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Brewers Guild Aims to Build Craft Beer Culture

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The craft beer scene in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania is growing, with breweries seeming to pop up in every small town or metro center.

Most are small endeavors, open only a few days a week or producing small batches.

So, in an effort to combine both resources and knowledge, 14 area brewers in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys have joined together to launch the State Line Brewers Guild.

The guild started as a private Facebook group for brewers in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio and Mercer, Lawrence and Beaver counties in Pennsylvania. But it quickly expanded to monthly meetings that rotate through the members’ breweries, as well as informal meetings whenever brewers have some free time.

“Everyone’s trying to push the boundaries. So when someone comes up with an awesome beer, we can share that knowledge,” says Ira Gerhart, cofounder of Noble Creature Cask House, Youngstown.

Adds Josh Dunn of Birdfish Brewing Co. in Columbiana, “Ira has so much knowledge on sours that we never had. We met at a brewers guild meeting. We don’t really try to hide anything. We all talk about methods and techniques. We’ll share information on brewing, marketing or whatever works.”

Such associations are more common in larger cities where craft brewing has become a huge draw for locals and tourists.

Columbus has the Columbus Craft Beer Alliance. Cleveland has the Society of Northeast Ohio Brewers. Grand Rapids, Michigan, has been dubbed “Beer City, U.S.A,” and brewers there adopted the name for the Beer City Brewers Guild.

“The same way that people are wine connoisseurs or art collectors, there are so many facets to craft beer that you can enjoy and talk to people about,” says Alex Fenstermaker of what first drew him and his wife, Kait, to craft breweries. “And you can play pool and hang out and have a good time.”

The couple, who also run the local-food blog Jimmy and Spade, took over marketing and promotion for the group last autumn, including the launch of a website and social media pages on Facebook and Instagram.

“This generation coming up are makers. That Rust Belt mentality is dying out and people have ideas. They want to own their own business and be a catalyst for this area so we don’t have to rely on factories,” Kait Fenstermaker says. “We’re getting back to homemade goods, craft beer and farm-to-table food.”

When the couple was first approached, some of the efforts of the guild, such as a map of bike trails near the breweries, had already been floated in the brewers’ monthly meetings.

“We thought about maybe doing a group just to talk about general ideas, bulk buys and anything else,” says Birdfish’s Dunn.

“Each meeting brings up ideas. At one, we talked about how we could get our beers into Pennsylvania because they have different distribution laws.”

In that instance, Gerhart and Dunn say, it makes more sense for them to talk to their colleagues across the border to learn how to get into distribution than it does to try driving two or three hours west and stay in Ohio.

For Gerhart, the group came along just as he was starting to complete the paperwork to launch Noble Creature.

“That’s stuff I don’t know anything about. Everyone else was able to tell us what they did and sent over templates,” he says. “To have that camaraderie and teamwork, I think, will be great for the long haul.”

Outside of its membership, the State Line Brewers Guild has also taken to promoting the beer culture of the area, from downtown Warren and Youngstown to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and Minerva, Ohio.

This summer, in conjunction with the Rust Belt Revival Trail Coalition, the guild will host a beer ride. Tickets sold out in a couple days, the Fenstermakers say. It’s a way that not only promotes craft beer culture but also healthful, active lifestyles.

“In northeast Ohio, it can be really easy to be sedentary and just hang out,” Alex Fenstermaker says. “[Craft beer] is a part of the bike group’s culture, too. When they go out for a ride, they like to finish with a beer.”

Pamphlets for the guild distributed at member breweries include a map of area bike trails, including Mill Creek MetroParks’ trails, the Greenway Trail and the Stavich Trail. Visitors who get the pamphlet stamped at all 14 breweries, biker or not, can get a State Line Brewers Guild fanny pack.

“They’re really useful and the bikers use them all the time,” Kait Fenstermaker says. “They’re all neon-colored. We wanted to do something that was a little different.”

For the brewers, Dunn says he’s already talked to beer enthusiasts from Cleveland and Pittsburgh who have discovered new breweries through State Line promotional materials, which also include a website and an active Facebook page.

“It’s only an hour drive [from Cleveland or Pittsburgh]. There are craft beer travelers coming here already,” he says. “And now that we’re giving them a map, they’re seeing they can hit more breweries the next time they’re down. Maybe next time they will come to five breweries instead of just one.”

Pictured: Kait and Alex Fenstermaker, front, handle the marketing for State Line Brewers Guild. Brewers Ira and Marcie Gerhart of Noble Creature Cask House, left and center, and Birdfish Brewing Co.’s Josh Dunn are among the members of the trade group.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.