Clevelanders have been coming together over craft beer since the early 1800s, when saloonkeepers near the Flats welcomed neighbors and stagecoach passengers heading west. By 1832 we had a commercial brewery, and the tap has been open ever since.
The city has a long, plentiful beer heritage, chronicled in Cleveland Beer: History & Revival in the Rust Belt. Authors Leslie Basalla and Peter Chakerian know their brews; the husband-wife team are co-owners of the Cleveland Brew Bus and she’s a certified Beer Steward. Only dedicated suds drinkers could have soldiered through the historical research this book required, following each brewery – and there were dozens – through generations of prosperity and hardship.
Even in the 19th century, breweries were no mom-and-pop operations. Isaac Leisy and Company, one of the city’s largest brewers, produced up to 24,000 barrels a year in the 1870s. The L. Schlather Brewing Co. grew even bigger, exceeding 90,000 barrels by 1900.
The turn-of-the-century decades brought financial panic and mergers, but when 11 breweries combined to form the Cleveland and Sandusky Brewing Company in 1898, Isaac Leisy’s son, Otto, dug in his heels and refused to join them. His stubbornness paid off: by 1918, the year before Prohibition, Leisy’s production peaked at more than 565,000 barrels.
Prohibition, of course, changed everything. Leisy survived, but many breweries with familiar names – Gund and Diebolt among them – closed their doors. We rolled out the barrels again in the 1930s and ‘40s but in more recent decades, commercial brewing followed our boom-or-bust economic trends. Then in the 1980s, super-successful Great Lakes Brewing inspired other craft brewers to launch, and enough have endured that beer is once again a thriving industry – and it keeps growing.
Cleveland Beer is both a reference and a good read, with stories of hope and tenacity. We’ll keep it on our shelves.