Know Your Local Brewery: Blank Slate Brewing Company

Blank Slate Brewing Company (aka BSBC or Blank Slate) opened it’s doors in March of 2012 with the goal of focusing on a rotating selection of seasonal beers. This, in my opinion at least, is a relatively untested idea and very different from the status quo of focusing on a few core styles and the seasonal being secondary. I had the opportunity to meet Scott LaFollette at the Cincy Beer Fest on Fountain Square and setup the following interview a few weeks later.

About the brewer

How did you get into “good” beer?

“It started in college. All right it’s Friday night: what can you get the most for the cheapest? Me and my roommate where out somewhere celebrating something. We decided to get a good beer and we were in Cleveland at the time. So Great Lakes Dortmunder was every where, we both took a drink and were like oh man this is really good. From there we just started trying different stuff. ”

What is local/craft beer to you?

“Craft beer, of course, is us smaller goes who do it more for a passion than the bottom line. It’s more about getting the product out to people and being able to see them enjoy it. Local craft beer for me is representing your city and where you came from. Every city has their own little local thing going on which is cool cause it’s in that city and in that moment. We’re here, we know each other, we know our customers. There’s a quicker feedback loop of the positive and negative of what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.”

What do you think is the biggest threat to the craft beer industry?

“Being a little newer to the game, the things I see that are gonna become an issue because you have so many breweries coming online not just locally, but nationally and craft is only 6 or 7% of the market and we’ve got room to grow. That’s absolutely 100% true. We just have to be careful about the dog eating its own tail kind of thing because eventually there’s not going to be enough room on the shelve for everybody. There’s not gonna be enough hops for everybody, there’s already really not enough hops for everybody. I think you’re gonna see distribution be one of the first things to become a sticking point. Some distributors will get to the point that they can’t take on any new brands. But the distribution and raw materials are the two biggest things we have to deal with.”

What has the local brewing community been like?

“It’s been great. I’ve known Mike Dewey [co-owner of Mt. Carmel] he’s given me lots of advice along the way. I’ve known Jason [Roeper] and Randy [Schlitz, co-owners of Rivertown] for a while, they’ve helped me out a lot. Everybody who was already in the game so-to-speak has helped me out a lot. And now I’m trying to pay that forward and help out some of the other guys who are coming online. We’re really like a big family, we all know each other, we’re all friends, we really are a community. It’s weird to say that because technically we are all competition, but we don’t really look at it that way. Yeah, we are all competition but it doesn’t really do us any good to sit and try to pick each other off. That ends up hurting all of us in the end, it’s the whole rising tide rises all ships in the end.”

You. Desert island. Three beers. What do you choose?

“It depends on so much, I dunno I’d probably just drink water then if I was that desperate. For me, I drink very seasonally, lighter beers in the summer, darker beers in the winter. It depends on my mood; am I in a good mood that day, am I in a bad mood. What’s going on with the weather. All those kinds of things factor into it. Gun to my head, some of my favorites of all time. Bell’s Two Hearted, I’ve always loved Rodenbach Grand Cru and Edmund Fitzgerald from Great Lakes. Not to say that’s the three I’d want on a desert island but those are three pretty top-level ones for me.”

About the brewery

What is Blank Slate Brewing Company?

“Blank Slate is a small distribution micro-brewery in Cincinnati, Ohio. We focus primarily on riding between the lines of what a lot of other people do. We don’t really go for standard interpretation of styles. We try to make more hybrid of styles, lesser known styles, maybe make a few things up along the way. We are not a Cincinnati German heritage brewery. I believe you should know, understand, and appreciate history but not try to relive it every day. There are lots of guys doing great German influence stuff and I want to show Cincinnati that while those beers are great there are other great beers out there in the world. I think it’s time this city started to learn about that. I don’t want to say I’m the only one doing anything non-German. That’s not the case. I just want to try to make some new history around here. We’re trying to go against the flagship model. If you want a really good pale ale everybody makes one. I can take you to the store and find you 10 of them. I don’t want to be the guy making the 11th best pale ale. So we’re making a red IPA or something. We’re not doing anything groundbreaking, it’s just not necessarily well-known around here.”

How did Blank Slate Brewing Company get going?

“It’s been in the works for one way or another for about 12 or 13 years. When I started home brewing in college I was pretty quickly like hey I need to find a way to make a living at this. I had all these great plans for how I was gonna make a brewery in the basement. Then I found out most of these things I was planning were illegal! They got this thing call the Liquor Control Board, licenses, and all kinds of fun stuff like that. Took a step back, did some more research, got a real job to pay off debt. But I always wanted to come back to it and I’ve gone through 2 or 3 versions of the plan. I originally wanted to do a brewpub, but you don’t just decide to open a brewpub and do it. It’s not quite that easy, so I kinda scaled that back. Went through a few partnerships that didn’t pan out for one reason or another. Finally about 2 years ago, I said all right I’m not getting any younger. If I’m ever gonna do this thing, it’s now or never. So I dusted some of the older plans for a small production system, got everything updated, and just started piece by piece. I’ve been slowly piecing together equipment for 2 or 3 years. Everything in here except for this 1 tank is used. Actually all the fermenters came from Mt. Carmel. I finally just got to the point where I said I’ve studied this business for years and years and years and it’s time to shit or get off the pot.

What is your brewing process, from brain storm to bottle shelf?

