Experimentation fueling growth at Platform Beer Co.

To Platform Beer Co. and its ever-growing legion of fans, 2014 seems like a lifetime ago.

You could only choose between two Platform brews back then if you wanted to snag a six pack: New Cleveland Palesner and Speed Merchant IPA. Platform used at least 75 percent of its capacity at the time to produce those two products. Today, the Cleveland-based brewery stocks shelves with enough small batches and sours to make any trip to your local grocer a little longer.

When it comes to beer available in a can, package or a keg, Platform owner and chief brewing officer Paul Benner estimates that his company produced about 130 unique styles of beer in 2017.

“I think you’d be pretty hard pressed to find other breweries in this state that are doing more beers than we are,” he said.

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Considering only canned beers, Platform averaged more than one new brew per week last year. That amount rivals the brewery’s entire 2016 output, when it altogether created and distributed fewer than 100 unique styles.

What changed?

Last year marked the first full 12 months of Platform’s brewing operations in Columbus, along with increased efficiency in Cleveland, Benner said.

As a result, you can now find two new beers on draft every Friday at the Cleveland tasting room, 4125 Lorain Ave. Benner says equipment and capital decisions have been the key to Platform’s ability to keep churning out beers.

“Typically when a brewery grows, they’ll usually sell the system they’re getting rid of and move up to a bigger system. In our case, since we’ve opened in 2014, every brewing system that we’ve upgraded, we kept the smaller system and we still use it,” Benner said.

Platform brews in 10 barrels on Lorain Avenue, and another three in Columbus. It opened its Cleveland production facility in 2016 on Vega Avenue with a 30-barrel system, but has already since doubled that capacity.

“We kept the 30 [-barrel system], so we’ve got four brewing systems that we’re working with,” Benner said. “They go from about as small a batch as you can get at three barrels to 60 barrels, which is one of the largest systems in the state. We’ve got everything in between.”

So if Benner, his partner Justin Carson and the crew decide they want a tiny experimental batch, so be it. Or they could get 250 kegs worth of beer in one batch if they want to align their systems to do so. That explains why we’ve seen a vast variety that includes everything from Platform’s Small Batch IPA and Kettle Sour series to collaborations with Columbus-based Wolf’s Ridge Brewing and Streetside Brewery in Cincinnati.

“That’s what leads to all of our innovation and new products. They all start at the brew pubs as ideas,” Benner said. “We tinker with things, try recipes and get feedback from customers. Because we’re not doing them in huge batches, we’re not afraid to try things and take some chances.”

The company’s growth naturally led to increased visibility, which only fuels the creativity of its brewers. That’s why its customers now have options like a milkshake IPA, ciders, barrel-aged brews, beers made to taste like donuts and unexpected collaborations with companies like Homage and 100.7 WMMS: The Buzzard. They’ve also created special beers with B-Spot, Heinen’s and other restaurants and retailers around the region.

Platform produced about 20,000 barrels last year. Benner thinks they’ll reach 30,000 this year, but have an empty-tank capacity of about 45,000 barrels by the end of the year with more equipment.

All of Platform’s cans and most of its kegs come from Vega Avenue, but the propensity for variety and risk taking existed within Benner and the company’s brewers long before they had ample resources to do so. Benner opened Cleveland Brew Shop for home brewers in 2012. It still exists across the street from the Cleveland tasting room.

“When I think of home brewers, they’re innovative and they take chances,” he said. “They don’t mind trying something that’s a little weird or a little goofy to try and get a great result.

“It’s how me and our other brewers like to drink. Innovative, new stuff”

So, don’t bother asking Benner what his favorite beer is at Platform or elsewhere. It’s always going to be the latest one or one he has yet to try. That will especially be the case this summer when Platform opens a Cincinnati location that marries beer, barrel aging and coffee together under one roof.

“That mentality — at a production level — means we’re gonna try a lot of new styles,” he said.

It shows.

Brandon Baker likes a good beer. Follow him on Twitter @BBakerJNP.

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