Brewing business on tap at B&O Craft-beer maker to put city brew on tap

By Guy D’Astolfo

Ken Blair focuses on making craft beers at the downtown landmark — not on operating a brewpub.

YOUNGSTOWN — Ken Blair is bringing beer-making back to Youngstown.

The Youngstown police officer will launch Rust Belt Brewing Co., a small-capacity, craft-beer company, in the next few weeks in the B&O Station building. Distribution plans are already in place, so the beer should be in area bars and retail outlets soon after.

Blair is in the process of making minor structural changes in his leased space as required by the state, in order to obtain a license.

Youngstown has been home to several breweries in its history, including Smith Brewing in the late 1800s, Youngstown Brewing in the early 1900s and, most famously, Renner Brewing, which began in the late 1800s and closed in 1962. More recently, B&O Station Brewing, a craft-beer maker, was located on the site of Rust Belt Brewing until it closed in 2004.

Blair appreciates a well-made brew. His love for the fermented beverage bloomed in the ’90s while he was stationed in Germany with the Army.

When Blair returned to the states in 1996, he brought with him his newly acquired taste for the high-quality beer of Germany. He settled in Youngstown where he became a police officer and took up home-brewing as a hobby.

He got kind of good at it. Now he’s taking the next step.

“When I first started thinking about starting a brewing company, I talked it over with people,” he said during an interview in front of the fermentation tanks at his B&O Station site. He got encouragement from his friends, including Nick Rosch, who is a brewmaster at Penn Brewing in Pittsburgh. “Nick said, ‘If you can brew beer this good in your house, you can do it in a bigger environment.’ It’s actually easier in a brewery, because it’s a more controlled environment and there’s less chance of spoilage.”

Blair is leasing half of the ground floor of the B&O Station, including the same brewing equipment that has been in place since Ohio Brewing Co. — which owned B&O Station Brewing — closed. He’ll be using the same 10-barrel capacity brewing system (one barrel equals 31 gallons).

Blair made it clear that he is a first and foremost a beer-maker and is not interested in opening a brewpub. He will occasionally open the bar-restaurant portion of the B&O on a rental basis and provide live music — and beer — for an adult crowd. But the risk involved in such a venture makes it an option he’s not focusing on, at least not initially.

Brewpubs were once all the rage, and the Youngstown area had a few, including B&O Station Brewing. But Blair doesn’t want to depend on the failure-prone restaurant business to keep his venture going. “The demographics aren’t here right now to support a brew pub,” he said.

Instead, Blair plans to take advantage of the rapidly growing craft-beer market.

He has contracted with Ohio Wine, a wholesale distributor, to get his bottled brews in stores, and has also obtained agreements from quite a few bars to reserve a tap for his draught beer. He mentioned the Boxcar Lounge, the Royal Oaks, University Pizzeria and the Draught House in Youngstown, and Quaker Steak and Lube and Barry Dyngle’s in Austintown.

“My business model would be Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland, or Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware,” he said.

The first brew scheduled to pour from his tanks will be Rusty River Irish Red, a full-bodied beer with the sediment left in. “The sediment will give it a nostalgia, and it’s actually good for you,” said Blair. “There are nutrients in it.”

Future products will include stouts, blond ales and India pale ales, as well as seasonal brews.

His long-term goal is to convert the whole building into a brewery and increase capacity.

Blair, a California native, is a busy man. He’s the father of two teenagers, with another baby on the way. His wife, Jillian, works in Maryland, and he does a lot of traveling to see her. He is a full-time Youngstown police officer and is also studying information systems at Youngstown State University.

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