This October, VinePair is celebrating our second annual American Beer Month. From beer style basics to unexpected trends (pickle beer, anyone?), to historical deep dives and new developments in package design, expect an exploration of all that’s happening in breweries and taprooms across the United States all month long.
Great Lakes Brewing Company is nestled in the heart of Cleveland, just a few miles from Lake Erie. The craft brewery was started in 1986 by brothers Patrick and Daniel Conway, who knew little about beer but were determined to create a lasting business in Cleveland’s struggling Ohio City.
It worked: Great Lakes Brewing Co. was born, and with it, a new leaf was turned in Cleveland’s dying brewing industry. Today, Great Lakes is a beloved spot in the city. Its Ohio City location houses the company’s craft brewery production facility and an attached brewpub. The brewery aims to pour that love back into its city by pursuing community partnerships, sustainability efforts, and — of course — by making good beer.
Here are 12 things you should know about Great Lakes Brewing Co.
BREWERIES WERE DEAD IN CLEVELAND. THEN GREAT LAKES CAME ALONG.
When Great Lakes Brewing Co. opened in 1988, Ohio City breweries had virtually gone extinct. The city’s last remaining brewery shut down in 1984 as the industry fell victim to consolidation. Patrick and Daniel Conway were determined to make their concept work, though, and recruited a master brewer and engineer to help build the company.
The rest was history. Great Lakes’ business took off, bringing brewing back to the city. Now, Great Lakes still leads the charge in the Cleveland brewing business, and laid a path for several other microbreweries that have found success in the city, too.
ONE OF ITS BREWS SHOWS PROHIBITION WHO’S BOSS.
What’s in a name? For Great Lakes’ Eliot Ness Amber Lager, one of its year-round brews, there’s a famed Cleveland Prohibition officer behind it all. Back in the days when local haunts were patrolled with fervor to make sure no illicit alcoholic beverage sales occurred, Eliot Ness frequently stopped by one Cleveland tavern. Today, the space is home to Great Lakes’ Brewpub. If the irony of it all wasn’t enough for the Conway brothers to name the brew after Officer Ness, their mother also once worked for Ness as a stenographer. We’ll raise a glass of Eliot Ness Amber Lager to that.
GREAT LAKES HAS A HEISMAN.
When the Conway brothers began creating their first beers in the heart of Cleveland, they decided to name some of their brews as odes to the city they loved. Inspired by European brews, they brewed up a German style Dortmunder lager. When it came time to name the beer, they settled on “the Heisman,” a nod to Cleveland-born intercollegiate football star John Heisman. The beer was eventually renamed “Dortmunder Gold Lager.”
THEIR FIRST BEER IS FANS’ MOST LOVED.
The Dortmunder Gold Lager was the first brew dreamed up by the Conways and master brewer Thaine Johnson. It debuted when the brewery opened to the public and is still the most popular today. The Dortmunder Gold Lager is one of seven year-round brews sold by the company, and is available in the widest variety of formats of any of their beers. Dortmunder Gold Lager is available in a variety of bottles and cans (cans and bottles are sold in 12- and 16-ounce portions and 6-, 12-, and 15-packs) or on draft.
GOOD BEER AND SUSTAINABILITY GO HAND IN HAND.
Sustainability has been at the forefront of Great Lakes’ mission from their very first days. When setting up shop in Cleveland, the Conways bought all used restaurant equipment and renovated old buildings to create their space, rather than building or buying new. Ever since, they have worked to expand their sustainability efforts, from sourcing their brewpub food from local farms to minimizing water usage in the brewing process to repurposing every last drop of beer byproducts into soups, soap, and soil amendments, among other things.
GREAT LAKES’ ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP EXTENDS TO THE CITY THEY LOVE.
Great Lakes is involved in numerous efforts to improve Cleveland’s economic and sustainability efforts. One successful effort has been to support an urban farm. The Ohio City Farm, one of the largest contiguous urban farms in the U.S., is supported by four organizations, including Great Lakes. The six-acre farm provides food system education, helps boost the city’s food economy, and provides opportunities for underserved residents to grow and consume fresh, local food.
THEY’VE HOPPED ON THE HARD SELTZER BANDWAGON.
In September 2021, Great Lakes announced its creation of an Agave Twist Ranch Water Hard Seltzer, set to launch in Northern Ohio in October. The brewery’s first hard seltzer endeavor comes in the form of 12-ounce cans, each containing 100 calories and 4.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Agave Twist is available in variety 12-packs and in four different flavors: Black Cherry, Lemon Lime, Blackberry, and Pineapple. Great Lakes also announced plans to expand the seltzer’s distribution outside Ohio in 2022.
THE BREWERY BUILDING HAS HISTORY IN ITS WALLS.
Great Lakes’ location is historic for several reasons. The building is constructed of three Victorian-era Cleveland buildings that were merged together to create a bigger space for the brewery. The bar is believed to be the oldest working one in the city. There’s also a story behind the apparent bullet holes in the walls. The holes are attributed to none other than Eliot Ness (although there’s some debate as to whether he ever carried a gun), the Prohibition officer Great Lakes has a beer named after.
EVERY YEAR, GREAT LAKES BRINGS THE LIQUID TO CLEVELAND’S BURNING RIVER FEST.
Since Cleveland’s Burning River Fest began in 2001, Great Lakes has provided the brews. The festival, which features live music, food, and drinks, exists to raise money for and awareness of Cleveland’s freshwater resources. Great Lakes’ involvement, again, demonstrates the brewery’s keen interest in sustainability and environmental stewardship. In fact, the brewery “tank farm” (the area where the brewery’s fermentation tanks are housed) hosted the first Fest before the annual event eventually set up a location on the Cleveland waterfront.
YOU CAN DRINK GREAT LAKES WITH YOUR PEANUTS AND CRACKER JACKS.
In 2019, Great Lakes announced a partnership with the Cleveland Indians Major League Baseball team as “the official craft beer of the Cleveland Indians.” Fans of baseball and beer can find an array of classic Great Lakes brews at Progressive Field, along with seasonal rotations and even brewpub pretzels. After a difficult 2021 season in light of Covid, the Cleveland Indians’ Christmas Ale in July at the Ballpark game featured Great Lakes’ beloved Christmas Ale on tap in the stadium.
EMPLOYEES GET A SHARE.
In 2018, as part of Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s 30th anniversary celebration, owners Pat and Dan Conway revealed an employee stock ownership plan. The plan offers every employee — regardless of title, wages, or tenure — the opportunity to have employee-ownership and be a shareholder of the company. As to how they shared the news with employees? With a commemorative beer, of course. The Extra Special Opportunity Pils lager was served up to Great Lakes’ over 250 employees in honor of the announcement.
THE GREAT LAKES CALENDAR IS AN ORGANIZED BEER-LOVER’S DREAM.
Move over, advent calendars: Fans won’t miss a single brew with Great Lakes Brewings’ annual beer release calendar in hand. Every year, the brewery releases must-know information about the beer names it will be serving up, how long its seasonal brews will be on the market, and what new packaging or new products consumers should have their eyes on. It’s all compacted down into a handy, colorful, one-pager. Eager to see it for yourself? You can find the 2021 lineup here.