Good Sports: A Conversation with Adam Benner & Walt Keys of Columbus, Ohio's Land-Grant Brewing
INTERVIEWED February 10, 2017
AT Land-Grant Brewing Co. - Columbus, Ohio
While beer and sports have always gone hand-in-hand, you may have found yourself many a time at a ballgame, tailgate or neighborhood sports bar with severely limited beer options. Thankfully, stadiums and tailgate parties have now joined the craft beer movement and are offering impressive draft lists comprising local favorites and national staples. There are few cities more synonymous with sports than Columbus, Ohio. Led by Buckeye Nation and a small, but fervent group of Blue Jackets and Crew supporters, Ohio's capital city is experiencing an impressive beer renaissance.
Just across the Scioto River from the city's downtown is a neighborhood older than Columbus itself. The landscape in Franklinton is the polar opposite to the constant building and new construction of the busy downtown area. But in these wide open spaces, Land-Grant Brewing Co. found a home. Founded in 2014 by Ohio State alumni Adam Benner and Walt Keys, the two long time friends saw an opportunity for a brewery where they could share their many passions. Like most who call Columbus home, Adam and Walt are sports fanatics, but from the beginning they did not want sports to define the brewery. We sat down with Adam and Walt to dig into how they've been able to walk the fine line between beer and sports.
How did you end up settling in Franklinton?
Adam Benner: We had a hiccup in 2013 where we had a building in Grandview — which is a little more of a populated area, yet still close to downtown—but we lost that building right before we were supposed to go to the city. We'd been looking down in Franklinton and timing worked out well for this building that had just come available. This building is 90 years old, it was the office space for an elevator factory called Capitol Lift.
Walt Keys: It was pretty brutal—the windows were not there, there were these narrow little arrow slits that didn't let any light in, drop ceiling, wood paneling, and yellow wallpaper. It was pretty depressing.
AB: Once we were in, it took us about six months to build out, then we opened in October of 2014.
Let's go back a little in your history. Adam, you mentioned you lived in Chicago. Did you move there directly after graduating from Ohio State?
AB: After graduating, I lived to Madison for a year. That's where I ended up meeting my wife, who lived in Chicago. I would go back and forth between the two and finally moved down to Chicago after doing that for a while. Walt moved to New York after school.
WK: Yeah, I worked in publishing in New York for a year then came back to Cincinnati, which is where I'm from. I got a job with a graphic design firm there, worked at a few small creative studios in Cincinnati for a few years, and always freelanced on the side. Then Adam's hobby of homebrewing kind of became my hobby of designing labels and coming up with names.
Have you ever tried your hand at brewing?
WK: Ha, no. To this day, I've never brewed a beer. I've lent a hand in several brews, but I cannot say that I've brewed a beer myself.
Adam is a very entrepreneurial guy and we always talked about doing something back in Columbus. We love the city and obviously had a great time when we were here for school. He is a tinkerer and sort of a handy guy, so when he gets a hobby it kind of grows and grows and grows.
His homebrew setup was what a lot of nano breweries are essentially brewing on commercially, so we were like, shit, we are basically doing this at least on a semiprofessional level already, maybe this is what we always talked about doing. He was seeing the boom in Chicago and you could look to Columbus and see that there wasn't much going on.
AB: The ground swell was coming.
WK: There was a demand for it, but the supply wasn't there.
What was selling in the city back then?
WK: The only craft beer that was being produced here was Columbus Brewing Company, Elevator, and Barley's. That was pretty much it. I think Four String opened right around when we did our Kickstarter.
AB: They were open for a couple months, but were on grundies and converted dairy tanks. They were the first of the new wave, so not much locally. Bell's Two Hearted was a big thing. When we were in college, one of the bars on campus, Mad Mex, had Gumballhead on tap, so that was one of the first places we went for craft beer.
WK: We would go there for happy hour, and they would have this giant list of beers, and this was before any of us knew what was out there.
Is that when you got into beer?
AB: We put a kegerator in in college and had Honey Brown for the first keg. We thought we were so classy. Then we'd go drink Amber Bock at the one bar by our house that had $5 pitchers.
