They grow up so fast.
Though they only appeared on the Cincinnati brewing scene in 2013, MadTree Brewing Company is nearing completion on its second brewery and taproom. The new and gigantic space will revitalize a long-abandoned property in the city’s Oakley neighborhood and transform MadTree’s engagement with both Cincinnati and the wider Midwest.
People and Social Strategy Director Mike Stuart generously offered me a tour of MadTree 2.0, still under construction but on schedule for its official opening this February 11th. I’ve seen my share of brewing-in-progress before, but never a brewery-in-progress, so I took this opportunity to reflect on what an initiative like this really means in the craft beer world.
With 2.0, MadTree’s brewing capacity will eventually grow to 180,000 barrels a year or more, leapfrogging from a 15 barrel system to a 120+ barrel system. But expanding a brewery carries a weight that isn’t just measured in fermentation tanks. Growth like this means tough questions about what a brewer wants to accomplish, and for whom. Mike showed me the wonders MadTree has in store, and along the way we shot the breeze about MadTree’s continually developing identity.
The Brewing Space
Yep, that’s an airplane hanger.
It’s hard to overstate the contrast between the old brewing space (we’ll call it ‘cozy’) and this homage to Brown Stadium, which is going to feed MadTree’s ambitions for years to come. The choices made inside this space most reflect what MadTree hopes to accomplish outside of it, and what I see is a declaration about progress, accessibility, and visibility.
For one thing, there’s built-in flexibility. Those massive rear doors (see above) were specifically designed to facilitate the future installation of more brewing equipment. This is in part to get the brewery up to that 180k mark (it won’t start operations near that level), but it could very well go beyond that if MadTree chooses. It recognizes high potential while retaining the option to grow slowly and organically.
Add a few other things into the mix, like a vastly expanded R & D lab and a new Krones canning system, and the shift in mentality becomes clear—MadTree 2.0 isn’t just another roof to house more tanks for the same old beer. They’ve put their idiosyncratic twists, like centrifuges, into a state-of-the-art brewing system. It’s no longer about establishing a foothold in Cincinnati’s brewing community, but rather capitalizing on one.
Another clear factor is accessibility. MadTree’s devotees have never had to watch the magic happen at a distance or through glass, and that’s not going to change. Taproom visitors will be able to observe the brewing process from either ground level or a second story overlook. If that’s still not enough, they can take a tour.
Aesthetics must have been hard to accomplish at the original location. When they first bought the place, public access couldn’t have been a high priority since taprooms weren’t allowed. Now that they have the means and control, they want to project their accessibility outward, too. The tanks by the huge forward windows will be professionally lit at night. I can’t help but picture wraps on them, like the PsycHOPathy wrap on their current grain silo.
And let’s not pretend the whole early-20th-century-flight-hanger thing isn’t a giant metaphor for progress. Mike told me that a major goal of this expansion is to transform MadTree into a household name in Midwestern beer. First they’ll fill out distribution in Ohio and Kentucky, then they’ll explore other regional options. They’re using those massive hanger windows to look forward and outward, and I have my fingers crossed that Indiana’s next in line.
Taproom and Beer Garden
If the original MadTree taproom was an unexpected surprise, 2.0 is going to be the exact opposite. There’s ten thousand square feet to explore in the beer garden, and that’s before having to step through the doors.
The beer garden will blend indoor and outdoor space, both with partial awnings and with tall garage doors which can be open all summer (but are thankfully closed during chilly January tours). They’re reminiscent of the doors at the recently opened Queen City Radio downtown, which should be put to good use once the weather permits.
The bar at 2.0 straddles the taproom and beer garden spaces, and will sport dedicated lines pumping MadTree’s core beers straight from the brewery (i.e. the freshest PsycHOPathy and Lift without onerous keg changes).
The bar’s design will also usher that open feeling inside, to the taproom. More garage-style windows opposite the beer garden side will generate a pleasant cross-breeze on warm days. Unfortunately, I was too early to get any real idea of the seating arrangements, but MadTree fans can expect a long, straight bar similar to the current taproom, a large carryout/merchandise kiosk, and the aforementioned brewery viewing areas.
The high ceilings, columns, and industrial motif are all carried over into the separate event space, which I’m told has already received booking requests. Once completed, its defining feature will be the stacks of aging barrels lining the walls. A second event space will be over twice the size, but I wasn’t able to see it this time around.
Put together, these areas will do almost as much to forge MadTree’s identity in the craft community as the beer. Whether it’s the overhead grating where patrons throw crumpled dollars for charity, or hosting high-profile community events, its public areas will symbolize how MadTree engages with Cincinnati and beyond. Mike characterized MadTree’s efforts as an attempt to continue the public connections that Cincinnati brewing has cultivated since the 1850s, when beer gardens were hyper-localized family affairs that allowed producers and consumers to exchange ideas, not just money (they later became hubs of political corruption, but hey, MadTree isn’t going for 100% historical accuracy here).
The Deeper Meaning
Let’s not get too florid here. MadTree’s expansion is a major business endeavor designed to make money. But that’s the beginning, not the end, of a vital discussion that takes place regularly in craft beer. Breweries want to grow, but to what end? On whose taps, which store shelves, and in whose stomachs do they want their beer to end up?
This isn’t a flippant question and it doesn’t always have an easy answer like wanting PsycHOPathy to become the next Bud Light. Deciding where to go and what to do can place a brewery at a difficult crossroads, and a move like MadTree’s isn’t possible without some soul searching.
These considerations are important for consumers as well as the brewery. An expansion like this is large enough to potentially make MadTree the largest Ohio-based brewer (though Great Lakes may retain that title). Even if they’re not, they’ll land in the top 2-3% of brewers nationwide. Very few breweries get this big, and MadTree will likely be the first Cincinnati firm to crack 100,000 barrels since the pre-Prohibition days of Christian Moerlein Brewing.
Speaking with Mike left me with some definite impressions. First, MadTree’s ideals have ridden shotgun through this entire process. They’re confronting the important questions even if they haven’t figured out every last detail. They’re ensuring that the transition to a bigger system won’t compromise beer quality. They’re considering how they’ll reconcile their past community focus with an increased distribution footprint. They’re attentive to how a larger work environment might affect employee cohesion. And it certainly isn’t lost of them that their growth will shift their position and influence in craft beer’s national consciousness.
Second, MadTree seeks outward success through inward integrity. They’d rather produce less volume at high quality than have their beer linger on shelves past its prime. They want solid beer over gimmicky recipes (*cough* watermelon *cough*). They’ll brew first and market second.
Third, MadTree is a prime example of how just about every brewery will approach the prospect of expansion a little differently. I was told MadTree’s long term goal is to be a regional, community-focused presence, not a national one. Rather than distribute in 40-whatever states like Founders, or jet off to Australian and German shelves like Stone, MadTree’s focused on the Midwest. They want to be “the most respected brewer in the region” (to use Mike’s phrasing) and build community relationships as they expand, rather than simply project Cincinnati influence.
I’m reminded of New Glarus’ diehard “Only in Wisconsin” mentality, and that success in craft beer can mean many things. Brewery expansions therefore contribute without words to an important conversation about what exactly craft beer is. It’s not enough to just talk about percentages of ownership and barrel capacity. There’s another side to it—something nebulous, guttural, and luckily quaffable.