Drinks are no longer the only thing bringing customers to breweries and distilleries.
As the Columbus, Ohio, drink scene has become increasingly competitive in recent years, breweries and distilleries are upping the ante with high-quality eats.
Legislative changes in 2016 allowed distilleries to operate a tasting room and restaurant on the same property they manufacture liquor — a valuable asset that beer-producing breweries have possessed for years. This state law amendment has led to a drastic increase in the popularity of distilleries in Columbus, Chris Davison, head brewer at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, said. Some breweries have experienced a plateau or decline in sales, brewery managers and owners said.
Davison said it has become increasingly difficult in recent years to maintain the same levels of foot traffic through the taproom and restaurant. Columbus is home to 46 breweries, and more than half of them have opened in the past five years, according to the Columbus Ale Trail website.
He said although he believes the growing number of breweries, distilleries and bars in Columbus is positive for the industry as a whole, it has negatively impacted their sales.
“Clearly [distilleries] are probably affecting some of our business, but hopefully they’re in turn creating more interest and then the people that are interested in them become interested in us,” Davison said.
When Wolf’s Ridge first opened in 2013, it only served “small bites and snacks,” but Davison said once it began serving a full menu, sales increased drastically. The ability to serve food and operate a tasting or taproom is invaluable to any brewery or distillery, he said.
According to Ohio law, breweries are actually under a legal obligation to serve food in their taprooms, but only in recent years have they begun to hold the quality of the food being served to the same standard as their beer, Davison said.
“One of our sales people will talk about one of his old favorite bars that used to have a can of Campbell’s soup above the bar for 50 bucks that was 20 years old, and obviously no one would ever buy that, but that was their work-around for the rule,” Davison said. “New, little bars that had no money famously would have easy Mac for $10, or they’d microwave something for you, but now, laws have gotten stricter.”
Claire Spurlock, marketing manager at Watershed Kitchen & Bar, a popular distillery in Columbus, said the value the restaurant adds to its business is immense. Spurlock said they didn’t originally plan on operating a restaurant when Watershed Distillery opened in 2010, but when they realized they were struggling to get customers to stick around, they knew changes had to be made.
The changes that were made to Ohio legislation in 2016 were a collective effort between Watershed co-founder, Greg Lehman, and other Ohio distillers, Spurlock said.
Davison said it has become increasingly difficult over the years to open a successful brewery because the competition has gotten so intense.
“Now we’re starting to see breweries close. Competition’s getting really fierce, and along with that we’re seeing the rise of all these non beer spirits or alcoholic beverages taking hold,” Davison said.
Some of the breweries that have closed include Four String Brewing Co. in 2018, RAM Restaurant and Brewery in 2018, Zauber Brewing in 2017 and Neil House Brewery in 2013.
Michael Byrne, brewer and co-owner of Lineage Brewing, said he views distilleries as allies to breweries and thinks the increase in competition has only made his business better and provided the city with better options to grab food and a drink.
“Spirits are growing faster than beer,” Byrne said. “I think beer is mature, and the growth is going to slow like any other mature business, and we’ll have to find a way to compete with spirits.”
More than half of the customers who come through the doors of Lineage Brewing order both drinks and food, Byrne said. The value of both serving food and operating a taproom is extremely crucial to his brewery because it not only brings in more business, but encourages customers to stay longer and order more, he said.
“For us, [having food] is super important,” Byrne said. “The food is part of our brand and part of who we are.”
Byrne said he believes the casual atmosphere and affordability of beer is something people will always value and something distilleries can’t quite achieve with their generally more upscale ambience.
Collin Castore, co-owner of Seventh Son Brewing Company, said the ability to serve food is an extremely important part of operating a taproom or distillery. Rather than having its own kitchen, Seventh Son hosts a daily rotating food truck from local restaurants, including Hai Poke and Dos Hermanos.
Castore said since Seventh Son opened in Columbus in 2013, the drink scene has become much more saturated.
“What people drink kind of shifts subtly all the time,” Castore said. “Maybe it’ll be a point or two towards wine one year, it’ll be a point or two towards beer, but overall it seems like things remain pretty steady. I think it’s just a time in general when people are paying more attention to everything they eat and drink — especially the alcohol that they drink.”
Both Castore and Davison said their breweries have a strong relationship with Watershed. Seventh Son even teams up with Watershed for an informal monthly series during which both Watershed and Seventh Son each feature the other’s drinks on the last Sunday of each month during their service industry nights.
Castore said he values the relationship Seventh Son and Watershed have and is happy to see the spike in distillery popularity because he believes there is enough room in Columbus for everyone to produce their own products for a specific audience.
“There’s such a wide variety [of alcohol], and there’s enough different ideas out there that everybody should be fine, and hopefully it raises awareness in general that there’s people doing interesting things in Columbus,” he said.
Spurlock said Watershed partners with breweries as often as possible, and she views the relationship between breweries and distilleries as ‘cohesive and collaborative.’
“We love working with breweries in town. We feel like craft spirits and craft beer share a lot of the same framework and fans, honestly, and environment,” Spurlock said. “People have been rallying around craft beer for even longer in Ohio, it feels like, than craft spirits, but luckily there’s room for both. We never look to the other breweries or even the other distilleries as competitors that we want to beat, you know? We want to work with them.”
Spurlock said she sees the Columbus drink scene as strong, but as the city’s population grows, there will be even more opportunities for the scene to grow and new businesses to open.
“We are really excited about the drink scene in Columbus, and we would love to be a part of what moves it forward creatively,” Spurlock said. “We think that as more people enter the drink scene, whether that’s breweries, distilleries or just great bars and restaurants that open, then that makes more of a diverse landscape and honestly brings the quality up for all of us.”