By Sandra Gurvis
Brewing craft beer might sound like a dream job for some, popping open a few whenever and wherever you want and creating the exact taste you prefer. But for 30-something co-owners Gavin Meyers and Tim Ward and brewmaster Jason McKibben of North High Brewing in Columbus, it’s a lifestyle – and pretty close to a 24/7 commitment. “We wear a different hat every day,” says McKibben, the newest member of the team, who joined last May after a stint as production manager for California’s Anchor Brewing Co. “There are days when we brew, days when we sell and days when we do everything else,” which can involve anything from bottling the beer to tinkering with the flavors to lifting and positioning various kegs and barrels.
While it’s not particularly dirty work, brewing can be wet and kind of smelly, with constant cleaning required amid the odor of fermentation. The brewers also are exposed to wide temperature swings, from up to 200°F when adding ingredients to the vessel that “cooks” the beer to the icy temps in the storage coolers. Constant moisture adds an extra soupçon of discomfort.
Brewing also can be skull crushing, but more in terms of brainpower than in smashing empty cans against the forehead. Although the ingredients are deceptively simple – a grain, hops, water and yeast – the process is complex. Among the many steps are milling or grinding the grains; malting, which allows the grains to partially germinate, thus enabling effective fermentation; then mixing the ingredients with hot water for mashing, which converts the starches into sugars, giving beer its distinct flavor.
The grain is then separated from the mash (“lautered”), the remaining liquid boiled and hops introduced into the mixture. It’s left to cool, then moved to a fermenter, where different types and gradations of yeast are added to achieve the desired type (lager, ale) and taste. The brewers also need to constantly monitor venting through a hose at the top of the vat, making sure that carbon dioxide escapes and the batch is protected from the outside air, exposure to which can affect the flavor. At this point, things come to a head – literally – with the trademark, luscious-looking foam forming on top. The beer then goes through its final stages of conditioning before being poured into your stein or bottle. The process takes about six hours, usually resulting in two batches a day.
“You have to be attentive every step of the way,” says McKibben, who took one of the few courses in professional brewing in the country while earning his MS in food science from UC Davis. “Otherwise, the batch will go bad and you’ll have to dump it.”
Co-owners Meyers and Ward didn’t envision a mass-production facility in 2011, when they first opened North High Brewing and refurbished the “rustic chic” brewery/bar in a turn-of-the 20th century former Ford dealership. The budding beer barons had gotten to know each other a couple of years earlier at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State. “Initially we were looking to provide a first for Columbus, a do-it-yourself experience for customers to make their own craft beers,” says Meyers, who has a business MBA in addition to several years’ experience as a bartender. Along with the desire to be self-employed, they also shared a dream “to create our own unique and local small-batch, high-quality craft beer,” adds Ward, a veteran home brewer before quitting his day job at Honda. “It was a natural division of labor, with Gavin handling the business end and me doing production.”
What they didn’t count on was the extreme success of their own offerings, initially 90-plus varieties of ales, IPAs, porters, stouts and more. They’ve since narrowed the menu to about 35 brews that are part of their rotating tap list. Flavors are eclectic and disparate: a sweet cream ale that hints of cake batter; a Double IPA with a tart citrus flavor; a spicy, floral Saison with notes of banana and clove. “If we offer less than ten of our own beers, people complain,” Ward says.
To keep up with increasing demand, last August they purchased a nearby 10,000-square-foot former auto body shop so they could ramp up production from two barrels to 20, increasing batch production to 620 gallons. (In “beer on the wall” currency, that’s about 300 12-ounce bottles per barrel.) The new site also boasts five 40-barrel fermenting tanks and can store up to 200 barrels. And the new system only takes up about 1,500 square feet. “We wanted to make sure we had plenty of room for expansion,” Meyers says.
Chances are good they’ll need the space, considering they have some 75 (and growing) restaurants, bars and stores that carry their product. “Keeping up can be a challenge,” admits Meyers. While all three men are working 50 to 60 hours a week, juggling families and in some cases, young children, “it’s a good problem to have,” he says, “because not only are we building our future but we are fulfilling a real need in this community to not only make but consume fine craft beers.”