Columbus Brewing Company (CBC), founded in 1988, is one of the pioneers of the craft beer scene in Columbus, Ohio. To learn more, we sat down with Lee Hill, Sales Director, and Emily Bennett, Chain Account Director for CBC, to discuss their impressive IPA catalog and how putting quality first had led them to grow tremendously during the past decade.
Tell me about yourself: What’s your background and how did you become involved with Columbus Brewing?
Emily: I was introduced to the beer industry as a Coors Light girl! I was a Coors Light girl while I was in grad school for education and was actually working as a school counselor and high school soccer coach at the time. My husband and I relocated to Columbus from Indianapolis for his work, and I decided I wanted to transition into the beer industry full-time. At first, I worked for a third-party agency that focused on on-premise management for what was then called the Miller-Coors brand. I then transitioned to the Kroger team for Molson Coors, which was my introduction to the chain management field. After some time, I was approached by CBC, and the rest is history.
Lee: Pretty shortly after college, I told myself I could have a year to figure out what I wanted to do as a career or go back to school and try again. I ended up working as a merchandiser for a beer and wine wholesaler that distributed in both Ohio and Kentucky, and I loved the environment so much. This was in the mid-2000s when craft beer began it’s rise in popularity, and found that I was really passionate for that industry. A job became available for Sierra Nevada as a state-wide sales rep, and I jumped on the opportunity! I was very excited to work on the supplier side of the business, and about five years ago was able to join the CBC sales team. I haven’t looked back since.
What was the first beer you drank?
Emily: My first drink was a Zima with a Jolly Rancher dropped inside the bottle, and I probably had a Natty Light that same night!
Lee: I grew up in western New York, and Canadian beer is much more popular there than it is here in central Ohio. My family always had some kind of Canadian beer in the fridge, so my guess is a Labatt Blue! As far as craft beers go, my first was a Saranac Pale Ale.
Tell me more about Columbus Brewing. When was it founded? How has Columbus Brewing gotten to where it is today?
The brewery started in 1988 under different ownership. The path from then until now – Eric (the current owner) was working at Gordon Biersch for several years when the opportunity came along to become the Brew Master at CBC, but he had bigger aspirations. He sought out from the start to purchase the brewery. Eric started as Columbus Brewing’s Brew Master in 2004, and by 2011 he and Beth (co-owner) were able to purchase the brewery. Under their leadership, CBC has grown from a handful of employees to a team of over 50 people. By putting quality first, we have been able to generate organic growth at an increasing rate – and we’re just getting started!
What’s your all-time favorite Columbus Brewing beer?
Emily: For me, it’s Bodhi. It’s a delicious, high-ABV Double IPA that I love to enjoy during dinner. We make a wide variety of amazing IPAs, so it’s hard to choose just one, but my all-time favorite limited-edition beer we created was a Hazy IPA called El Sabrero, which was made with Sabro hops. Sabro hops are great because it gives the beer a minty, coconutty, tropical finish that is absolutely delightful.
Lee: My favorite would have to be our flagship IPA. Everything that I’ve come to know and love about IPAs is in that beer. It’s piney, citrusy, and perfectly balanced, so it drinks incredibly smooth. You will find that perfect balance in any of the beers we produce, but my absolute favorite would have to be the CBC IPA.
What is Columbus Brewing’s best-selling beer?
Lee: CBC IPA is our best-seller, and it is responsible for more than 50 percent of our business. We recently updated the branding and packaging for Bodhi as well, so that has increased in popularity, but our flagship IPA still reigns.
Columbus is home to a very vibrant and energetic community. How has Columbus Brewing gotten involved with the community in the past?
Lee: In the past, we have been involved with Comfest, which is a city-wide community and arts festival where we’d set up and serve our beer directly to the Columbus community. CBC has been involved with Comfest for years, but, unfortunately, there was no festival last year due to the pandemic. We also love to be involved with local artists – one of which is creating a piece based on one of our beers.
Additionally, during the pandemic and while our taproom was closed, we created some to-go beer events and donated proceeds to the Mid-Ohio Foodbank during a critical time for the non-profit.
We are looking forward to getting more involved with the community this year, safety permitting!
What types of activities would you recommend to someone visiting Columbus for the first time?
Emily: I’m a runner, and we have a ton of metro parks and running trails that all connect to each other. It’s a great city to be out and active in no matter where you go! Also, the Columbus Zoo is world-class, so I highly recommend going to visit – plus they have our beer on tap. Speaking of our beer, if you’re visiting Columbus, you should definitely come by the Columbus Brewing Taproom and relax with a couple of our beers. (The taproom will be reopening soon!) Otherwise, you would be amiss if you did not get to experience an Ohio State Football gameday; the energy felt on those Saturdays by the city as a whole is incomparable.
Where can we find your beer? What is your most successful channel?
Lee: Currently, we are only distributed in the state of Ohio. We are focused on sustainable, organic growth and are continually expanding our reach. We produce about 25,000 barrels per year, and each of our channels performs tremendously well. If you can’t find us somewhere in Ohio, let me or Emily know.
Emily: Nearly 50 percent of our business was through bars and restaurants, but we were very fortunate when the pandemic hit and on-premise business were shut down that we had such good distribution in place that our other channels were able to make up the difference. We’re very excited about our growth, and to reiterate what Lee said – if you can’t find us somewhere in Ohio, you let us know!
What do you see as the next big trend in the craft beer industry?
Lee: As an IPA-focused brewery, we see the next big trend being fruited IPAs. This past year, we released a seasonal citrus IPA that completely exceeded our expectations. Because of this, we will be adding our citrus IPA named Technicolor Hat as one of our year-round offerings. Hazy IPA’s are also doing considerably well in the craft beer market, so this is something we are researching currently – we are very excited to increase our catalog and accommodate these new trends.