WK: God, we drank a lot of pitchers of Amber Bock.
AB: That and original Strongbow, not the sweet stuff that's out now. One of our roommates drank Sierra Nevada Pale all the time, and I remember thinking that stuff is way too bitter, but now that's something I have when I know I just want a good beer.
One of my buddies in Madison lived above one of the Great Dane pubs, so we would go there all the time. That is kind of what got me into actually brewing a beer. We used to go to Barley's downtown there every once and again, but never thought much about what they were brewing there. I was finally making a little money and being able to spend it and knowing what was good and what was different.
And then you moved to Chicago.
AB: Yea, I lived close to Piece and my wife's family lived a mile from 3 Floyds, so we'd go there all the time. I always say, when I first started dating her, my in-laws' fridge was full of Highlife and Killian's Irish Red. Six months later we would come down to visit and the whole fridge would be Gumballhead, Robert the Bruce, and Pride and Joy. I think they were trying to win me over too.
And then there was homebrewing. I brewed my first batch of beer with one of my buddies in Chicago the week I got back from my wedding. His friend from Seattle had been homebrewing a while and there was a homebrew shop up in Libertyville that wasn't too far from where I was working at the time – that's what kind of started the whole thing.
Like Walt said, I get obsessed with things and want to figure out a more efficient way of doing things — with brewing there are hundreds of those things. I had a good group of friends that we used to brew almost every weekend and having the space in a coach house really helped. We had a five foot high basement we could store everything in and we could brew in the courtyard between the front house and our house. Every nook had carboys and bottles that were aging beer.
One of the cool things was that Walt, with his design background, started working for this Ohio State blog, Eleven Warriors, doing posters and all the graphics and artwork. They were having a tailgate and Walt told them I brewed beer, so we started bringing beer there. That was the first time it wasn't just friends and people being nice. The beer was well received and many of the beers already had names, so we started to think we were on to something here in Columbus.
You were still living in Chicago at that time?
AB: Yeah, I drove a bunch of corny kegs here.
WK: It might not have been the most legal thing.
AB: The tailgates got a little bigger and we kept doing that event annually. At that time we were called Oval Brewing, which was a nod to Ohio State's central green space. The lore is they didn't pave it until the students wore away the natural paths of how to get to different classes.
AB: In college we would travel to all the away games. It's a big part of the school spirit. We really enjoyed our time at Ohio State, but we wanted something that was more of a nod [to the school] and not Buckeye Beer Company. Oval was generic enough that if you didn't know the story you may not get it, but it still had that tie to the university.
After the Kickstarter, we went to register the trademark but an Austrian vodka called Oval Vodka already had the trademark registered. That was before I got my honorary doctorate in researching trademark and Ohio liquor code and learned that beer, wine, and spirits are all in the same category. We figured out who owned the trademark—the Austrian vodka company went back to John Paul Dejoria, who owns Paul Mitchell brands and Patron tequila.
WK: It was one very brief conversation with one of their lawyers.
AB: It was with like his right hand man of this billionaire company. We are this small brewery in Columbus, so we asked if we could use it. They told us no, they had big plans for the brand.
Never heard of it, so not sure what those big plans were.
AB: I don't know if it ever came to fruition, but we had the beer names in that collegiate feel like Stiff Arm and Dubbel Overtime. Walt and I are really big sport fans, but we didn't want it to be just beer and sports.
How do you separate yourself from being a sports bar thats brewing beer?
WK: There's a thin line to walk there and you can be way too on the nose with it very easily. I think with the names and the brand we have made a strong effort not to paint ourselves into a corner. A lot of beers do have sports references, but I think they are subtle enough. Stiff Arm is pretty obvious, but they're not all like that. Many don't reference sports at all, but the overall brand aesthetic, language and direction definitely follow that sports lean. That's a reflection of who Adam and I are. We're big sports fans but thats not it. We have other interests. We've been to enough sports bars that try and ram it down your throat with kitschy names and puns that we knew we wanted to approach it with a more nuanced approach.
