If breweries had theme songs Land Grant’s would have to be the old Ringo Starr song “It Don’t Come Easy.” Things got off to a promising start when they launched a successful kickstarter campaign in February of 2012, but it would take 33 long months from that point to opening day. Despite or more likely because of the long gestation period they’ve hit the ground running. Their Franklinton taproom has become a popular destination, drawing sizable crowds on a regular basis. Land Grant beer is distributed to over 250 accounts throughout the Columbus area, including prominent placement at Crew stadium. Earlier this year they became the first Columbus brewery to buy and install their own in-house canning line (Actual Brewing is following not too far behind). Their story reads like the script of a Hollywood movie, admittedly more like the kind of movie that gets released in late winter at select locations than a big budget summer blockbuster, but still it’s the stuff of a movie. Co-owners Adam Benner and Walt Keys, head brewer Jamie Feihel, and production manager Mark Richards, were gracious enough to sit down with me on multiple occasions and share that story with me.
The long and winding road
The seed of what would eventually become Land Grant Brewing started in Chicago with Adam Benner. An alumnus of Ohio State University, Adam was working for Walgreen’s as a finance specialist. He fell in love with the beer being made in Chicago at that time, Goose Island in the pre-AB InBev days was putting out some amazing beer, and Piece Brewing and Pizzeria was located right around the corner from his house. As beer loving drugstore financiers are prone to do he started homebrewing. One thing led to another and before you know it he was enrolled in the Concise Course on Brewing Technology at Chicago’s prestigious Siebel Institute. Intent on a career change he contacted his old college roommate, Walt Keys, who was working for a publisher in New York City at the time. Together they decided to pursue their dream of opening an urban, sports themed, production brewery and taproom. Their old haunting ground of Columbus seemed like the ideal location for ambitious plans.
Inspired no doubt by memories of warm spring days spent playing Frisbee and soaking up the sun when they should have been in class, they chose the name Oval Brewing for their nascent venture. Taking cues from Pipeworks Brewing in Chicago they decided to begin by launching a kickstarter campaign February of 2012. In a few short months they reached their target of $31,000. So far so good, but the rest of the journey had more twists and turns than the road to Pike’s Peak. The first curveball came when they learned that the name Oval was already taken by an Austrian distillery. To avoid future complications they rebranded themselves as Land Grant Brewing in a nod to their alma mater’s status as one of the largest Land Grant Universities in the country, but if you look closely you can find a small image of the criss-crossing sidewalks of OSUs oval in the Land Grant logo.
The next hurdle was finding a suitable space. From the outset their sights were set on opening a production brewery in an urban setting, which puts some significant restraints on possible locations. Neither Benner nor Keys was living in Columbus at the time which necessitated countless weekend trips to the capital city in search of the right space. They signed a lease on an ideal space in Grandview, but when the landlord backed out of the deal in March of 2014 it was back to square one. After what seemed like an endless cycle of touring Columbus retail spaces, Adam spied a promising property in Franklinton that had recently come on the market. In a former life the 12,000 square foot building that would eventually become Land Grant Brewing had been a factory for making newspaper printing equipment, and before that it was the home of Capital Lift and Manufacturing, a company in the business of making elevators.
While the delays in getting up and running were frustrating for Benner and Keys, things were doubly challenging for eventual head brewer Jamie Feihel. Jamie worked for several years as a production brewer at Columbus Brewing Company but when he had a falling out with owner and brewmaster Eric Bean it wasn’t hard to guess who would have to leave. Not too long thereafter he agreed to join the Land Grant team as head brewer, unaware that it would be more than two years until the job would materialize. As brewery after brewery sprouted up in Columbus Feihel worked a series of odd jobs, including a summer spent mowing fairways at a local golf course. Feeling guilty Adam and Walt told Jamie multiple times that he should seek employment with another brewery, but he stayed loyal and as far as I can tell he is as happy as a mouse in a malt house with the way things turned out.
Who is Justin Morrill?
While Adam directs the business operation and keeps a close pulse on the brewing, Walt handles the design and marketing side of things. The website is chock full of information and updated on a regular basis, which is more than I can say for many area breweries. The names and images associated with the beers are eye-catching and distinctive. Most follow a sports theme, with the obvious exception being the flagship 1862 American Kölsch which bears the image of a dead senator.
