Great Lakes Brewing Company was the first craft brewery in Ohio. Founded in 1988, it’s evolved into one of the nation’s largest beer producers but in a landscape dominated by limited releases and small batch beers, Great Lakes knows it has to keep up with the ever-changing trends. That’s why the company recently launched its small can batch series — diverse and innovative beers that started really small but will now be limited releases at the brewery and throughout northeast Ohio.
If you can’t get your hands on these releases, the latest of which is Mexican Lager with Lime, a citrus-infused cerveza with golden malts, Great Lakes still has several award winning beers, perfect for any beer drinker — and even those recipes can be tweaked. We wanted to know more about the series, so we reached out to Great Lakes and spoke to Brewmaster Mark Hunger about it, as well as the Ohio beer scene and what’s next.
Dirtfork: Let’s start a little bit with your background — how long have you been at Great Lakes?
Mark Hunger: I’ve been here going on 23 years.
Dirtfork: Wow. So, you’ve been there and really seen kind of the evolution of the brewery?
Hunger: Quite a bit, yes (laughs).
Dirtfork: What was your background before that as well as with the company as you’ve progressed over the years?
Hunger: Before that, about a year before that, I graduated from college, having an environmental background which is an environmental studies degree, a biology degree, plus a lot of chemistry. It was a pretty good mix for the brewing industry, for sure, more of a mix than I ever imagined, so it worked out well. And then, when I was hired on, [Great Lakes] didn’t really have much of a quality control program — nobody here really had a science background. When they hired me on, I pretty much started up the quality control in the lab program here at Great Lakes and now we have four lab techs, two labs and it’s a 24 or 25 person operation.
Dirtfork: You see breweries popping up all over the place these days, so what’s it like for you to work at one of the originals — I mean, there’s only a few across the country that have been around since the mid-to-late 1980s?
Hunger: We were actually the first in the state of Ohio, which is kind of cool — and crazy. But it’s a great experience to see the relative infancy of it and see it progress and, you know, make some mistakes, learn along the way, and then be able to give advice to some of these other people that are either just starting out or on their way up, or something like that.
Dirtfork: That was kind of my next question. How, from your perspective, has the Ohio beer scene evolved and how does it continue to evolve?
Hunger: It’s evolved a huge amount since I’ve been in it. Obviously, in the number of breweries and then the styles that are coming out — IPAs is an easy one. To look at, it was just a specialty brew 20 years ago and now you have 30 versions of one style, literally (laughs) — which is kind of crazy. So yeah, there’s a lot of evolution going on there.
Dirtfork: Ohio isn’t really known as a beer hotbed but there’s definitely some very good breweries that continue to pop up throughout the state but it’s really evolving and it seems to be going in the right direction.
Hunger: Right, it’s strong and it’s definitely got a presence here. For sure.
Dirtfork: Now, with this small batch can series, the first one up is Mexican Lager. What can drinkers kind of expect from this beer?
Hunger: This is a lighter lager just like the Mexican lagers, except in the fact that we added some fresh lime to it, so it’s a nice, summertime, beach time, refreshing beer.
Dirtfork: On Great Lakes’ Instagram, it mentions that it was made using a two-barrel pilot system — what does that mean exactly?
Hunger: Well, we have a pilot plant — a pilot brewery here at Great Lakes where we can experiment. To explain the pilot plant, it’s where we come up with some ideas, back-of-the-napkin type stuff, lay it on the pilot plant and see what works. Obviously, if it is worthwhile we can definitely take it to the next step. So, we just got this working about a year and a half ago to two years ago or so. It’s a great thing to use in [research and development] obviously. We still have our pub system, obviously, which up until that point was our gauge system and it still is. Sometimes we’ll do something on the pilot plant and take it right to the pub system but our pilot system is not just a little brewhouse, it’s made with the exact specifications of our production brewhouse, so if you were to make or have made, a little two-barrel system, you wouldn’t have it made like this, it would be a fraction of the cost and a lot smaller. Proportionally, this mimics our 75-barrel production brewhouse, so when we make something on the pilot plant, it’s an easy transition to go to that system, which we know what to expect — there shouldn’t be any surprises.
Dirtfork: With the small batch series, is it fun for you to kind of showcase what you guys can do? You have all of these big beers you’re always pumping out, is it fun to get creative in smaller doses?