AB: Plus we don't take ourselves too seriously in real life. We wanted something that's generic enough, so we had that thing with the beer names and the feel of the brewery that we wanted to keep. But when we couldn't use the name Oval, that's when we threw a bunch of names around. Many were already breweries and thats where Land-Grant finally came from. It helps tie everything together because every state has a land-grant university, so it opens it up to a broader audience. So that's where the name came from, as well as many of the beers, but we also have the Sea Grant series with the Deep Search and Stevesy.
I've never heard of a Sea Grant school before.
AB: There are Sea Grants and we do a Space Grant, but we're also big Wes Anderson fans, so that was our nod to Life Aquatic.
He's not coming after you with legal action too?
AB: We try and toe the line as much as we can. Being here with Ohio State we try and steer away from specific OSU references. We did do a beer this past fall called Skull Session. Before football games, the band, which is a huge note of pride, does a prep rally called Skull Session, but it's a generic military term, so we knew we wouldn't get in trouble for that.
But the response we got for doing something a little more specific was huge. Alumni band members were emailing us wondering how they could get the beer without ever tasting it. One night the alumni band came and played on a Friday night. When Ohio Stadium went stadium-wide with beer sales they asked us to have Stiff Arm there, and that was insane.
I didn't realize the Horseshoe had beer sales.
AB: This was the first year for it. We knew the people who do the food and beverage at the stadium because they are the same people who do it at MAPFRE Stadium, which we have a great relationship with from our partnership with the Columbus Crew. They were the ones to tell us it might be going stadium-wide this year—they wanted us to be prepared for any sort of volume.
You have some pretty large accounts between Ohio Stadium, your beer with the Blue Jackets and also the Crew. You probably didn't anticipate that when you opened two years ago.
WK: Nope, and now we also have a little taproom at the airport.
AB: We found out we were going to be in the stadium in an article saying Land-Grant Stiff Arm is going to be the flagship craft beer. We were like, holy shit, we need to go buy some tanks.
WK: We basically ordered them the next day.
So Stiff Arm is at Ohio Stadium, which was already part of your portfolio, but for the Jackets and Crew you brewed beers specifically for the teams?
AB: With Ohio State, Stiff Arm was in 16 locations throughout the stadium and there were four Ohio craft locations that had only local craft beer. Those kiosks also had 1862 Ale and Greens Keeper.
The beer we did with the Crew was our first actual sponsorship or partnership that we did and that was only two months into opening. The Crew was going through a rebrand, moving away from their kind of YMCA guys logo to a more classic European style shield. With their rebrand, they were looking to go more local and one of our friends works for Crew SC and floated the idea of working with the team.
We started talking to them about doing a partnership, but we didn't want to just take a beer we already brewed and rename it with a Twitter contest. We wanted to figure out a way to come up with an original beer with the help of supporters, but we couldn't do a vote on each individual ingredient. So, we brewed four different beers on our pilot system; two black beers and two gold beers—a black wit, a black ale, an American wheat and a golden ale. They were all really sessionable beers, knowing that people would be drinking this at a tailgate in the middle of summer. From that, the American wheat won.
WK: We had a bunch of supporters come to the tap room. You got a glass and got to try all four, and used a token to vote for your favorite. With each beer was also a card where you could leave feedback, so even if it was your favorite you could say it would be even better if this or that was changed. They also got to recommend a name as well.
And you released Glory for the first time last year?
AB: We came out with it in the fall of 2015, it was out by the time they made their playoff run. We sold a lot of it. Originally we were not going to can it because we didn't think we would be able to, but the Crew got an exemption from the MLS to allow us to use their logo on the cans.
We did it again last year and there were times it was our number one selling beer. That's been a fun relationship working with them and we are talking about expanding it a little bit. We're reaching out to some of the original MLS clubs to possibly do a collaboration with breweries in their cities. We are still waiting on some confirmations but we were in touch with Dallas, New York, Kansas City and LA.
Do you have specific breweries in those cities you've targeted?
