When the craft beer trend in Northeast Ohio was still in its infancy, John Lane was helping to educate our palates beyond choices like Budweiser.
Lane is the co-owner of the Winking Lizard brand, Winks Bar & Grille and Lizardville. He's also a student of beer, as can be easily surmised by the extensive and eclectic offerings at his various establishments. European brewing has informed his tastes and he's tried to bring those sensibilities and beers to Cleveland.
"I learned the beer culture from Europe and have tried to bring much of that here. I think it starts from the fact that here beer is regulated by liquor commissions and in Europe it is considered a food item," says Lane. "I fell in love with beer from the historic European heritage angle. The breweries there are run by people who have inherited the operations over many generations."
He credits many of those breweries for inspiring the successful U.S. craft beer brands you've come to know and love. The Smith family of Samuel Smith Brewery (England), the Inselkammer family of Avinger Brewery (Germany), the Moortgat family of Duvel Moortgat breweries have begat folks like Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Greg Koch of Stone Brewing and Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery.
And Lane's travel abroad inspired him to court beer distributors to give beers like those from Europe shelf space in America, many of which can only be found in Winking Lizards.
"Two come to mind," he says. "Lindemans Faro from Belgium. The Faro style was almost extinct and we were proud to reintroduce it into the U.S. The other beer is Vedett Extra White from the Duvel Moortgat brewery. It took me over three years of coaxing to get it into the U.S. Currently, it is only in Ohio and only with the Winking Lizards."
As the popularity of the Winking Lizard and its beer list grew so did its sales volume. "We are top five in sales in the U.S. for many breweries including Great Lakes, Thirsty Dog, Stone, Dogfish Head, Merchant du Vin importing, Ommegang, Duvel and many other smaller breweries," Lane says.
Lane is not only appreciated locally for his knowledge and passion but also over in the homeland of many of the beers he brings to his restaurants. In 2012, he was awarded the honorary title of Sir John Lane, knighted by the Belgium Brewer's Mash Staff. "It was the pinnacle of my career," he says. "The Knighthood is a way of thanking and awarding those that go above and beyond in properly serving Belgian beer."
Lane's heart will never leave Cleveland though, and everything good and beer related he sees comes back somehow to Northeast Ohio. For example, six years ago he was sharing a beer with friends and talking about how they admired Philly Beer Week. It wasn't long before they simply decided — hey, let's do Cleveland Beer Week.
A half a dozen years later, Cleveland Beer Week is considered to be one of the top three beer weeks across the nation. "The true success of Cleveland Beer Week is that the beer community has come out to support this from all angles. The brewers, the distributors and the retailers, all with no ego, embrace Beer Week," says Lane.
"I probably have over 1200 beers aging in my cellar," he confesses. "Someday I look forward to sharing many of the bottles with friends, family and special guests."