Great Lakes Brewing Company — A Local Culture

In 1988, when brothers Pat and Dan Conway decided to brew beer in their hometown of Cleveland, reviving the city's brewing heritage was a big priority; its last brewery, Schmidt's, had shuttered in 1984. But so was building a company that would represent the region. After all, Cleveland is connected to the world via the largest chain of freshwater lakes on the planet.

This commitment to home — and the understanding of how inextricably the past, present and future are entwined — is at the heart of Great Lakes Brewing Company's (GLBC) culture, from sustainable brewing practices to environmental advocacy, right down to branding.

Crack open a Burning River Pale Ale and you might recognize the beer is named for the infamous 1969 chemical fire on the Cuyahoga River. But it's also the name of the foundation the Conways established to clean up regional waterways. And the spent grain left over from the brewing process? It's sent to local farms as cattle feed, or winds up in bread served in GLBC's Cleveland brewpub. (They also maintain urban farms in Hale and Ohio City that provide fresh produce and hops for the brewpub.)

“Pat and Dan care about the environment — that simple,” says brewmaster Luke Purcell. “It just makes sense — financially in a lot of cases — to treat our local ecosystems as smartly and responsibly as possible. It's the way we operate.”

GLBC's Edmund Fitzgerald Porter is a point of particular pride for the entire company. Named for the freighter that sank in rough seas on Lake Superior in 1975 (also the inspiration for Gordon Lightfoot's hit ballad), “Fitz,” as Purcell playfully calls it, is often cited on judging forms at beer tastings as a benchmark example of the Robust Porter style. “That's actually better to me than the awards it's won,” he remarks. But not surprisingly, there's a personal note here, too. The Conways are longtime friends with James McCarthy, son of the Edmund Fitzgerald's first mate. When the ship went down, it was on its final run before docking for the winter in Cleveland. Pat and Dan toast the ship every anniversary — another noble characteristic of the company's local culture.