By Sue Botos
Pat Conway has always been ahead of his time.
When he and his brother Dan founded Great Lakes Brewing Co. in 1988, it was hard to envision the then-blighted neighborhood around the West Side Market as the center for dining and nightlife it is today.
“We found a boarded-up building and the owner wanted to keep it that way,” the Rocky River native told an audience at the Rocky River Chamber of Commerce’s June luncheon at the Cleveland Yachting Club. “But we told him we would be the catalyst for change.”
Conway’s prediction came true as popular eateries and pubs such as the Flying Fig, Bar Cento and the Market Avenue Wine Bar followed, creating today’s oasis in the city.
Known as Ohio’s first craft brewery, as well as a pioneer in the sustainability movement, Great Lakes Brewing Co. cooked up 500 barrels of suds that first year. Last year, it brewed 142,000 barrels.
The second of Marge and Jack Conway’s nine children, Pat Conway said that brewing was not exactly in his blood. “I brewed once in the late ‘60s and it tasted like my socks,” quipped the Irishman. But he became fascinated with the idea of starting his own brewery and brewpub in the early 1970s while attending Loyola University’s campus in Rome.
After graduate school at the University of Chicago, Conway took a tour of Europe, sampling the offerings in small pubs throughout the continent and the British Isles. “When I came back to Cleveland, I looked under breweries in the phone book, and there were none,” Conway recalled, adding that there were about “three dozen” commercial beer makers in the country at that time, compared to about 3,000 and growing today.
After Dan Conway, then a loan officer at Huntington Bank, came on board to handle the “behind the scenes” duties, the brothers found the boarded-up building on Market Street, once the stables for the Schlather Brewery, which manufactured porters, lagers and stouts from 1857 until Prohibition in 1919. “You can’t stay in business when the government outlaws your product,” Pat Conway noted.
As the Conways’ business thrived, it expanded to include four late-19th-century buildings, which Conway said had some storied pasts. There are the famous three bullet holes above the bar, allegedly left by Cleveland’s former safety director, Eliot Ness, when the building was an old city watering hole. (Conway noted that the only proven connection between his family and Ness was that his mother worked as Ness’s stenographer.)
The upper floors of another building were also said to have hosted some other “interesting activities,” with ladies enticing men from the windows.
As he led the craft-brewing movement in the state, Conway also became a trailblazer for his other passion – sustainability.
“Our goal is zero waste. It’s time to think more about sustainability,” he told the audience at the luncheon. For example, he said, byproducts of beer making are repurposed to other businesses such as Mitchell’s Ice Cream for the creation of their products. The brewery’s “Fatty Wagon,” powered by cooking oil waste, transports people to sporting events around town, and a radiant heat fireplace warms the Beer Garden during cold weather, making it useful year-round. At the upcoming Burning River Fest, July 25-26, don’t look for bottled water. Conway said reusable cups will be available for those seeking refreshment.
Noting that his product is 90 percent water (the commercial stuff, according to Conway, is 99 percent), he stressed the importance of conserving Lake Erie. “This is our Yosemite,” he stated.
While a wee bit of “luck of the Irish” may help, Conway said, it’s the “triple bottom line” of social, financial and environmental awareness among employees that supports the company’s success. “It’s not perfect, but it’s incredible what shared values can do,” he stated.