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So Many Beers to Sample, So Little Time

BOARDMAN, Ohio — Along the far wall behind the bar of the Magic Tree Pub & Eatery stands a row of 41 neatly aligned beer taps, each aimed at the palate of a particular customer.

From that customer’s vantage point, it means staring straight into a wide array of ales brewed from all over the globe – some manufactured by breweries that date to the Middle Ages.

“The main thing, at the end of the day, is that they enjoy their beer,” says Phill Reda, owner of the Magic Tree.

He points to a tap that dispenses Weihenstephan, a beer manufactured by the oldest continuously operating brewery in the world. It was established in Bavaria in the year 1040.

Reda, a self-confessed “beer geek,” is a member of growing community of enthusiasts who love the style, variety, taste, texture, and brewing history of craft beer.

“Our position in this area is to fuel the market and educate,” says Reda, who opened the Magic Tree in 2013. He also owns Vintage Estates, a beer and wine store and small restaurant that specializes in retail sales of bottles of esoteric international and domestic beers that are difficult to find.

Since the Magic Tree opened, it’s fast become a go-to point for craft beers new to this region’s retail market, Reda says. “We have become the launch point for new breweries coming into the state,” he says. “I’m flattered and honored by that.”

Six months ago, for example, Atlanta-based Sweetwater Brewery – one the top craft breweries in the United States – selected the Magic Tree as its launch site for the entrance of the brand into Ohio. “I had the opportunity to meet the owner,” Reda relates, “and we hit it off.”

The practice of what today is termed craft beer, or beer manufactured in relatively small batches in microbreweries, has existed for centuries. The modern craft beer movement originated in the 1970s in the United Kingdom. By the mid-1970s, it trickled into California.

The New Albion Brewing Co., started by Jack McAuliffe in Sonoma, Calif., in 1976, is often recognized as the first craft beer brewery of the modern era in this country, although The Anchor Brewing Co. in San Francisco could also lay claim to that distinction.

The industry has since taken off, especially in the mid-1990s. More small breweries – each with its own recipes, flavors, labels and marketing – are entering the market. “Ohio was a little bit behind, specifically Youngtown,” Reda says. “It’s exciting to see how the craft beer scene is growing right now.”

Reda anticipates that more breweries will be coming online, and he expects to see a shakeout that determines those that survive in what is becoming a crowded and competitive market. “There are just so many taps available,” Reda points out. “We want the best beer, and the bottom line is the better your beer, the better chance you have to work through that.”

Every two weeks or so, many of the 41 taps change as other varieties of beer and ale enter the market.

Reda sees the craft beer movement as a brotherhood and sisterhood. “The craft breweries really want to sell their beer,” he says, “but they really support each other, too.”

The pub has found innovative ways to allow customers who want to take one of its craft beers home and enjoy it with their meals, Reda says. Two weeks ago, The Magic Tree invested in a “crowler” system, a device that essentially cans 32 ounces of craft beer freshly dispensed from the keg. “It’s one of just two in the state,” he says.

Reda grabs an open-ended 32-ounce can from the shelf, sterilizes it, and then uses a small hose that discharges carbon dioxide into the can. “This pushes out the oxygen,” he explains. Reda then reaches for a tap and pulls the handle forward, pouring the ancient Weihenstephan brand into the open can.

Once the beer is poured and forms its head, Reda tops it off with another shot of carbon dioxide before placing the lid on. The can is placed into the crowler and sealed. Then a customer can buy the can.

“People are getting into it,” Reda says. “You get more longevity out of the beer because of the way we’re sealing it up.”

Connoisseurs of good beer can be a picky bunch, so it’s essential that the ambiance and style match the beer, Reda says. The Magic Tree, for example, has a special bar devoted to Belgian beers, two of which are brewed by Trappist monks within their monastery.

“There’s only eight Trappist breweries in the world,” he says, “and we have two on tap.”

Each brand of Belgian beer is served in its own branded glass, Reda relates. “It would be a sin to serve this beer in a pint glass,” he adds, pointing to Chimay, one of the Belgian Trappist beers. “You really have to respect the beer.”

For those who aren’t well versed in the art of brewing or the particulars of the craft beer industry, The Magic Tree sponsors a “beer school” each year to help educate those interested about the craft beer movement.

“We actually have graduates that we give a diploma,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun. They learn the styles. They learn about the breweries. We bring in brewmasters from all over the country. It’s a class that sells out every year.” About 40 attended last year.

Reda’s other business, Vintage Estates a few hundred feet away on South Avenue, has long been recognized as one of the premier stores in the region for hard-to-find craft and international beers. When the business started more than six years ago, it boasted a mere 400 labels. Today, it’s more than 1,200.

Frank Martin, who manages inventory at Vintage Estates, says it takes a while to figure out what the public is drinking. Often they don’t know what they want themselves. “A lot of people are overwhelmed” at the selection, he says.

Recent big sellers include beer from the Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo. “We’ve been selling a lot of these,” Martin relates.

On the other hand, the inventory manager says, many assume that Vintage Estates can get every beer on the market, when it can’t, because Ohio prohibits the sale of any beer with an alcohol content of 12% and above. “They can in Pennsylvania and Michigan,” he says.

But that doesn’t stop Vintage Estates from finding some of the beers most sought on the market, Reda says.

Soon, Reda plans to sell a case of Michigan-based Founders Brewing Co.’s KBS beer, considered a choice beer among craft lovers. “I have one case of it,” he says. “We’re going to have a lottery.”

On another occasion, Vintage Estates was tapped to carry a prized Belgian Trappist, Westvleteren, beer not sold in the United States. The beer is coveted because a fire at the monastery destroyed a building on the grounds and the monks needed funds to rebuild. So, two years ago, they opted to sell a very limited run of its beer in the United States.

“Vintage was chosen by them to do a one-time Westvleteren sale,” Reda says. “People were wrapped around the plaza waiting to get in the door, just to get a ticket to get an opportunity to pay $86 for a six pack.”

All proceeds were donated to charity, Reda says. “That was probably the most incredible event around any beer we’ve ever had.”

Pictured: Phill Reda’s Magic Tree Pub sells hard-to-find craft beers on tap, Vintage Estates sells 1,200 labels.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.