President Jimmy Carter signs bill relaxing laws surrounding homebrewing.
Grunge music reverberated off metal tanks and walls as Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery, stepped through the company’s 13,000 square-foot manufacturing facility on Athens’ east side.
Clad in work-worn khakis and a green and white beanie, Oestrike ascended a flight of stairs and ultimately plopped comfortably into a chair in a high-ceilinged, second-story conference room. He reflected on the years since 2005, when he first opened Jackie O’s Brewpub.
“It’s just been a wild ride,” Oestrike said. “There’s no way in hell that, 12 years ago or 13 years ago, you’d say we’d be sitting in this conference room up above, in this nice new building — that we’d be doing this through craft beer.”
Carl Fonticella | PHOTO EDITOR
Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O's, poses for a portrait in the Jackie O's Taproom at 25 Campbell Street.
But it’s true. Jackie O’s — which, in its early years, pumped out as few as 400 barrels of beer from its uptown brewpub — now produces more than 10,000 barrels annually at the Campbell Street facility that opened in 2012.
“I get asked that question a lot: ‘Did you ever think?’ No, no, not a chance. It’s just, it’s crazy that—” Oestrike’s cell phone rang. He paused to silence it. “There’s a lot of phone calls. A lot of luck. A lot of timeliness. A lot of gambling, like a lot of rolling of the dice, throughout the years.”
That first roll of the dice came in 2005 when Brad Clark, then an Ohio University student, told Oestrike he should buy the brewpub at which Clark was a bartender, O’Hooley’s Irish Pub. Oestrike did just that, and, just months later, a freshly-minted Jackie O’s Brewpub fermented its first batch of the brewery’s flagship beer, Firefly Amber.
Since then, Athens County has seen the emergence of an outsized craft beer scene. Spurred by demand for locally produced goods and helped along by changes in state laws, at least five breweries now call Athens County home — a boom that came about in tandem with statewide craft beer growth.
Athens might have President Jimmy Carter to thank for its wealth of breweries.
In 1978, Carter signed into law HR 1337, which loosened post-prohibition brewing regulations and allowed those with an interest in making their own beer to do so.
“We always talk about what’s happened in law Ohio recently, but if you do look back that’s probably what laid the groundwork for the development of what we’re seeing now,” Kevin Connell, an attorney with Ohio Beer Counsel, said.
It squares with the local story: both Jackie O’s Brad Clark and Devil’s Kettle’s Cameron Fuller got their starts in homebrewing.
Data on the opening of breweries nationwide seem to bolster that argument. In the late 1970s, the U.S. laid claim to under 100 breweries, according to the Brewers Association. By 1990, that number was up to 284. And in 1995 — the year O’Hooley’s, the brewpub that later became Jackie O’s, opened — the count climbed to 858.
Rapid growth continued until the late 1990s, then stagnated and even declined slightly. When Oestrike bought O’Hooley’s in 2005, there were 1,447 breweries in the U.S., and still just one in Athens.
Another six years passed before the state of Ohio lent a helping hand to its burgeoning craft beer market. In 2011, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed HB 243, which brought taprooms into existence in the state.
“Really, I think that opened the floodgates,” Connell said of the law. “Craft beer I think was bubbling up from the ground up earlier than that, but I think in terms of its growth in Ohio and explosive growth since 2011, that’s really the impetus for it was change in the law.”
It’s especially important in a place like Athens, where liquor licenses — which, in Ohio, are capped based on population — can be hard to come by. More legislation eased would-be brewers into taking the plunge in 2013, when the state created a separate license for small-scale brewers that is cheaper to obtain than a standard license.
“Within a one or two year span, the state really turned the law on its head to the benefit of craft breweries,” Adam Armstrong, attorney at Ohio Beer Counsel, said. “It took the shackles off and made it cheaper to take that passion and they were doing as homebrewers — most of them — and turn it into a legitimate and thriving business.”