AB: Well some are like us and are kind of the "official-not-official" craft beer for the club. We have exclusivity for the market, but it cost too much for the "official" title. We had a good chat with Kansas City and Boulevard this week. They did a Sporting KC beer – I think it was a saison – then a brewery out of LA, Smog City, and Peticolas from Dallas. We know one of the brewers at Six Point in Brooklyn for New York, so we'll see what happens with that. Colorado is Odell, they are an "official" beer. Colorado, Kansas City and Portland all have official beers, but Portland is not an original club.
Last year we did Misconduct, an Imperial Rye. The Blue Jackets came to us and said they would love to have that beer at the arena. Being an Imperial IPA, we thought that may not be the best idea, so we worked with them to brew something a little lighter. That's where we came up with Goon, an assertive strong Pale Ale. That was just at the arena and here last year, but we expanded it a little bit by canning it.
As huge hockey fans, what has been the reception to the team's recent success after years of futility?
AB: It's been really cool. The response to the beer itself has really exploded from doing it last year to this year. It's on a different level with the NHL being around 100 years, it's a much more mature league and is more structured than MLS. The Crew is willing to try anything, but we have been able to break the Jackets down a little bit and have some fun.
WK: I didn't realize when we opened, how close we were to the arena. Once hockey season starts, we get a good amount of people down here drinking beer before the game. You can walk from here to the arena in 10 or 15 minutes.
We have touched on design a couple times already, but can you expand on the thought process behind the brand and the beer trading cards.
WK: Those were originally Adam's idea. We were looking for an easy way to tell the beer's story. The first ones we did were back when we did the Eleven Warriors tailgate parties. We whipped them up and printed them as business cards to hand out. It tied in nicely with the sports theme, but also the design and the back has the stats and story of each beer.
We love the idea of having the stats and tasting notes right on the back of the card, especially the production stats year-over-year.
WK: I'm going to run out of room soon on the back of the cards as we add more years of production. Each year I update the production stats and there's the ABV, IBUs, package type and seasonality. It's a fun sort of whimsical way of putting a lot of information in a cool little package that someone can stick in their pocket and take home. They're great when we go to beer festivals.
Beside the cards, can you describe the general aesthetic of your design?
WK: I think there's a pretty clear inspiration from old football programs and old sports ephemera.
AB: What Walt told me when we switched from Oval to the Land Grant logo, was that if you got a crate this would be something that was stamped on the side. From the manufacturing side and blending the two with a lot of the sports stuff, there's an industrial feel that it started from. We have "COLS" in the logo, as that's the original postal code for Columbus.
WK: It's a real maker's mark kind of thing. I draw inspiration from a lot of places — some is just real old artwork and some is pulled from photographs I've taken. Inspiration comes from all over the place, but that being said, I want it to feel really consistent — that it's coming from the same place. While every beer is different, there's a system that's developed that gives me the freedom to operate within that structure. You have to be creative inside the box, so to speak.
Does the beer fit into a system as well?
AB: For the most part our beers tend to be on the more sessionable side of styles, because there's that mix between being here for watching a game and the social aspect to it. So our IPA is 6.5% and our Imperials are generally in the 8's to low 9's. Nothing is tipping the scale, but we're getting into that a little more now. Everything has always been approachable — as I said earlier, we don't take ourselves too seriously, but by focusing on the absolute quality from the beginning, you can trust that any beer we're going to put out will be a quality beer.
What is the landscape of Ohio Craft beer like?
AB: Great Lakes is definitely the biggest. If you added up the rest of the states' production together, it wouldn't equal Great Lakes. I remember two years ago, we were at the Ohio Craft Brewer's Association meeting there, commenting to some of the other Columbus breweries that four of their tanks added up to more than what the Columbus breweries were producing the entire year.
In Columbus at least, Christmas Ale is always a huge drop, but it's Rhinegeist that's been the biggest disrupter as of late. Columbus is interesting compared to Cleveland and Cincinnati in that because we're the capital city, it's accepting of the rest of the state. A lot of people did not grow up in Columbus — Walt is from Cincinnati, I'm from Cleveland — a lot of people move here to go to the university or for research and business here. That goes back to why we wanted to be generic. Twenty years ago Ohio State and Columbus went hand in hand, but now there's so much more. You wouldn't know it in the fall, but that's a different story.
