A look at their growing production facility inside a historic 136 year old building
Deep within the bowels of the former Leisy Brewing Co. building on Vega Avenue in an industrial corner of Cleveland, sit roughly 250 barrels that partially hold the key to the future for Platform Beer Co. The four year old Cleveland brewery has experienced amazing growth in its short existence, but co-founder Paul Benner believes they are just getting started, and that their best days are still ahead of them.
Benner and co-founder Justin Carson started Platform in 2014. Pre-dating Platform is The Cleveland Brew Shop, a homebrew store Benner opened in 2012. Making beer has always been in the Suffield, Ohio born, 2001 Baldwin-Wallace College grad’s blood. With strong ties to the home brew community, Benner and Carson originally sought to provide a platform (hence the name) for other brewers to learn on a commercial system and eventually launch their own breweries. Two brewers went through their apprenticeship type program, one of which (Kyle Roth) is now in the industry himself, having briefly dabbled with opening Ferndock Brewing in Sandusky, then becoming the head brewer for the short lived Leaking Boot Brew Co in Sandusky. The other, WestEast Brewing, never got off the ground.
Benner and Carson quickly saw demand for their own brands and when they could barely keep up on their 3 barrel system in their Ohio City taproom, the brewery incubator business model was essentially scrapped. The brewers have seen nothing but a sharp upward trajectory for their business since. They expanded from that 3 bbl system and bought the old Leisy Building for “less money than I paid for my house”, said Benner. Buying the building, part of a complex that once stretched several city blocks and churned out 700,000 barrels of beer in the hey day of Leisy Brewing before Prohibition, was part of Benner’s commitment to honoring Cleveland’s brewing past. “We could have built new, but buildings like this…. THIS is Cleveland to me. The insides needed a lot of work…. but the shell of this building is built like a tank and has everything we need.”
Soon after moving in and sandblasting walls and cleaning some things up, they were brewing on two vessel, 10 barrel system, then eventually a 3 vessel, 60 barrel system. They produced 7,700 barrels of beer in 2016, 19,000 in 2017, and are on course to turn out 35,000 in 2018. Next week they will take delivery on several 100bbl fermenters. They have opened a 5,500 sq ft taproom in Columbus, and soon will open a 2,000 sq ft “coffee shop in the morning, brewery in the evening” in Cincinnati’s Over The Rhine district. They have won awards for their beers at The Great American Beer Festival, and more recently at The World Beer Cup.
Despite the accolades and growth (they were recently named the 35th fastest growing brewery by the Brewers Association industry trade group), Platform has not been without its detractors. While Benner says their entrance into new markets like Columbus, Indiana, Philadelphia, and New York has been nothing but positive, their relationship with their home market has been rocky at times…. Unlike current darling of the Cleveland beer scene Masthead, it seems people either love them or hate them. There are folks who love Platform’s constant innovation and cranking out new beers weekly, while others bemoan the practice and wish they would hone in on a few key recipes and perfect those. Platform truly has only two key beers they consider “flagship beers”, their New Cleveland Palesner (a pale ale / Pilsner hybrid), and their Speed Merchant white IPA. Those two account for roughly 45% of their sales. The rest is all the one offs they seemingly flood the market with on a regular basis.
At his core, Benner still fancies himself a home brewer. He says his philosophy since they started to brew professionally is the way they would brew if they were still home brewing, which was to rarely make the same beer twice. Home brewers are always experimenting, always tinkering. Platform wants to be on the cutting edge and keep producing beers that are on trend. “Locally, our breweries always seem to be two or three steps behind the markets on the coasts. Our local breweries are just now starting to make a lot of the New England hazy IPAs that have been brewed elsewhere for several years. On the west coast they are already onto the next trend in IPA…. and we’re gonna make one of those soon too. Hell yeah, we’re gonna make one.”
