brewing up a business: from homebrewer to microbrewer

Perhaps the first rule of entrepreneurship for anyone launching a brewpub is to pick a location that’s close to home. That way, after sampling a few of the inspired libations you’ve created, you can simply stumble into bed.

The opposite experience led two Cleveland Heights entrepreneurs to open BottleHouse Brewery, a new small-batch brewery on Lee Road that brings craft beer and a brew-on-premise facility to the East Side.  

Friends and next door neighbors Brian Benchek and Dave Schubert developed their idea for a Heights brewery during many long, painfully sober drives home from Strongsville, the closest spot to their house where amateurs could brew.

“We’d arrive home from the Brew Kettle and say, Wait a minute. Everything about that experience was great, except that it’s so far away and they have a waiting list and you have to cut yourself off early," explains Schubert, a former fuel cell technician who had run out of brewing space in his basement. “We were pretty sure that other people in the Heights felt the same way, and it struck us as an opportunity.”

Their solution was to chuck it all and spend nearly two years custom building a craft brewery, brew-on-premise and German-style beer garden -- all rolled into one.

“It all ties in with bringing craft beer to the community,” adds Benchek, a glassblower and brewer. “It’s a place for the community to gather.”

Eventually, BottleHouse will offer house-brewed beers on tap, sell home-brewing supplies, and provide brewers the equipment and guidance to craft their very own creations.

Beer Town, USA

These craft-beer capitalists aren’t alone. In the past few decades, Cleveland has become known nationally as a brewing mecca. While established companies like Great Lakes Brewing and Buckeye Brewing continue to win medals and spread their wings to new markets, smaller startups have flourished by riding on their coattails. Northeast Ohio is now home to 12 craft breweries, up from a handful a decade ago.

Moreover, many of Cleveland’s newest brewers are largely self-taught. Inspired by the success of the craft beer industry, nourished by local home-brewing clubs, and finding strong models in Cleveland’s prize-winning breweries, these entrepreneurs often start by brewing five-gallon batches in their basements or garages. A fearless few go on to launch their own microbreweries.

One home-brewed success story is Indigo Imp Brewery, which is located in the Tyler Village complex in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood. Owner Matt Chappel began brewing 15 years ago when he was a student at the University of Akron. Home brewing was hardly common back then, but it sure was fun. 

Four years ago, he decided to make the leap and transform his hobby into a full-time job. Cobbling together enough cash to buy a brew system, relying on savings, credit cards and bank loans, and building much of his own equipment, Chappel launched his Belgian-style brewery.

“Craft beer is such a growing market that there’s plenty of room for growth,” says Chappel, who worked in a tool and die shop and stayed home with his kids before launching his business.  “I think that consumers like having lots of beer choices.”

The statistics prove him right: Craft beer has jumped from five to seven percent of the U.S. beer market in the past five years, and the growth shows no signs of slowing.

Although Matt and wife Kathy started out by doing everything themselves, including hand bottling all of the beers, Indigo Imp has grown to include several part-time employees. This year, Matt expects sales to double from 300 to 600 barrels, roughly the equivalent of 8,000 cases. Indigo Imp’s signature Blonde Bombshell and Jester brews now can be found throughout Northeast Ohio and Columbus.

Taking the Leap

As Benchek and Schubert can attest, opening a brewery is not for the faint of heart. The Heights dads have taken the equivalent of an entrepreneurial flying leap with their ambitious venue. They spent 18 months renovating a 6,200-square-foot storefront that had been sitting empty for more than a decade.

“We saved ourselves 60 to 70 percent by doing all of the work ourselves,” says Benchek, whose on-the-job training included learning to hang drywall, run electrical and install plumbing. He admits to being blissfully naïve at first: He and his partner thought it would take months rather than years to complete.

Despite being extremely thrifty, the partners had to stretch themselves financially to buy their 10-kettle stainless steel brewing system. Brewing and bottling systems can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars when bought new. By scouring the web, they were able to find reasonably priced used systems.

Now open for a month, the BottleHouse feels like a cross between a German beer garden, coffee shop and comfortable road house. The open room contains smoky hardwood floors and beautiful wooden picnic tables handcrafted by Schubert.

Schubert and Benchek plan to begin brewing and selling their own beers this summer, and they expect the brew-on-premise facility to open later this year. The initial lineup will likely include hoppy, citrusy IPAs, as well as other styles.

“We want this to be a neighborhood-oriented gathering place,” says Benchek, who says the policy of letting people bring food has drawn customers. “Some of our customers are professors grading papers and parents who bring their kids here with pizza.”

Supported by Superfans

While many of Cleveland's newer breweries are owned by former homebrewers who turned their hobbies into jobs, these venues are supported by a vibrant community of other homebrewers who are like beer superfans.

“A lot of the brewers you’ll see around town originated as great homebrewers, and now there’s a great community supporting them,” says Kyle Roth, a graphic designer and creator of the beer blog ClevelandHops. “The local home brewing community is following these new breweries, supporting them and really building up the steam.”

Roth, a South Euclid resident who began brewing beer a few years ago after discovering that nearby Warehouse Beverage sold home brewing equipment and supplies, says events like Cleveland Beer Week also help the cause.  

“It used to be that home brewers wanted to brew great beers that you couldn’t get in stores, but now you can get lots of flavors,” he says. “Now, the current situation of home brewing is that people want to replicate or enhance flavors they’ve had.”

A basic home-brewing kit costs as little as $80 and brews about five gallons of beer (the equivalent of 48 12-ounce bottles). Not counting equipment, the average cost per six-pack comes out to $4.50, roughly half of what you’d pay for craft beer at the grocery store. It's not just the savings: Home brewers brew beer because it’s fun, sociable and creative.

Roth’s North Coast Ale recently took first place in the Pale Ale category of the Little Mountain Homebrew Association’s “King of the Mountain” competition. Still, he has no plans to quit his day job and start brewing full-time anytime soon.

Mike Ontolchik, President of the Society of Northeast Ohio Brewers (SNOBS), says that craft beer and homebrewers fit together like hand in glove in Cleveland’s rich beer scene. Membership in SNOBS has swelled from 50 to 150 in recent years, and its meetings at Saschenheim Hall feature presentations from brewers like Matt Cole of Fat Heads.

“There’s a bounce-back between craft brewers and homebrewers,” says Ontolchik, who is often invited by brewmasters to sample and offer feedback on their latest creations. “As knowledgeable consumers, we’re part of the craft beer scene that’s growing.”

For entrepreneurs like Schubert and Benchek, the support of the home-brewing community is invaluable and lends credence to their risky investment decisions.

“I’m finally done waiting for the other shoe to drop, because there is no other shoe,” says Schubert, glancing towards his long-awaited beer hall, which he says was packed to the gills on a recent Wednesday night. “How can we be so lucky?”

Photos Bob Perkoski
Image 11: courtesy of Indigo Imp Brewery

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.