Are there breweries that have inspired you along the way?
AB: Spending time in Chicago, Half Acre and what they were doing with the cans and their design. Also in being a leader as one of the first of the new wave in Chicago and having that urban taproom. Oskar Blues was canning early on and none of their beers are too aggressive. Dale's is something you can drink all the time and it's done very, very well in its own right.
We have this conversation frequently—we tend to pass on known commodity beers for the sake of exploration, but you realize those beers have been around for as long as they have for a reason.
AB: Yeah, at that Ohio Craft Beer Conference we were talking about the same thing. There's a chain of bars here in Ohio, Winking Lizard, that will always carry Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold to get people to remember that although we have this amazing rotating draft list, it doesn't mean you should ignore these old classics. There's a reason why they got as big as they did.
WK: There is a lot out there now, at least from a design standpoint, that's pretty awesome. Much of the time I haven't even had their beer, but I spend a lot of time online looking at stuff and doing research. Creature Comforts is one. I love their whole look and brand. Modern Times is another. We've talked about 3 Floyds and how they have such a strong design and strong beer. They are so unique yet they're not trying — at least I think they aren't. They have this strongly-defined personality, look, and feel. You see one of their beers and you know it is a 3 Floyds beer. They know who they are.
AB: I think the differentiation is with breweries that actually know what they want to do and know who they are. Even with a brewery like Russian River, they have their strong American ales and then brew the crazy Belgian beers. Or how Goose Island did it with the sour sisters. They carved it out and had a strategy around that and have built it into the consistency of the brand. At the end of the day, that's the big difference. There's so much good beer everywhere. What's the story to tell?
So you have been open just over two years. What's the plan for Land Grant in the next couple of years?
WK: I have no idea.
AB: If you asked us two years ago, we would have said maybe we would go to Michigan and Indiana and all these other states. But now the way I look at it is completely different. Looking at the contraction of some of those national brands that expanded and did not make as much of an impact — because historically to get a good IPA you needed to get one from California or whatever. But now there are a handful you can get right here in Columbus.
So with that, our strategy with our partnerships and getting into the airport is to go deeper into Ohio to really try and establish ourselves as having that taproom destination. I think we will eventually get into Cleveland, but not to get too big. 20-25,000 barrels is probably it, and you can comfortably do 10-12,000 barrels in Columbus alone. We still have a lot of room to grow here. The scary part is seeing some of these breweries try and grow, but I always question what the relevance is. What's the story that someone is going to connect with?
WK: Why should someone in Pittsburgh buy a beer from us when there's a bunch of good beer already in Pittsburgh?
AB: Historically that's what you did, you went into all the big markets and kept growing, but it is hard enough to keep Columbus under wraps.
If someone is coming to Columbus, besides stoping at Land Grant, where else should they check out for a good beer?
AB: Fourth Street is definitely a spot where you can hit up a lot of good breweries. On a weekend you can go to Elevator, which has had their restaurant on High St. for 15 or 20 years, then a block away is Wolf's Ridge where the food is some of the best in the city and the beer is fantastic.
WK: They took the brew pub model, but they're doing way more than burgers and fries.
AB: It's similar to how Revolution started out with their brewpub on Milwaukee Ave. Then a half a mile down the street is Hoof Hearted's brewpub, they are basically a North East brewery transplanted into the middle of Columbus with their cloudy IPAs. They were doing that before NEIPAs were a trendy thing. Finally Seventh Son. We're real good friends with those guys. If we're not here, we're probably there. In Summer time their patio is probably the best in Columbus.
Last question. Was it a first down?
WK: Hell yeah. I could see from where I was sitting. It was a first down.
Photography by Nick Costa.
Cheers to Adam and Walt for a great conversation over many beers. Whether you're in town to see OSU, the Jackets, or Crew, be sure to stop at Land Grant before and after the game.