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Glass Half Full: Great Lakes Brewing

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There is no better way to get to know a new town than to belly up to the local bar and ask the bartender to try a local beer on draft. It begins a conversation with a town insider about a product that has meaning. Beer represents the unique qualities of a city or region.  And this is apparent at Great Lakes Brewing Company in its hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. In our recent #GlassHalfFull, we explore how Pat Conway founded this brewery and resurrected Cleveland’s craft beer scene, helping to revitalize their corner of the city. 

Residents of Cleveland share a sense of local pride – perhaps best exhibited by their diehard sports fans. Given their love of the game, it seems unfathomable that throughout the 1980s, there was not a local brewery for residents to drink while they cheered on local teams. Pat Conway recognized the opportunity and he aimed to rebuild Cleveland’s craft beer scene from scratch. Fast forward to the present, and Great Lakes Brewing has helped Cleveland to claim its place as an American craft beer destination. Their seasonal Christmas Ale created a new style of beer that positioned Cleveland at the center of this movement. The ale is a tourist attraction itself with people flocking to witness the yearly “First Pour.” As Pat explained, Great Lakes has “literally brought flavor to the city.”

Here are some of my takeaways:

Brewing Provides A Window Into The Past:  Cleveland has always had a rich beer history. The industry began in the 1840s with the arrival of German immigrants, who popularized lager. Many local entrepreneurs looked to capitalize on this new trend, and, by 1900, 23 breweries operated in the area. Unfortunately, prohibition and pressure from national brands caused this number to fall to zero by 1984.  As the craft beer revolution began building momentum on the West Coast, Pat Conway wanted to bring the movement to Ohio. He saw an opportunity as Midwesterners favored imports like Heineken and Carlsberg. The appetite for the lager style that had put Cleveland’s beer scene on the map was resurfacing. Pat enlisted the help of retired local brewers to develop Great Lakes, and, in this way, Cleveland’s traditional chain of brewing remained unbroken. Their first beer, the Dortmunder Lager, harkened back to the German American settlers –  and you can almost taste the history in every Great Lakes pour. 

Beer Has The Power To Be A Springboard Into The Future: As an organization, Great Lakes Brewing has used the community’s love of beer to help reimagine parts of its hometown. They do not shy away from the events that shaped Cleveland’s past, both good and bad. In fact, the company has managed to transform even the most notorious press into a positive by illuminating how the city responded to disaster. The brewery created the “Burning River Pale Ale,” whose name refers to the infamous 1969 oil fire on the Cuyahoga River. While this event was a PR challenge, it was the spark that helped to catalyze the Clean Water Act, which has helped generations. Pat was aware of this phenomenon and used this event’s notoriety to make the beer brand more recognizable.   This attention also brought focus to Cleveland’s commitment to the environment, which is also core to the brewery. 

Invest In Your Community: Pat took his branding strategy to the next level with the creation of the Burning River Fest. This event showcases the river’s upward trajectory by hosting a music festival on its banks and follows in the tradition of Cleveland’s Clean Water Act by raising millions of dollars annually for local environmental groups. The brewery supports other sustainable programs as well. Most notably, they funded Ohio City Farm, which grows 70 types of crops without using harmful chemicals. Great Lakes’ brew pub then showcases the farm’s  produce for their brew pub’s kitchens. 

Recognize Your Roots: Founder Pat Conroy explains that the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is one of his favorite craft beers. I had the opportunity to speak with the legendary brewery on both my podcast and in a prior Glass Half Full episode. I could not help but observe that generations of craft brewers across the country have been inspired by the good work of this craft beer visionary. Great Lakes shares much of the same DNA as Sierra Nevada in terms of innovation  and sustainability. In fact, the industry itself embraces an environmental ethos and often breweries find unique ways to minimize water use (Four Peaks), or power operations with clean energy (Sierra Nevada).  


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