It’s a brisk Saturday afternoon in early March and I’m wandering through the rows of a nondescript industrial park in Whitehall, just south of the Columbus Airport. This is not the result of an out of control Friday night bender at the Actual taproom either, I’m searching for the 2 Tones Brewing production facility, with limited success I might add. While the surroundings would look familiar to anyone who has visited Actual, Sideswipe, or the original Zaftig location, on this search there are no food trucks, bearded men milling about, or even signage to clue you in as to which of the nearly identical sliding doors hides a brewery. Eventually I spot steam rising from a flow of hot water running into the drain between the two southernmost buildings of the industrial park. Going with my instinct I follow the stream of hot water to a sliding metal door cracked open just enough to let the water escape. As I approach, the door opens and I’m greeted by Anthony McKeivier, one half of the two Tony team that is 2 Tones Brewing. His longtime friend and business partner, Tony Hill, is inside washing out kegs.
The inside the 1000 square foot space industrial unit is utilitarian. Three oversized stainless steel pots sit on a large metal frame equipped with some serious natural gas burners. Bags of malts are stacked against the walls, four gleaming 5 bbl (155 gallons) fermentors are set off to the left, and the walk in cooler that is a necessary component of every picobrewery juts out from the east wall near the back of the unit. McKeivier and Hill are nothing if not good hosts, and it’s not too long before we walk around to the back wall of the cooler where there are six tap handles. The only thing missing from my first visit to the Zaftig taproom three years ago, are two patrons and a couple of heavily used couches.
The two men behind 2 Tones Brewing grew up together in Circleville. Both attended Ohio State University, where McKeivier studied accounting and Hill Geographic Information Systems. A love of drinking good beer eventually morphed into a serious homebrewing hobby. When the subject of homebrewing comes up I mention that I’m working on a recipe for an oatmeal stout. Anthony laughs and says that their very first homebrew recipe was an oatmeal stout. He reaches for a folder on the table and pulls out the recipe, written out on a sheet of loose leaf notebook paper. When I ask for more details they tell me that the target abv for this beer was 10% abv, just a shade north of the range suggested in the BJCP style guidelines (4.2-5.9%)! They go onto tell me that three of the first four beers they tackled as homebrewers had double digit abv levels. With that kind of head-first confidence it’s no wonder that they had the nerve to throw their hat in the crowded field of commercial craft brewing. In fact, McKeiver concedes that was their ultimate goal from the very first batch of homebrew.
For the past 21 years Barley’s Brewing Company has been hosting a homebrew contest. Several of the winners have gone on to become professional brewers, including two time champion Jay Wince, who along with his wife Lori owns and operates Weasel Boy in Zanesville, and Vic Gonzales of Pigskin Brewing. The 2009 winner, Lloyd Cicetti’s Blood Thirst Wheat, was so popular that the recipe was adapted and added to the regular rotation at Barley’s. It has gone onto become something of an under the radar gem of the Columbus beer scene. Hill and McKeivier’s Two Tones IPA took home top honors at the 2013 Barley’s competition. The banner proclaiming their accomplishment hangs on the cinderblock wall of the brewery. The two tell me that it took a lot of iterations to get the recipe to that point. Hill kept pushing to shift the hop additions later and later in the process and McKeivier resisted. Eventually Anthony gave in, and the rest is history. As the conversation stretches into the evening it becomes clear that McKievier is the optimist with a can do attitude, while Hill is the perfectionist never quite satisfied with his recipes. It seems like the right yin and yang for a successful future.
Working for the weekend
As their homebrewing skills improved, culminating with their win at the Barley’s competition, Hill and McKeiver finally decided the time was ripe for making the jump to the next level. After navigating the minefield of permits and financing they finally started distributing their beer in August 2016, producing approximately 70 barrels in the last four months of 2016. Both still have their day jobs so the business of running a brewery is relegated to weekends and evenings. McKeiver lives in nearby Reynoldsburg, while Hill commutes from Circleville. On a typical week, they fill kegs on weeknights; transfer, clean and prep everything on Saturday; and brew on Sunday. They are equipped with a split 5 bbl PsychoBrew system, meaning that they brew two 2.5 bbl (about 75 gallons) batches simultaneously each brew day, just the right amount to fill one of the 5 bbl fermentors. Since they only have four tanks available for fermentation and typically let the beer sit for 3-4 weeks prior to kegging, one brew day a week is enough to operate at the full capacity their equipment will allow. With this schedule they could theoretically produce about 250 bbl per year. To put that in perspective that’s about 1% of the output of Columbus Brewing Company.
