By Jamison Cocklin
If there’s one thing Americans can agree on when it comes to celebrating Independence Day, it can be found in the simple tradition of beer.
And as craft beer and microbreweries have surged in popularity in recent years, Youngs-town-based Rust Belt Brewing Co. has seen its fortunes rise with that trend.
Since the company’s debut in 2008, owners Ken Blair, Daniel McCarthy and Nick Rosich have managed to guide their products into new markets throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania. All this from a small brewery located within the historic B&O train station on Mahoning Avenue.
The company just took its next step by signing a contract with the Pennsylvania Brewing Co. to meet the rising demand for beers such as Blast Furnace Blond Ale, Coke Oven Stout and Old Man Hopper’s IPA, among others.
Now, the company will be able to brew more of the same beer at its location in Youngstown while also taking advantage of the Pennsylvania facility to meet its rising sales.
If anything, the timing is perfect. Blair said the first batch of beer brewed in Pennsylvania will hit markets as far away as Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo, where sales are already high, just in time for today, the Fourth of July.
“We actually had to do this to alleviate some of the production stress we were experiencing,” said Blair, as he explained how the company was struggling to meet additional retail orders for the products. “We’re proceeding forward, albeit slower than we anticipated, but we’re moving forward nonetheless.”
Rust Belt’s plans for expansion began last winter, when the brewery unsuccessfully launched a fundraising campaign on kickstarter.com, a website where donations can be made to multiple causes. The company was seeking a total of $30,000 to get started with a contract brewer, but it raised only a total of $1,381.
Recently, the brewery was able to raise its capital and secure the deal with the Pennsylvania Brewing Co.
In addition to the five beers it currently has on the market, the brewery has plans to release a beer called St. Mike’s Double Pale Ale this month, Blair said.
In the fall, Rust Belt will come out with another beer called Imperial Irish Red. The brewery specializes in both session beers and craft beers. Blair said session beers are “easier drinking,” while craft beers typically have a higher alcohol content, typically around 8.5 percent, and more complex flavors.
Rust Belt also has managed to make a successful transition with its bottle sizes. Last winter, the brewery was planning on offering some of its more popular beers in 12-ounce bottles sold in six-packs. At the time, it was selling 22-ounce bottles, known as bombers.
Though the company still sells that option, it now has six-packs on sale for around $8.99. The process is more labor-intensive because of the labeling and boxing required.
During its second year of operation, the brewery produced 400 barrels of beer, and in its third year it jumped to 600 barrels. Blair said he expects the volume output to increase by the end of 2012.
“Once we get the numbers up we’ll look into further expanding,” he said. “But we want to expand the brewery. Contracting with Pennsylvania is a short- to medium-range way to address problems in meeting this demand.
“It’s not a solution,” he added. “You address that with equipment and other means.”
The spike in craft beers on the market is evident in walking through a local grocery store. In 2011, craft brewers sold an estimated 11.4 million barrels of beer, up from 10.1 million barrels in 2010, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group.
What’s more, there were 1,940 craft breweries operated for some, or all, of 2011. There are 1,063 brewpubs, 789 microbreweries and 88 registered craft brewers nationwide.
For Blair, his brewery is about that “all-American” tradition, but more importantly it’s about Youngstown.
“We have no plans to leave Youngstown, Ohio,” he said. “Sometimes when you mention contract brewing, people raise their hands in opposition. This is a hometown brewery, and we’re not going anywhere.”