It’s a ballsy move to pick a relatively obscure 19th century senator as the face of your flagship beer. Of course Justin Morrill is no ordinary dead senator. He signed the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, a bill that paved the way for the founding of the great state universities, like Ohio State University (bonus fact, University of Michigan is not a land grant university). He was from Vermont, home of Heady Topper, Hill Farmstead, and Lawson’s Finest Liquids. Last but not least he had sideburns that would put any peach pumpkin porter sipping hipster to shame.
- Website: https://landgrantbrewing.com/
- Address: 424 W. Town Street, Delaware, OH 43215
- Hours: Mon-Wed 3:30–10, Thur-Fri 3:30–12, Sat 12–12, Sun 12–10 pm
- Prices: Most beers are $5 – $6 per 16 oz pint
- Food: No, but food trucks are on-site 7 days a week
The taproom is more modern beer hall than sports bar, but there are elements of the latter. Two of the four walls are mostly windows, which makes for well-lit inviting space. The bar, which has a shiny stainless steel top, accommodates a couple dozen patrons. The rest of the room is filled with long communal tables similar to those found at many Central Ohio taprooms. If the weather is nice they open up a small patio with a 3-4 tables on the west side of the building. One corner of the taproom sports an old scoreboard from the Euclid Middle School gymnasium. Pennants from the various Land Grant universities hang from the walls (they offer a free Land Grant pennant and pint glass to people who donate a pennant that is not yet part of the collection). A shuffleboard table located on the north side of the taproom is in use more often than not. On an ideal night there are a dozen taps for Land Grant beers and seven taps set aside for guest beers. In practice the number of Land Grant beers is usually more like 5-10, with anywhere from 1-4 taproom exclusive beers pouring. Belgian beers are popular on the guest taps, and there is always at least one guest sour pouring. They don’t serve food, but there is a food truck in the parking lot every day of the week.
Despite the sports theme the taproom does not have the vibe of a typical sports bar. Don’t expect a wall of TVs, in fact there are only a total of five in the large taproom. Don’t expect to hear some talking head questioning the logic of starting a right handed first baseman, commentary from a preseason football game, or the latest news from the lacrosse free agent market. Yes major sporting events (including every Buckeye football game, all of which qualify as major sporting events in Columbus) are broadcast with the volume turned up, but otherwise the screens are very much in the background. They tend to draw a crowd fitting of their urban location, heavy on the young professionals who account for a significant fraction of the population in downtown Columbus. If you’re lucky there may be a group of models winding down after a fashion show at Strongwater, which is located across the street. One advantage of the Franklinton location is the ease with which you can find parking, either in the brewery parking lot or one of the adjacent streets (avoid the Strongwater lot across the street though if you don’t want to get towed).
The taproom and production brewery space are separated by small room that is dedicated to those who donated to the kickstarter campaign. The donor names, some of which will be familiar to local beer lovers (Cheryl Harrison, Doug Oldham, …), are inscribed on the west wall. It’s interesting to see the second name on the list, Actual Brewing Company. If that doesn’t say something about the comradery that runs throughout the craft beer industry I don’t know what does. On the opposite wall a flat screen TV shows a continuous loop of time-lapse video capturing various stages of the brewery construction. In the middle of the room is a thick, rectangular wooden table that came from the same barn where the wood that covers the front of the building was taken. While it is encased in a thick epoxy coating, if you look closely on the sides you can see the blood that is a clue to its former life as the cutting block where pigs were butchered.
The north side of the building houses the production brewery. The shiny 20 BBL WM Sprinkman brewkit, which features five 40 BBL fermentation tanks and two 40 BBL bright tanks, is similar in size to the brewing systems at Zauber and North High. Unlike those breweries the brewkit at Land Grant was in place from day one, which alleviated some of the growing pains that other local breweries have felt. They expect to add two additional 80 BBL fermentation tanks before the end of the year.
While the complications of finding a suitable property and moniker prevented Land Grant from getting off the ground in time to be the first Ohio craft brewery to can their products (that honor goes to Cincinnati’s Mad Tree Brewing) they are the first Columbus brewery to purchase a dedicated canning line. The canning system, which comes from Anthem Brewing in Oklahoma City and is the same system used by Jackie O’s and Rhinegeist, can crank out 30 cans a minute. Cans of Stiff Arm IPA and the 1862 Kölsch can be found at finer beer establishments in the Central Ohio area. The next beer scheduled to make its appearance in cans is the Greenskeeper Session IPA, which should be coming out later in the year. To the best of my knowledge it will be the first Central Ohio brewed session IPA to appear in cans, which should make it a popular offering.