The lack of a taproom has a significant impact on the profitability of a small brewery like this. Let’s do some simple math with the 2 Tones IPA as an example. A half barrel keg (the standard 15.5 gallon keg) sells for $190, with the raw ingredients (malts, hops and yeast) accounting for approximately one-quarter of the price. That’s a gross profit of roughly $140 per keg, not including the cost of equipment, rent, utilities, and deliveries. Running at the maximum capacity of 250 bbl per year that business model would generate $70,000 per year. Once you factor in the loan payments and monthly bills there can’t be much left over. Now contrast that with the revenue generated by selling your beer on premises. There are approximately 120 pints per keg, if you sell them at $5 per pint it would generate $700 in revenue. That’s a 460% increase in gross profit over the what their beer commands on the wholesale market. When I’ve talked to the owners of other small neighborhood breweries, like Tom Ayers at Ill Mannered or Mike Byrne at Lineage, they stress how important those taproom sales are to keep the business afloat.
Obviously finding space to open up a taproom is a priority. When I talked to the pair back in March they were thinking about a variety of spaces. No other breweries are located in Whitehall, which would make it a prime target. When I touched base last week to see if there were any updates Anthony told me that the most likely option looks like an expansion into the unit next door, following a path similar to the road already traveled by Sideswipe and Actual. He said they would be happy if an on premises tasting room was up and running in the next 18 months.
Ultimately the best business plan doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if your beer can’t hold its own in a crowded field. Here are some brief tasting notes on the 2 Tones beers I’ve been able to sample.
Uncle Joe’s Irish Red – Along with the IPA this is the flagship beer. As you might infer from the name the recipe was devised as a tribute to McKievier’s Uncle Joe, a man who I’m told was not into craft beer but enjoyed his gin. Consequently, they’ve put a twist on your standard Irish Red by adding crushed Juniper berries near the end of the boil. The citrus and evergreen accents of the juniper balance out the rich maltiness, lending a bit of Scandinavian flair to this Irish standard.
Big Hawk Scotch Ale – This beer, also inspired by Anthony’s Uncle Joe, was the freshest beer on tap during my visit. The malt profile is similar to their Irish Red, but the flavor and abv (8.0%) are amped up here. It’s got a lovely malt forward profile, oozing with rich caramel flavors. I recently revisited this beer at Copious in German Village and loved it just as much as my first encounter. If you are into rich malty beers this is one worth seeking out.
C-Bucks Imperial Stout – When I left the left the brewery the guys sent me home with a hand filled bottle of C-bucks, a burly 10.1% abv Imperial Stout. Following in the mold of Founder’s Breakfast Stout, C-bucks is brewed with cacao nibs and locally roasted coffee from Upper Cup. A couple of weeks later I crack open my parting gift to see how it stacks up. I’m immediately struck by the chocolate aroma wafting through the room as I pour the viscous, jet black liquid into a glass. The taste follows suit with rich, no make that decadent, chocolate flavors that blend seamlessly with the specialty malts. Despite the desert-like flavor profile and potent abv, the beer is neither overly cloying nor particularly boozy. This is a seriously good beer.
Crumble – This is their holiday ale, but a new batch recently surfaced. It’s a cream ale brewed with lactose sugar and vanilla. Hard sodas are a thing these days, and this one is a dead ringer for cream soda. I can see where this beer might be divisive with beer geeks, but it goes down pretty easy.
Space Lazer DIPA – One of the newest additions to the 2 Tones lineup, this double IPA checks in at 9.2% abv. They’ve thrown a boatload of hops at this one, most of them late/dry hop addition, as evidenced by the modest 60 IBU. It’s hazy golden in color with a big nose of tropical fruits. The taste is hop-forward and fruity. The bitterness is moderate for the style, and the malts hide the potent alcohol well. If you are going to make a DIPAs in Ohio you better bring you’re A-game, and this one does not disappoint. On Friday, May 19 Bodega is going to be pouring a tropical version (read fruit-infused) of Space Lazer DIPA.
Given their small size and lack of a tasting room, tracking down 2 Tones beer can be a little challenging. Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza in Worthington, Copious in German Village, and The Ohio Taproom in Grandview are a few of the locations where 2 Tones beer is usually on tap. If you want a more immersive experience consider heading out to Flavor 91 Burger Bistro in Whitehall on Thursday, May 18 for a 2 Tones tap takeover.
Running a brewery at this scale is a labor of love, and it’s clear that duo behind 2 Tones Brewing are embracing the craft with gusto. Their enthusiasm is infectious and everything from the ingredients, to the recipes, to the process is about making the best beer they possibly can. Until they can open a tasting room, financially it seems like an exercise in treading water, but when you chase your dreams sometimes that’s part of the journey. Give the beer a try and see for yourself.