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Beer seizes the spotlight

Local restaurants, brewpubs and breweries tapping into surge in popularity

Entrepreneurs both inside and outside southwest Ohio are finding new and creative ways to tap into the surging thirst for craft beers.

Local restaurant owners are launching beer tastings and dinners to help fortify their bottom line, national pub chains are jockeying to open new locations in southwest Ohio, and more than a half-dozen brewpubs and microbreweries are in various stages of development throughout the region. Beer has quietly and quickly become one of the hottest trends in the restaurant and food-service industry that employs 13.1 million people, or about 10 percent of the U.S. workforce.

“Over the past several years, more restaurants have begun embracing the popularity of specialty beers, on-site microbrews and meal pairings,” said Jarrod Clabaugh, director of communications for the Ohio Restaurant Association. “Members who’ve embraced this trend often say that guests no longer consider wine to be the only drink that can be paired with their meal. This trend is something we’ve witnessed throughout all of Ohio’s larger markets.”

Restaurants are embracing locally produced beers and beer-based cocktails to enhance their customers’ experience, Clabaugh said. “And whenever our member restaurants can please their guests, the return-on-investment is going to boost their bottom line,” he said.

Shanon Morgan, president of the Miami Valley Restaurant Association, has seen craft beer’s popularity surge along with its importance to local restaurants. The MVRA just wrapped up a “Miami Valley Takes Flight” promotion in which local restaurants matched flights of beer or wine with special small-plate dishes.

“There is a new generation of drinkers who think that beer can be just as sexy to pair with food as wine is,” Morgan said.

Restaurants in every segment of the industry are cozying up to cold brew. A few weeks ago, Tom Ryan, founder and managing partner of the Denver-based Smashburger, came to the restaurant chain’s location across from the Dayton Mall to evaluate potential beer-and-sandwich menu-pairing recommendations with Luke Purcell, brewer for Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Together, the two sampled five of Smashburger’s signature burgers and two chicken sandwiches, each with its own flavor profile of condiments, with five different Great Lakes brews to come up with suggested pairings. Those suggested pairings will show up on the menus at the three Dayton-area Smashburger locations in May. Smashburger is doing the same thing with the Christian Moerlein brewery to suggest pairings in the chain’s Cincinnati-area restaurants.

The chain started the beer-pairing menu suggestions in Denver and other western markets late last year, and customers have embraced the idea. Ryan said Smashburger’s beer sales in the Phoenix market jumped 33 percent after the pairings showed up on menus.

The Smashburger founder said his chain’s ability to serve beer differentiates Smashburger from many of its competitors — and he wants to take full advantage.

“I believe there’s a lot of change going on in the marketplace,” Ryan said between pairings. “Craft breweries are inventing beer for the next generation. They’re taking beer to a new level.”

Several local fine-dining restaurants are creating special beer dinners to cater to their hops-loving customers. Jay’s in Dayton’s Oregon District, which has hosted special wine dinners and luncheons for decades, has hosted multiple beer dinners in recent months, and last week, The Golden Lamb in Lebanon hosted its second beer dinner, this one led by Cincinnati’s Rivertown Brewing Company owner and brewer Jason Roeper.

And multiple national pub chains that strongly emphasize beer as part of their concept are “coming soon” to southwest Ohio.

California-based BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse will open a location this fall at the Austin Landing development in southern Montgomery County; Pies & Pints, a West Virginia-based pizza-and-beer chain, is scheduled to open in late spring or summer at The Greene in Beavercreek; and Tampa, Florida-based The World of Beer chain of taverns is negotiating a lease to open a beer pub in the Cincinnati area and is looking for a suitable location in the Dayton area.

And southwest Ohio will soon be teeming with even more craft-beer choices — brewed right here. At least eight microbreweries are in various stages of development in the Miami Valley alone, including The Dayton Beer Company in Kettering, which opened in 2012; the Yellow Springs Brewery, scheduled to open April 13; and Toxic Brew in Dayton’s Oregon District that is slated to open later this spring. (see box for full list)

Nationwide,the number of U.S. operating breweries rose 18 percent in 2012, reaching 2,403, according to The Brewers Association, a trade group representing small and independent American brewers. Craft brewers sold 15 percent more beer in 2012 than they did the previous year, and their market share of the total U.S. beer market in dollars reached 10.2 percent in 2012, rising to an estimated $10.2 billion, the association said.

“On average, we are seeing slightly more than one craft brewery per day opening somewhere in the U.S., and we anticipate even more in the coming year,” said Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza. “There is clearly a thirst in the marketplace for craft-brewed beer, as indicated by the continued growth year after year.”

Steve Barnhart of Washington Twp., founder of the Lock 27 brewpub and craft brewery in Centerville later this year, said he is energized, not discouraged, by the competition.

“The more the better,” Barnhart said, citing the large number of microbreweries in Portland and other U.S. cities on the East and West Coast. “I think Dayton is coming around to a broader national trend, and quite honestly, I think there’s room for all of us.”

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