Paul Benner helms Cleveland Brew Shop, which supplies the gear and the know-how for brewing up a batch of your own suds. With Cleveland Beer Week in full swing, he was kind enough to walk me through the process of home-brewing before getting into the finer details of this city's craft brew scene and his own plans for bringing the community closer together.
Eric Sandy: So you like beer. How'd you get into making the stuff?
Paul Benner: With home-brewing in general, it started with a guy I worked with. He made his own wine. He always talked about it, and I was like, "Okay, whatever." But then he started describing the process of making beer and how you can make beer at home. I think a lot of people think of those that make beer at home as kinda mixing something in their bathtub with bubbles and all that. But he gave me a couple books to read. So I brewed my first beer, which was a summer wheat. And that's not even really a style. I was hooked.
Ipso facto you open Cleveland Brew Shop, right?
I've got an entrepreneurial spirit. I've started a few businesses. So I figured, "I don't know how, but I'm gonna figure out a way to make a living out of this." I didn't know that meant opening a brew shop, but that was about four years ago. I opened the shop last November. It took me about a year to get everything going before I could launch it.
Back when you were starting, how did you first get involved? Was there something like the Cleveland Brew Shop for you?
Yeah. What I did was take a class at a local brew shop down in Akron. That's the same way that we get most of our customers: taking a class. It's $12. We take them through the entire process. Once you see it once, you realize that it's not that intimidating. Classes take some of the fear out of it. That's always my first recommendation. Or find someone who's doing it currently and ask to tag along on brew day. Home brewers are just a great community, such a sharing community. No one walks in here in a bad mood. It's, like, the greatest customer base.
Sure, you get to make beer!
I know, right! It's a happy place.
How would you describe the craft brew scene in Cleveland in particular? Is it still growing?
I think it'd be hard to say that it's not right now. We have such an educated population in this area. And I don't think people realize how much beer is in the culture of this city—unless you go to other cities and realize they're light-years behind where Cleveland is now. You know, we're not Portland or anything, but I feel like beer and maybe even spirits could be a huge economic growth activity for the city of Cleveland.
Seems like it. Look at West 25th Street up there.
Yeah, I mean, it really did change the entire landscape of the city. And that's where people go now when they bring in somebody from out of town. They go into the brewery district. With that comes more of an education and a knowledge of beer in general. It's just a matter of time if you're inquisitive to want to know more about the process. Most of the people who come in here are already beer geeks. They're not only drinking their own beer; they're going out and buying $15 bombers of some rare beer. I think it's just a matter of time until they get to trying to tinker with it and make it their own.
And with that 'geek culture' come the very social aspects of it, right?
Well, it's a very creative outlet for people. Maybe if you're not at a job where you get to exercise your creativity... As we get older, there aren't as many chances to do that. But it totally is. You can experiment with stuff and really take chances as a brewer.
What are some of the craziest beers you've brewed?
We've done a lot with fruit. Soak beers in tangerines, for instance. For our Christmas Ale we use cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger. For us and our starter kits, though, we don't want to get too insane. We want to make a really good beer that people will enjoy. We don't want them to get home and say, "This sucks!" But our customers make stuff with jalapenos, habaneros, saison, cucumbers.
Can you pretty much use anything in brewing a beer?
I think so. I'm part of the local brew club, the SNOBS (Society of Northeast Ohio Brewers). They do an Iron Brew every year. Everybody picks a random ingredient and then we brew a beer around that ingredient. This year I had mint and I made a dry minted IPA. But there are crazy ingredients. People use spearmint, Sweet Tarts, Red Hots, different roots. I don't think that there's anything that somebody couldn't figure out how to make a beer with. And those are the fun ones too, especially when someone does them commercially. They're always the first ones a beer guy wants to try, the exotic ones.
Down in Athens, we drank paw-paw ale in the fall. It's great.
Reed loves that stuff. Reed: paw-paw ale! (Shop Manager Reed Jaskula, across the room: Oh, yeah: the Ohio mango!)
Now you've got an interesting project coming up: Platform. What's your goal there?
Our goal is to really create new brewers—people who are going to go out in the community and start their own breweries. When I hear people say that there's gonna be a ceiling in the brewing industry, I think that's crazy. There's a bar on every single corner in Cleveland. Why couldn't that bar make their own small-batch beers? The market wants that. So we've partnered with a local nonprofit that's going to help us create a curriculum for our program. It'll act as an incubator for those people to one day launch their product. They'll learn about marketing, branding, regulations, the taxes associated with how to raise money for a startup—basically how to run a business. Along with our large 15-barrel system that we'll have, we're also gonna have a three-barrel system where those individuals get to brew on site and have their beer poured in our tasting area, so customers can give feedback. The idea is that they're starting to build a brand for themselves. They'll already have a built-in customer base.
Would you liken this (the Cleveland Brew Shop) to the hobbyist side of the business and Platform to the more professional side?
Currently, home-brewing is a hobby. It's a craft. And there aren't many hobbies out there where there's not a chance to monetize it. Let's say you make really good leather wallets. You can sell those wallets online and make some money and maybe potentially start a business. In brewing, the laws restrict you from ever monetizing the home-brewed beer you make. So if you make this incredible chocolate stout, you have no way of ever making a profit from that unless you start your own brewery. So we feel like we're kinda filling in a big niche there of people doing great things but have no idea of how to even begin the process of starting their own business.
What's the word on Cleveland Beer Week?
We're doing a class on Oct. 19 for beginners. Then we're doing an all-grain class on Oct. 20. We've got some giveaways for our customers too. Our goal is to be seen as a member of the craft brew community here. It's just a really awesome community. Everybody's so willing to share and help. We're all helping each other and elevating Cleveland as a brew city.