Amid the clanking bottles and the occasional hiss of compressed air, a Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. employee hand-slices squash that will soon be added to the Akron brewery's pumpkin ale.
"We use this year's harvest of pumpkin and squash from a local farm," Thirsty Dog co-owner John Najeway explains during a mid-October tour. "Other [brewers' pumpkin ales] hit the market in August. They must be using last year's harvests."
Housed in a 150-year-old brick building that was the home of Burkhardt Brewing Co. until 1956, Thirsty Dog has been growing in popularity. After expanding in 2008, the brewery added seven 90-barrel fermenting tanks in 2011 to keep up with demand for year-round favorites such as Hoppus Maximus and Labrador Lager.
The brewery also has its own holiday brew, 12 Dogs of Christmas Ale. This year, Thirsty Dog is unleashing a limited run of 999 bourbon-barrel-aged 1.5-liter bottles in addition to the regular seasonal six-packs.
"[They will] be crowned, corked, foil-wrapped, painted and numbered," Najeway says.
Najeway, who worked at a law firm prior to launching Thirsty Dog as a brewpub in 1997, got into the business after a client invited him to a Kentucky beer camp. The men eventually opened pubs in Akron, Canton and Centerville, Ohio.
In 2005, the brewpubs closed, but Najeway retained the Thirsty Dog name and recipes, moving to the brewery's current Akron home a year later. "It's nice to have a brewpub as an outlet," he says. "But our focus is on the beer."
Najeway says that beer-first focus drives everything. The ginger for the Christmas ale is hand-peeled on-site, and Najeway sends a brewery representative to tasting events where Thirsty Dog will be tapped.
"I don't want Joe Schmo who says, 'Yeah, I like beer,' to pour my beer without us being there to talk about it," he explains.
Najeway is also president of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association, a group of about 26 breweries that provides a unified voice on issues that affect the highly regulated industry. As more small breweries pop up, Najeway says some reforms need to be made, particularly when it comes to regulations on brewery tasting rooms.
"If you were at a winery and wanted to taste their wine, [the winery] pays $75 a year," he explains. "[The state] wants us to pay an extra $4,000 or have a full liquor license."
But after five years of steady growth, Najeway says he'd like to enjoy himself a little more in 2012, which will mark Thirsty Dog's 15th year.
"I'd like to take a breather," he says. "In 2012, my expansion is to roll out some funky beers we've been aging and celebrate our anniversary."