In the beginning, Cleveland loved good beer: dark, flavorful, full-bodied brews.
Proof is painted on the brick façade of Great Lakes Brewing Co.: a sign from the 1860s, when the building opened as a tavern.
“Lloyd & Keys Old Stock, Kennett Ales & Porters on draught,” it trumpets. Dan Rogers, the tavern’s proprietor, wanted customers to know he served Cleveland’s best craft beer, brewed by William Lloyd and Dan Keys just across the river on St. Clair Avenue.
Then the Germans came, and Cleveland became a lager town. We peaked at 26 breweries in 1910: Gehring, Schlather, Gund, Leisy. Prohibition shut them down, and only a few restarted after the repeal.
Next, World War II watered beer down. The government restricted brewers’ malt supply, so they mixed in rice and other grains. Customers got used to the lighter tastes.
As late as the 1950s, we still drank local: Erin Brew, P.O.C. and Leisy’s were Cleveland’s best-selling beers of 1952, beating Schlitz and Budweiser. But national competition eventually conquered the market. By 1985, Cleveland brewed no beer at all.
We were left with mass-produced, fizzy beers — “a terminal case of the blands,” recalls Patrick Conway. So he and his brother Daniel fired up their vats 25 years ago and reintroduced Cleveland to the art of the ale.
A wave of new microbreweries followed, then some culling and a lull. But now, Cleveland’s mug is frothing over. A new generation of brewers, intensely focused on craft, is experimenting all across the periodic table of beer styles, sometimes specializing in IPAs, Belgians or session beers.
Andy Tveekrem, a former brewer at Great Lakes, left town for 10 years to make beer out east. He returned in 2010 to become brewmaster at Market Garden Brewery.
“It was a good beer scene when I left,” Tveekrem says, but he thinks it’s even more interesting and vibrant now. “Over the 2000s, the breweries that have survived are stronger than ever,” Tveekrem says. “The new ones starting up are putting better beer out from the get-go. There’s a lot more great beer being produced in the town.”
Lloyd and Keys, our ancestral alemen, would surely toast that.