One afternoon in the mid-1990s, Great Lakes Brewing Co. co-owners and brothers Pat and Dan Conway were sputtering south along Interstate 77 in their maroon station wagon with a half-dozen cases of Christmas Ale rattled in the back seat.
The Conways were on a delivery to Akron’s West Point Market, the company’s very first retailer. Pat, who often speaks in anecdotes, is the oldest of five boys and the company’s front man, while the more exacting Dan is the youngest and more inclined to be crunching numbers.
Suddenly, red and blue lights illuminated the grey Cleveland sky. The brothers, who hadn’t been speeding or swerving, were baffled as to why a police officer was pulling them over. But the scene only got stranger.
“He commandeered us!” says Pat. “He jumped out and said, ‘I gotta have that Christmas Ale.’”
The officer, who owned a corner store on the side, had noticed the cases of Christmas Ale in the Conways’ back seat — and he wanted his shelves stocked with the hard-to-get beer.
Today, Christmas Ale is as ingrained in Cleveland’s holiday season as the tree lighting ceremony in Public Square. That 12-ounce bottle, with its iconic train car full of red ornaments, is a centerpiece at gatherings of all sorts and a first holiday drink shared between a father and son. Heck, the annual First Pour event, where the first keg of the beer is tapped, practically marks the start of the holiday season.
But the numbers speak for themselves: In 1992, the beer’s first season, less than a thousand barrels of Christmas Ale were sold. This year, the Conways expect to distribute 23,000 barrels across Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo and beyond.
“We’re not the Christmas Ale company, but sometimes it feels like we are,” says Pat.
It all began back in college. Both brothers studied abroad while at Loyola University Chicago. Pat remembers meandering the medieval streets of Prague and drinking Pilsner-style beer, while Dan was charmed by the hot, spiced gluhwein he sipped in snowy Alpine villages.
“I remember thinking they really had something there that matched the season,” Dan says. “You need something warming.”
Then, while attending graduate school at the University of Chicago, Pat worked as a bartender and saw the beer he’d loved in Europe beginning to gain traction in the United States. “I think,” he told his brother, “it’s time for us to build our own brewery.”
Once fertile ground, Cleveland had become a beer desert by the time the Conways returned from Europe. The city’s last locally owned beer maker, C. Schmidt & Sons Brewery, had shuttered in 1986, the result of a recession and shifting tastes that decimated the local brewery scene. “It brought to an end 150 years of brewing in Cleveland,” Dan says.
So when Great Lakes Brewing Co. opened in 1988 in not-yet-chic Ohio City, it was the only microbrewery both in the city and in Ohio.
The Conways recruited Schmidt’s master brewer, Thaine Johnson, to help them launch their beer program. Johnson was a disciple of the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which dictates that “nothing other than barley, hops, yeast and water be used” to brew. Johnson’s love of lager led to the Heisman, now known as the top-selling Dortmunder Gold Lager.
By the 1990s, however, the brothers wanted more than just gold medal-winning lagers and hired Dennis Holland, who’d just graduated from the Siebel Institute of Technology’s World Brewing Academy.
Holland, the company’s first technically trained brewer, was a beer nerd who took frequent trips to the West Coast. There, he was inspired by beer makers who were shirking the confinements of the Bavarian Purity Law. He began experimenting with early iterations of the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Burning River Pale Ale and Commodore Perry IPA, all of which would lay the groundwork for Christmas Ale.