Hunger: Yeah, for sure. You know, you’re not under the threat of ‘I’m going to waste a lot of money here’ type of thing. Creativity can definitely be heightened a little bit because there’s not that threat of it selling. When push comes to shove, it’s like three or four kegs of beer and, at our level, that’s something, obviously, but it’s not — if it’s something that just doesn’t make the cut, it’s not a huge loss. That’s the whole idea behind the pilot system. That helps immensely with creativity and stuff like that. There’s really no boundaries, you can try whatever and change what works.
Dirtfork: Is it one of those things that if you find success and these beers are selling real well on a hyper-local basis, that it’s something you could potentially put into production and kind of distribute it on a bigger level, either throughout the state or the country?
Hunger: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s actually evolving as we speak with some of our beers. We’ve got one that’s in the works here that’s sort of like a Moscow Mule inspired beer, that we’re going to be brewing, that originated on that system. That’s going to be a seasonal here this year, in the summertime. It’s evolving as we speak and it’s doing what we bought it for.
Dirtfork: Small, limited, batches have been around for a while and I’m sure Great Lakes has been doing them for a while but this specific can series, is it relatively new — and how did it come about?
Hunger: It’s something new. Obviously, cans are really popular and something that we’re trying to get into and we thought this would be a perfect beer for something like that. So, it was sort of an obvious thing to try out and get into because cans are such the hot thing and it’s a good thing to have a beer in during the summertime, for sure.
Dirtfork: These more innovative beers often come with ingredients that aren’t typical run of the mill ingredients, sometimes they’re a little more on the higher end. What’s the process of hunting for hops, malts and other ingredients used to make these smaller beers like?
Hunger: That can be the fun part, sometimes. Craft Brewers Conference, which was just a few weeks ago, is a prime example of finding different ingredients and suppliers, hunting around on the internet for different suppliers and I go out to hop country every year for the harvest which is a prime time to actually walk through the fields and find experimental hops that aren’t even named yet that they’re still experimenting with. So, you can really see what’s coming up through the pipeline in that respect. That’s just some of what goes on in terms of raw materials.
Dirtfork: As far as this can series goes, what might be the next few beers that are coming down the road?
Hunger: That’s sort of still in discussion a little bit. I don’t know if we’re ready to announce that quite yet. We have some coming up that we are pretty sure of but we want to make it more of a sort of planned announcement.
Dirtfork: I completely understand. Moving to your staple beers, you guys do slight variations sometimes, like Holy Moses [White Ale] for example. What is it about taking those beers and tweaking them a little that you guys like?
Hunger: That’s the fun of it, really, taking a classic example of a beer that we make and super successful and sort of building off of it. Seems like a natural progression that people are calling for and love a standard beer of ours that was made for years and years to just add something a little different to it or change it slightly to get that variation, so that the people who drink the beer and enjoy the original might like this even better or enjoy a little twist or pickup some new drinkers who would’ve never have dreamt of trying something like that.
Dirtfork: Do those variations of beer often sell as well as the original or is the original always the standard and they can’t hit that level, just because of years of popularity.
Hunger: That’s a good question. I don’t think we have seen some of those variations surpass the original. I mean, they’ve sold strong but I don’t think they’ve surpassed the original, as of this point anyway.
Dirtfork: I’m a big sports fan and a while back your brewery brewed a kolsch in honor of Joe Thomas from the Cleveland Browns. Do you have any plans down the road for another — is there any athlete for whom you would do that again in the Cleveland scene?
Hunger: I would definitely— again, I’m not going to announce it but that might be another beer we’re going to do again (laughs). As of right now, no, not any others. I don’t think any of that is in the works right now but you never know.
Dirtfork: Was that a fun process, getting Joe involved and honoring him? I’m sure he got a chance to taste it and check out the brewery and was involved with it.
Hunger: It was a fantastic process. We invited him and he came over to the brewery and we sat down with him at a table in the pub before it opens and he, before that, had let us know of some of the styles that he liked to drink and was interested in. During that brainstorming period we got some styles that we may have currently had on tap that might’ve fit that and got some commercial examples that were out there. We just hit a bunch of different beers and brainstormed and came up with what we did. He was very much involved, quite a bit. It was fun. It was fun.
Dirtfork: Before I let you go, what’s your favorite Great Lakes beer? If you have one go-to, what is it?
Hunger: Ah, that’s a great question. I don’t really have a favorite, I always tell people that. I’m more of a lager guy. Currently, my go-to over the 20-something years I’ve been here has been Eliot Ness [Amber Lager]. Dortmunder [Gold Lager] has been tasting really good. Stuff like that. When all is said and done, I’ll drink them all — I’ll try them all.