“A lot of that has already been done over the last however many years of home brewing. Trying lots of different things seeing what happens if we change this or that ingredient instead of something we would normally use. Right now a lot of what I’m doing is just pulling out my old homebrew recipes and tweaking this or that then scaling it up a little bit. I do have so new ideas for some things I’ve never attempted before home brewing. So, I do still have my old homebrew system so we can do 10 gallons at a time to try something off the wall, which is something I’ll be doing a lot more of once we have the tap-room. So we’ll have a lot of tap-room only, goofy 1 off things. If they go well maybe they make their way into production. If they don’t, oh well, we only had a couple kegs of it anyway. So there’s that recipe side of things. Then there’s sitting down and trying to figure out how to scale it up. Certain things you have to start worrying about if you’re scaling up the recipe and the grain-bill comes out to be 2/3rd of a bag, well can we just use a whole bag. You don’t want to try to cut corners, but you want to put things together in a way that helps out process flow. Then it’s just a matter of trying to get all these dials and pipes and stuff to do what they’re supposed to, which sometimes they do and somethings they don’t.”

How has everything been going over all?

“It’s been great, the response we’ve gotten has been very good. We purposefully started very small. We’ve been doing draft only and self-distribution, which was all by design. Basically being the first time using this equipment there will be some growing pains and not everything is gonna go right the first time. I’m not ashamed to admit that we’ve been opened for 4 months and I’ve dumped 2 batches of beer. Being small and putting it out a little bit at a time we can keep ahead of that type of thing. Regardless of that, everything’s been going great. I’m here every day longer than I probably should be trying to keep up with everything with the meager number of accounts I have now. We’re about to farm out distribution, we’re not gonna be self-distributed as of sometime in November. There’ll be more info to come about that later [see below]. I can spend more time actually brewing and less time driving around kegs and picking them up. So that will let us expand my footprint a little bit, and I don’t mean going into 3 states. I mean going beyond 275 and into Kentucky. So we’ll be able to expand out a little bit and make a little more beer”

[This actual interview took place on October 18th and today (October 22nd) Scott announced over on his blog that he has signed with Stagnaro Distributing. So this response is slightly out of date.]

Any ETA on bottles/cans?

Early next year. We’re gonna be bottling, it’ll be pretty much the traditional 4-packs or 6-packs. Maybe the occasional bomber release of something special. The capital that’s needed to do a canning line is pretty insane, definitely more than I wanted to take on. Plus, for me, the can thing is fine, but personally I still have some issues with can beer, but that’s just me as a consumer. It’s not anything against it or anything like that. But if it’s something that me, as a consumer, I’m not crazy about then it’s not something I want to do with my business.”

How about plans for a tasting room?

“Hopefully around the middle of next year.”

Are any of your ingredients local? If so which:

“Right now, we’re not doing a lot of stuff that uses anything other than malt and hops and there’s no one local to really do that. There are a few hop farms that have started off, so I’m hoping next year we can do a one-off of wet hopped beer using local hops. Other than that there would be the peppercorn for the Ryesing Up, which unfortunately right now we’re not sourcing locally, but we in the process of getting that corrected. It’s one of those things that with everything getting started up, it’s OK to get online, I need the pepper now and here it is. So I made that compromise at first. But the goal is to use local ingredients whenever possible. Then other things as they come down the pipe we’ll do everything we can to source it locally.”

Social Media: You are really smoking the local competition when it comes to this. I, and many others I’ve talked with, have enjoyed following the blog. How easy/difficult is social media for you and are you getting good feedback from it?

“Oh yeah, starting this thing up on a shoestring I didn’t have much of a budget for marketing and advertising. Other than your time, social media is basically a free means of marketing and advertising. Before I started this business, on a personal level, I was never much of a social media person. On the business side of things I’ve really come around, it’s a very important tool in getting your word out. So far it’s been great I’ve gotten a lot of good response with the blog and everything. I wish I had more time to put stuff on the blog, but it hasn’t happened. I’ve had people that were starting up breweries from the other country say “hey man, we’ve been reading your blog and it’s been great and it’s really helped us decide what we’re gonna do or not do in this business” and that’s what I really wanted this to be for. There are a lot of people out there who are looking to maybe start-up a brewery and its easy to sit around and think of all the fun things, but it’s the pain in the ass things you don’t really think about till they happen. So a lot of what I put on there is disasters for people to see that this isn’t all just sitting around getting loaded everyday. Which is funny because I get drink a lot less than before I owned a brewery.”

What has self-distribution been like?

“It’s good and it’s bad. It really depends on what you want to do and what you want to be. If I was in a position where I needed to sell more beer right off the bat then I’d have to go with a distributor right off the bat. For me, the distribution side was were I was the least knowledgeable.There’s not a lot of study you can do to learn that, you just kind of have to be in it to understand it. So I could get a better understanding of how it works so that way when it does come time to sit down with a distributor I’m not coming in green off the street. It’s been great and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve made a lot of good contacts with people and learned an insane amount about beer distribution and sales by trial by fire, throwing myself into it for the last 4 months. So if you don’t know the distribution side then I definitely recommend self-distribution if you can swing it. Just depends on where you are business wise, cause you’re not gonna sell a lot of beer doing that.”

Where can folks go to try BSBC today?

“Basically our core market right now is finer beer establishments, bars & restaurants, look for it in places where good draft beer is available. Some places are Arthur’s in Hyde Park, Billy Cafe, The Comet, The Senate downtown, Lavomatic, Metropole restaurant in the 21c hotel getting ready to open. There are probably about 20 places we’re rotating in and out of right now.”

[Again, this interview was on 10/18 so this information could be out of date]

Update from September 2015, that info is still pretty relevant. In general you can find Blank Slate beers on tap in many of the better beer bars in Hamilton county, but only Hamilton county right now since he recently pulled back distribution.

Anything else that you want folks to know?

“Just continue to always raise your standards with everything you do, drinking, eating, and life in general. Support local when it makes sense for you; don’t necessarily do it blindly.  Keep drinking better beer, if it’s not one of mine I hope it’s something good. If it’s not local, that’s good too just don’t forget about us. Don’t forget there is great beer being made in Cincinnati.”

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