The Ohio Craft Brewers Association based in Columbus will host Winter Warmer Fest the first weekend of March. The event showcases winter, seasonal, limited edition and high-gravity beers made by Ohio craft breweries.

Clevelanders appreciate the opportunity to sample beer from more than 60 Ohio-based breweries at Winter Warmer Fest.

By RITA KUEBER
The first weekend in March is a Cleveland beer lover’s dream and has been for the better part of more than fifteen years. The first week of March is the Winter Warmer Fest, a showcase of seasonal and limited edition beers created by members of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. On Warmer’s Eve, Friday, March 1, a slightly more intimate event than the Fest itself, attendees will get exclusive first tastes of show-stopping beers from 20 of the festival’s most popular breweries as well as a selection of hors d’oeuvres, cheeses, and crudités.
The fest continues on Saturday, March 2 with more than 60 Ohio-based breweries. Dubbed the 17th annual Fest, general admission ticket holders receive a souvenir glass and tasting tickets for 20 four-ounce samples. Tickets for designated drivers are available as well. Instead of snacks, to save room for the beer, food trucks are available outside the venue. There will also be a cask garden outside on Saturday with 12 to 15 specially infused, unique beers, available only at the event. And note that the Saturday event tends to sell out.
Justin Hemminger is the deputy director of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. The nonprofit industry-supporting organization is based in Columbus but has members from brewers to enthusiasts all over the state. “We’ve been holding this at Windows on the River for years,” Hemminger states. “The venue is as much a part of the experience as the beers by now. We only have space for 60, maybe 70 breweries, as many as we can fit in.”
According to Clevelandhistorical.org, Cleveland has been a beer town since its earliest days. (Cleveland was founded in 1796. Ohio became a state in 1803.) In the 1840s, twenty years before the Civil War, German and Bohemian immigrants brought a taste for lager beer, which was very different from English-based ale. By 1900 there were over 20 breweries in the city. But by 1939, after Prohibition’s repeal, only nine breweries were left. Mergers, expansions, hard times, and consolidations all proved to cancel the city’s brewery history.
But then in 1988, brothers Patrick and Daniel Conway founded Great Lakes Brewery, reintroducing beer brewing to Cleveland. Locals were hooked and today, according to Forbes, there are over forty breweries in the Northeast Ohio area. So many in fact, Cleveland may become the next destination for discerning beer drinkers from all over the country.
Hemminger indicates that Ohio now has 434 breweries, and 340 of them are members of the Ohio Craft Brewers Association. “Craft beer is defined by two things,” Hemminger says. “First is the amount of beer made. By definition, the brewer must make fewer than six million barrels a year, but most make considerably less – closer to 500 to 1000 barrels a year. The other criterion is ownership of the business. A craft brewery needs to be independently owned by someone who makes fewer than six million barrels per year. So large conglomerates don’t qualify for membership. “In Ohio, he adds, craft brewers also have the right to serve their brew in a taproom on the premises, and also have the right to self-distribute to retail stores, bars, and bottle shops, and also have the option to contract with a wholesale distributor.
“We’ve seen the industry grow and mature,” Hemminger says. “Now there are breweries all over the state in big cities and tiny towns. These brewers are serving their community; it’s more than just products on the shelf. Beer is integrated into people’s lives, and craft beer is no longer the niche it was ten years ago. Now it’s a mainstream thing that people are aware of.”
He explains that craft beer enthusiasts truly support the Association which not only promotes products but advocates for brewers with state and local legislatures. In addition to the annual event in Cleveland, the Association offers “Six One Pour” in the fall in Columbus (named because the Columbus area code is 614). There are other taproom-centered events throughout the year, and the Association also administers the Ohio on Tap App, which works more or less like a virtual passport as people tour various breweries.
“Beer has been brewed for thousands of years,” Hemminger says. “There’s a reason that craft beers resonate. They’re enjoyed by the community. You celebrate your wins or mourn your losses over a beer. You rally together with a beer in hand. Beer brings people together like no other beverage.”