President Jimmy Carter signs bill relaxing laws surrounding homebrewing.
Athens resident Jimmy Prouty opens O’Hooley’s Irish Pub, Athens’ first brewpub.
Art Oestrike purchases O’Hooley’s and renames it Jackie O’s.
Ohio changes law to allow taprooms, where brewers can sell their beer on-site without a liquor license.
Jackie O’s opens Campbell St. taproom.
Ohio legislators create separate and cheaper license for small-scale brewers.
Devil’s Kettle and Little Fish Brewing open in Athens.
Eclipse Company Store and Multiple Brewing open outside of Athens.
Since the passage of that legislation, Athens’ craft beer scene has matured.
The co-owners of Little Fish Brewing Company, Jimmy Stockwell and Sean White, began planning for their operation in 2013 and ultimately opened in 2015, not long after the opening of Devil’s Kettle.
“Beer seemed like a really good opportunity,” Stockwell said of why he and White started Little Fish. “It matched, certainly Sean’s skillset — that’s what he did professionally — but also with me, having worked in like a biotech manufacturing facility, there was some overlap in just sort of how business works.”
“Athens is a very locally centered, locally minded community which has definitely helped support all of us as craft breweries.”- Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery
Stockwell spent eight years working for biotech company Quidel in research and development; White previously worked as a brewer for Jackie O’s.
“So when we got together, we saw a lot of opportunity to just get something for the community, something we could be proud of, fill a niche and do something that we could do well,” Stockwell said.
He and White are both Athens natives, a fact Stockwell said helps Little Fish mesh with the community, one with a reputation for supporting locally owned businesses.
“Athens is a very locally centered, locally minded community which has definitely helped support all of us as craft breweries,” Oestrike said. “No doubt, there’s something in the water — there’s something in the air.”
Since Little Fish and Devil’s Kettle opened in 2015, local beer has seen even more growth. Multiple Brewing began serving up both American-style ales and India pale ales, or IPAs, in Nelsonville in 2016. The same year saw the opening of the Eclipse Company Store, a craft beer hall, in The Plains.
Justin Hemminger, communications manager for the Ohio Craft Beer Association, said the growth of Athens’ beer scene was certainly spearheaded by Jackie O’s, but there also seems to be an unusually strong demand for craft beer in the city.
“It just means that the beer drinkers in Athens are more receptive to having places like Little Fish and Devil's Kettle,” Hemminger said.
There has been talk about whether the market for craft beer locally and nationally is getting crowded.
It’s something Stockwell and White considered even before opening Little Fish in 2015.
“I think most people were wondering whether or not the market was saturated, so that’s really what we addressed before starting,” Stockwell said. “And clearly, it wasn’t.”
Things certainly haven’t been slow at Little Fish’s machine-shop-turned taproom on Armitage Road in Athens. The two are close to breaking ground on an expansion that will allow them to up their production — the brewery pumped out about 600 barrels last year. Speaking at the taproom in early February, Stockwell said he hadn’t had a day off in a month.
Still, the picture nationally is showing some signs of slowing down.
“At a certain point, the craft beer scene is and or will be saturated, and you’ll start to see those numbers drop or fewer openings,” Oestrike said. “We’ve been on really astronomical growth in the past few years, and, at some point, the market will correct itself.”
Since Jackie O’s opened in 2005, the number of breweries in the U.S. has grown from 1,447 to 5,301 in 2016. Hemminger estimated that five years ago there were under 50 craft brewers in Ohio — now the state is home to more than 250. He thinks that fears of a bubble are overdone, though.
“I certainly think they’re overblown,” Hemminger said of worries of saturation. “Craft beer still only occupies about 12 percent of the beer market, so I think there’s still room for growth.”
Stockwell said Little Fish doesn’t have plans for expansion beyond its current ones — it looks to stay small.
Oestrike said Jackie O’s only recently has been able to fully keep up with the demand for its product and is now taking time to tweak processes and do what it sets out to do: make good beer.
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