Drinkers and their education

Tony Lange

Beer school attracts crowd to downtown Great Lakes brewery

Credit: DKS Editors

A half hour after sunset, a tall, slender man wearing dress pants and sneakers leads 22 beer drinkers across West 26th Street in downtown Cleveland.

Stopping in a company parking lot, he talks about the three white, cylindrical structures everybody is staring at. They tower over the plant.

“The silos contain barley and malt, 50,000 pounds each when they’re filled,” says Terry Ryan, a Great Lakes Brewing Company expert tour and tasting guide.

Founded in 1988 by brothers Daniel and Patrick Conway, the Great Lakes Brewing Co. became Ohio’s first microbrewery.

Offered on the first and third Wednesdays of most months, the company’s beer school provides an extensive brewery tour and tasting of a variety of brews.

Ben Conklin and Keith Anderson, Cleveland-area cousins who brew beer at home, signed up for the class to explore new techniques, understand the intricacies of different beers and, of course, drink them.

“It’s always fun to get other people’s perspective on how they brew,” Anderson says. “Also, it’s always just fun to sample other people’s beers as well.”

Inside the brewery, moments after gripping their jackets while in a cooler room stocked with hundreds of cases of Christmas Ale, Ryan’s students arrive at a much warmer room. It’s occupied with hundreds of Cargill Malt bags, roughly 10 tons total, and the aroma of cinnamon sticks.

Ryan asks who could name the three basic ingredients in beer. Water, barley and hops, he counts out on his fingers.

“I told the cops one night that Great Lakes beer is 90 percent water. That’s true,” Ryan says. “Budweiser is about 100 percent. And Bud Light is at 110. That was a good night.”

Ryan’s humor adds a few laughs to his presentation. However, his experience with good beer is a bit more serious.

While serving in the military, he spent 20 months in Germany from 1966 to 1968, becoming acquainted with what he calls real beer – the kind they brewed in the United States before prohibition, he says.

“We’re brewing it like how the breweries were in the United States prior to prohibition – more full-flavored, more full-bodied, obviously higher alcohol,” Ryan says. “Most people who drink our beer try to appreciate the different styles, complexities and ingredients.”

Although some may consider yeast a fourth ingredient, Ryan considers it a component used during the fermentation process. The type of yeast used determines whether the beer will be a lager or ale, he says.

Lagers are yielded from a bottom-fermenting process that takes about a week. Ales are top-fermenting, taking about three or four days to mature. They ferment at higher temperatures compared to lagers, Ryan says.

Meanwhile, he stands on the slippery concrete floor in the lower-level tank farm, which he describes as the heart and soul of the operation.

Here, stainless steel pipes wrap around like a maze. Conical tanks, or fermenters, where the aging and condition take place, and cylindrical tanks, called bright tanks, where the beer is stored between filtering and packing, fill the tank farm. And with its new automatic kegging system from Germany, the GLBC can package 62 kegs an hour, Ryan says.

During the final phase of beer school, the tasting, Ryan’s class sits around tables and nibbles on pretzels in a secluded area of the brewery, adjacent to the brew house, where they earlier saw the beer being brewed before being cooled and sent to the fermenter.

Erika Lance, Ryan’s beer school assistant, prepares each sample from behind a vacant bar. The first, Dortmunder Gold Lager, is a year-round special. Ryan briefly taps into the history of its name, ingredients and style. For each brew, Ryan also mentions the gravity, or level of fermentation, alcohol percentage and bitterness, measured by an International Bitterness Units scale.

“For a smooth beer, you want the temperature of your glass to be the same as the beer. If too cold, the hops take over,” Ryan says. “You want to pour in the center of the glass to release carbon dioxide. The ideal shape of glass is a tulip shape.”

After sampling the Eliot Ness and Burning River, the volume in the room is much louder than before. The fourth brew, Ryan will also sample. It’s his favorite. He takes a gulp of it, slowly swallowing and then clenching his teeth before releasing an exhale heard across the room.

“It’s actually as good as it was earlier today,” he says of the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter.

While sipping on the Commodore Perry India Pale Ale and the Glockenspiel at a table with his cousin, Conklin now knows where the store shelves get the beer, he says.

“To see it here and the people that manufacture it, it’s just amazing,” Conklin says.

Conklin’s cousin, now wetting his lips with the final sample of the night, Nosferatu, is in a state of euphoria. The Nosferatu is Anderson’s favorite brew, and he only drinks it once a year. He said he doesn’t want to spoil the flavor by drinking it more often.

Carefully tilting the cup toward his mouth, he takes another small swig.

Contact features correspondent Tony Lange at [email protected]


&bull Must be 21 to attend

&bull Costs $25 per person

&bull Call 216.771.4404, ext. 222

&bull Visit greatlakesbrewing.com

&bull Visit the brewery 2516 Market Ave. in Cleveland