Quality and consistency has also been something the local community has been critical of with Platform. Benner wants his detractors to know that they aren’t changing their business model and will continue to churn out new beers at a dizzying rate, but they are firmly committed to quality. Eighteen months ago he made what he believes is one of his best hires, microbiologist Maria Iannucci as his Director of Quality Control. She also happens to be an avid home brewer herself. Initially she was part time, like many who started at Platform, which numbers roughly 80 employees statewide. Now she is full time and has a part time assistant herself, and a lab that both Benner and Iannucci believes is one of the best in Cleveland. Only Great Lakes and Market Garden have anything close to it, they say. Their commitment to quality is real and the number of tests they do on their beers before they hit the shelf, as well as the amount of money invested in QC equipment is a testament to that.
That being said, does a product that doesn’t meet their standards occasionally slip through? Certainly, but they say they stand by their product and will make it right when it’s wrong, such as last week when they discovered a sealing issue with one of their canners which resulted in several cans of their latest canned NEIPA becoming oxidized. They will replace those free of charge. Benner is the face of their social media. He knows they have detractors and while he knows he will not be able to win everyone back, is committed to continual improvement. Attached to his phone, he answers all email concerns at Paul@platformbeerco.com. Incidentally, changes have already been made to the canner, and go forward they plan to only can kettle sours and stouts in 16 oz cans and will keep the IPAs in 12 oz cans.
As Platform continues to grow, Benner says they continue to put money right back into the business. He has big plans for the Leisy building. A large third floor room he hopes to eventually open to the public as an events room, and there are plans for a rooftop patio. The roof top over looks the interstate, and there is great energy from the cars speeding by as well as fantastic views of the Cleveland skyline in the distance. Tours of the building are planned, but sprinkler systems need to be upgraded before it can be opened to the public. They also keep putting money into more and better equipment for quality control.
They also plan to continue to innovate and put out the most unique product they can. “We’re not re-inventing the wheel here,” Benner says matter of factly. “At the same time, we try to be super aware of the market and what people want.” He says they have a tasting panel that meets weekly. They blind taste a lot of their own test beers, and they also sample competitors beers to understand what type of product they are putting out. Knowing that some palettes can be swayed by what others are saying (one taster can pick up notes of mango in an IPA for example, and if they say that out loud, someone else may say “oh yeah, I get that too” when maybe they really don’t), tasters enter their flavor perceptions through an app and the findings are compiled. Beers the panel as whole enjoy may move into production, while others may never see the light of day.
The barrel aged program in particular is really just beginning. While Platform has released several barrel aged beers (mostly stouts) over the last 12 months, including Where The Sky Ends, High River, and Don’t Swim Alone, a Berliner aged in wine barrels with cacao nibs, there are much bigger plans, as the 250+ barrels in the basement of the building would attest. They have maple bourbon barrels, gin barrels, cognac, brandy, Sherry, and more. On this day we got to sample a gin barrel aged lager that was fantastic.
A separate sour beer facility is also currently under construction inside another old building and has been dubbed Platform Phunkenship. A large coolship has already been purchased and several beers have already been made and transferred to barrels where they will sit for 18 months or longer. There are plans for that building to have a separate taproom which will be open on Fridays and Saturdays only, and for beers to be bottled and distributed.
The future is bright for Platform, and Paul Benner and his passionate team believe things will only get better. They know mistakes have been made in the past. Most breweries that have only been open three or four years have made a mistake or two, and no one is immune to the growing pains that come with owning and operating a brewery. Heck, even established breweries with bigger reputations than Platform are not immune. Respected breweries like Jackie O’s, Goose Island, Revolution, and Left Hand have all had quality issues over the last two or three years and have taken PR hits as a result. But just like those breweries, Benner believes you own your mistakes and do whatever it is you can to make it right for the people who have bought a beer that didn’t live up to their expectations. The emphasis on quality control that he has made with the hiring of Iannucci and the continual upgrading of equipment is proof of that.
Platform Beer Co. is located at 4125 Lorain Avenue in Ohio City in Cleveland. Their production facility is located at 3506 Vega Avenue and is not yet open to the public for tours, though they hope to be at some point in the future. Platform Columbus is located at 408 North 6th Street in Columbus, Ohio.