The core lineup of Land Grant beers consists of the 1862 American Kölsch, Greenskeeper Session IPA, Son of a Mudder Brown Ale, and Stiff Arm IPA. With two beers coming in under 5% abv, and none above 7% abv, it’s fair to say they lean toward the sessionable side. With no distinctive stylistic theme to the beers I asked Adam and Walt how they felt Land Grant beers differentiated themselves in a crowded craft beer scene. They told me the goal was to make highest quality beers possible with a premium on drinkability. Fair enough, let’s dive in for a closer look.
The 1862 Ale, takes its name from the year the Land Grant Act was signed into law by President Lincoln. Made with kölsch yeast and German malts it has the crisp refreshing malt base of a lawnmower beer, but be warned this is not Kaiser Wilhelm’s kölsch. It’s got a little haze, and they kick things up a notch by dry hopping with citrusy Cascade hops, bred and developed at another Land Grant institution, Oregon State University. At 4.9% abv this is an ideal beer for hot summer days and early season tailgate parties. Adding to the appeal in my book they serve it in the slender, cylindrical stange glass that is the traditional glassware for kölsch in Germany (for $3 a pour). I’m a sucker for hoppy pilsners and I’ve always considered kölsch to be the ale equivalent of a pilsner, so this beer is right up my alley. Adam told me he got the inspiration for adding American ingredients to a classic European style when he tried triple hopped Duvel made with Amarillo hops, an American landrace hop.
Stiff Arm IPA competes with the 1862 Ale for top billing in the Land Grant starting lineup. The shiny scarlet cans features an image that bears more than a passing resemblance to the pose immortalized on the Heisman trophy. The dank, woody notes of the Simcoe and Centennial hops blend nicely with the citrus aromas from the Cascade hops. The judicious use of specialty malts (Vienna, Caramel and Munich) adds a deep amber color and a solid malt base to balance the bitterness of the hops. It’s a solid west coast IPA, flavorful and highly drinkable.
Son of Mudder Brown Ale is the only dark beer among the year round offerings. Like the 1862 Ale an extra dose of American hops (Cascade, Chinook) gives it a welcome twist on the traditional brown ale. The bourbon barrel aged version of this beer that appears from time to time is a tasty treat not to be missed. The Greenskeeper Session IPA rounds out the starting lineup. At the risk of stating the obvious, good session IPAs are tricky to make. The lack of a suitable malt backbone can lead to an unbalanced beer that tastes like cold hop tea. Jamie has managed the fermentation of Greenskeeper to retain some residual sugar that helps retain a drinkable hop-malt balance without boosting the abv.
Like many successful young breweries making enough of the core beers to satisfy demand ties up much of the brewing capacity, but when available the seasonals and special releases are always interesting. Keeping with the overarching theme they have both a Space Grant and Sea Grant series of beers. The first Space Grant beer, EF-1 was a black IPA made with Apollo, Galaxy and Millennium hops brewed for a special event at the nearby COSI Museum. The first Sea Grant beer was a Baltic Porter (a style that should get more attention in my opinion) whose name, Jaqueline Deep Search, was inspired by the Wes Anderson movie “The Life Aquatic.” In the winter months look for the Land Grant team to be wearing the distinctive red stocking caps that Bill Murray’s character wears in the movie. The 42-1 Imperial IPA celebrates Columbus native Buster Douglas’ unlikely 1990 TKO of previously undefeated heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. Their holiday offering Beard Crumbs is an Oatmeal Raisin Stout, a combination I haven’t seen before. Finally, there is the Judas Priest Saison Series brewed by Richards that I featured in a post earlier this month. The second beer in that series, a dark saison dubbed The Hellion, is now pouring in the taproom.
If Columbus breweries were female characters from the 1970s sitcom Gilligan’s Island (admittedly a short list and after all who wants to be the Mrs. Howell of breweries) Land Grant would be Mary Ann. Most of their beers are not over the top hop bombs, novelties made with crazy ingredients, or high gravity beers that demand your attention from the first sip, but the focus on working at the intersection of flavorful and drinkable is clearly paying dividends. For various reasons this story was more than two months in the making and during that time I kept coming back to Land Grant beers for the sake of thoroughness. The closer I looked the more I grew to appreciate their quality.
Legendary OSU football coach Woody Hayes used to say “you win with people” and the complementary skills of the Land Grant team look like a winning combination to me. They are a likeable cast of characters with a bright future ahead. Keep an eye out for “The Land Grant Movie” slated for an early February release sometime in the next decade.
Disclaimer – Land Grant production manager Mark Richards is a personal friend and part time Pats Pints photographer.