, he wisely brought on Aaron Wirtz as head brewer. From his seven-barrel brewhouse, Wirtz is turning out an impressive roster of clean beers that run the gamut from traditional to experimental. The Jolly Pilsner is a refreshing straw-colored lager with a pleasant malty sweetness. Henry's Law, a nod to Wirtz's chemistry background, is an exceptional white IPA that blends fruitiness with woodsy pine in a creamy package. Designed to be a house-brewed alternative to macro brands like Bud and Coors, Cold Beer Here is a cold, crisp, pale, easy-drinking beverage with almost zero hoppy bitterness.
"These kids are very sophisticated compared to when we went to college, but they're still college students, so you have to be able to offer entry-level beers that taste really good," says brewer Erik Miller.
Except for a handful of guest beers and ciders, all house drafts come in at a more-than-reasonable $3.99 per serving, well below market rates. And the students, staff and neighborhood are responding, choosing Jolly Scholar beer over the competition 85 percent of the time.
"What we're trying to sell is basically affordable luxury, where students can drink as well as their parents, but at college rates," Vann says.
Those same students contribute to the operation in ways that go well beyond the simple consumption of inventory; they touch nearly every aspect of the venture, says Vann.
"Our concept is built largely around our students," he explains. "We have masters of accounting students keeping the books and running distribution, we've got Weatherhead [School of Management] students helping to facilitate marketing strategies, we've got CIA students that help us with packaging ideas, and we've got chem students helping to propagate yeast."
Not to mention those serving, busing, bartending and managing the restaurant.
This year, the university offered its first accredited brewing class, a chemistry and fermentation course that welcomed guest brewers such as Matt Cole from Fat Head's and Andy Tveekrem from Market Garden. Vann hopes the course will expand into a fully degreed brewing science program.
Though they've only been brewing for one quiet year, Jolly Scholar already has embarked on an expansion that will more than double capacity to about 5,000 kegs per year. It isn't just onsite consumption that continues to grow, but also demand from the community at large.
"People in the industry really like our liquid and they've been really receptive," Vann says, citing a tight local distribution network. "I'm not interested in taking over the grocery store shelves; whatever extra beer we do have, I want it to go to craft beer houses around the city."
Vann already considers himself a success, and not for reasons that have anything to do with assets, liquid or otherwise. As a former producer at EA Sports video games, he clocked 80-hour weeks for seven years. Now he's in the fizzy craft beer business for himself.
"You've got one shot at this whole thing, you might as well enjoy what the hell you're doing," he says, cold beer in hand.