Beer and Ambition Fuel Growth
By Katie DeTar
Sam McNulty’s parents wanted him to grow up and become a pastor.
In a way, he is. He’s on a mission to bring his neighborhood of Ohio City, Cleveland, back from the brink.
And he’s doing it all with his favorite beverage: Beer.
I’m visiting Ohio City with two goals: learn the nuances of beer—and attempt to enjoy it; beer is not typically my beverage of choice, although I do love the bar food that tends to accompany it—and better understand how this neighborhood, once a desolate area of Cleveland, became a hot spot for foodies and hipsters.
Looking around 25th Street and beyond, there is a bustling crowd. Shoppers fill the nearby West Side Market, one of the oldest indoor public food markets in the country. Locals and tourists comingle at tables at one of a dozen restaurants on the avenue. I’m intrigued.
My husband and I meet up with McNulty and his companion, Kira, at Market Garden, one of the five restaurants he owns. Immediately I sense his style: friendly, outgoing, energetic and social. He’s apologetically late, running from one of a dozen or so meetings that day. He’s dressed casually, and greets us like we’ve been friends for years. His love of Cleveland and Ohio City radiates. He’s a Cleveland native, spends most of his waking hours within walking distance of his Ohio City apartment, and doesn’t even own a car. He attended Cleveland State University, where he opened his first restaurant on campus while still a student. It was there his dream of operating a brewpub began.
Shortly after college, McNulty purchased his first place in Ohio City, continuing a legacy for the neighborhood that began in 1988, when brothers Patrick and Daniel Conway put down roots for their Great Lakes Brewing Company.
Prior to Prohibition, Ohio had 33 breweries, with Cleveland a hub of brewing activity. Following Prohibition, only four of the original breweries re-opened. Over the next 50 years, increasing taxes, corporate consolidation and general poor economic conditions led to the closing of three more breweries. C. Schmidt & Sons, Cleveland’s sole remaining brewery, closed its doors in 1984.
Many thought the Conway brothers were crazy, opening up shop in the then-desolate and neglected warehouse area of Cleveland between 25th and 26th Streets. Kira tells me about her first tour of the then small and up-and-coming Great Lakes Brewery. Exiting the party bus, the choice of neighborhood surprised her. “I was in shock. I thought, where am I? It was scary back then.” That was just ten years ago, and clearly, much has changed.
With a wait-list running over at Market Garden, and streams of people filling the tables over at Bar Cento across the street on this snowy spring Saturday, you’d have to look closely for any resemblance of that former Ohio City neighborhood. But as we exit Market Garden and wander outside, McNulty insists this is not gentrification. He says the history and the original character are still here. On 25th Street, he points out two long-standing shops, both in business since before Ohio City was what it is today. Business is great for them, he says, noting that diversity is the best thing for a thriving neighborhood.
Up and down the street, I notice the architecture. Rather than demolish and start over, history has been preserved here. McNulty says of the buildings, “They needed some TLC but the bones were good.” And sometimes, the “bones” include the basement. Over at Great Lakes Brewing Company on Market Street, the basement and original brewing room is now a part of the restaurant with table service. And over here on 25th Street, McNulty’s turned the bowels of one property into a very cool speakeasy-style bar. The team even found a Prohibition-era liquor cabinet in the wall.
As we continue the tour, we again come upon historic space with a new use. The Bier Markt—McNulty’s Belgian-style restaurant and bar—was once a department store. The design team saved the original window display cases and turned them into very unique seating for the restaurant—almost like little cubbies for a small group’s table. It’s a great, snuggly spot, especially on this snowy day.
There’s a crowd of people here, too, chatting and laughing at tables. The variety of beers on tap is impressive: Lagers, IPAs, Belgian Golden Ale, Hefeweizen. There are more than 100 beers, including 30 rotating on-tap offerings. Bier Markt shares space next door with Bar Cento—McNulty’s Italian-style eatery—where hungry guests dive into the homemade pizza, including the ‘Sunnyside’, which Zagat recently ranked as one of the best in the nation.
Here at Bier Markt, McNulty mixes up something special for me, the “non beer person” of the group. He says, “I’ve got you covered,” as he hands me my drink: a tall amber-colored beverage in a fancy Belgian-style glass. I sense he’s eager to share his love of beer with me—and with everyone that makes their way to one of his establishments. The vibe around here is definitely friendly. As we cruise through the restaurant, McNulty stops to say hello to almost everyone, pausing for a chat, or to check something off a to-do list from the tiny notebook he carries everywhere. The ideas keep flowing, and he’s constantly gathering thoughts, making notes, and keeping lists.
Our final stop is Nano Brew, the smaller, more experimental side of the Market Garden family. Here, craft brews come out for a test run before a larger production at the facilities of Market Garden. Like Bier Markt, the beer list here is also impressive, with microbrews from all over the country and an assortment of home-brewed “Nano Brews”, created and fermented in-house just a few feet from the bar. There’s a bike tune-up station, and riders who come in wearing bike helmets are offered a discount: half off their first pint. McNulty’s an avid cyclist, using his bike and, when necessary, a tiny scooter with an even tinier gas tank, for transit. He organizes group bike rides, and is looking to launch a bike share this year.
Here, we grab a seat under a huge stuffed moose head, and sample an Irish stout and a beer that tasted a bit like bananas.
More friends come in to Nano, and McNulty interrupts our chat to pop up and buy the work crew from Great Lakes a round of beers. It’s a regular example of the collaboration between businesses here in Ohio City. The mantra very much is of group effort, and group success for revitalization.
McNulty comes back to the table, notebook in hand. He’s got a new idea, and a wide smile. His energy is boundless, and he’s got more ideas up his sleeve. Four additional breweries are planned, and a new restaurant opens this summer. That’ll make six brewpubs all within walking distance in Ohio City. There’s also a large warehouse in the works for distilling and fermentation. “The Palace of Fermentation,” he jokes.
As I watch the community circulate between the streets and restaurants, I realize this neighborhood is much more about new ideas, about friends, and about the energy infused by McNulty and his team than it is about the beer. And while beer is still not my taste*—despite McNulty’s best efforts—Ohio City definitely is. Besides, Nano Brew has waffle fries on the menu—and we have more new friends to make.
*My husband loved the beer, and, judging by the number of patrons, countless others do, too.
Odds of Encountering Children: Low. These are bar/restaurants, so while I did spot a few families with kids seated at tables at the Market Garden brewery, I did not see any kids at Nano Brew or at Bier Markt. The neighborhood, overall, impressed me as a 30- to 40-something crowd and residents. The West Side Market also had many shoppers, but very few with kids in tow.
Ohio City is a “Fringe Benefit” of Visit Cleveland
– Photos courtesy Katie DeTar and David Lalley