Roll out the microbrewers' half-barrels

Friday, April 10, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

For a week, a debate has raged between the city's microbrewers and Taste of Cincinnati's organizers.

The debate comes to a head today. Both sides will sit down at 9 a.m. to try to reach an agreement over which brands of beer will flow during the Memorial Day weekend food fest known as Taste of Cincinnati. Cincinnati's microbrewers complain they have been excluded from this year's Taste. Last year, they sold their beers together under a "Cincinnati Brews" tent. This year, they were told the spot would be a free playground.

During the debate, there's been an excuse du jour as to why local brewers such as BarrelHouse, Main Street and Hudepohl-Schoenling were no longer welcome at Taste.

First, Taste's organizers said they were turning the event into more of a family affair -- meaning less beer. So, in place of a beer tent, there would be a playground featuring ice-carving demonstrations, a diaper-changing station and a stage for performers with disabilities. Nice. Except Miller Brewing, a Taste sponsor, and local beers made by Oldenberg and Samuel Adams were still part of Taste. So forget the dry Taste angle.

The next explanation was that the microbreweries' beers were too expensive. Last year, craft brews cost $1 more than a cup of mass-market beer. A dollar difference kicks them out of Taste? C'mon.

In truth, this scuffle is about money. Specifically, how much money Taste makes.

This is "a business decision," said Teri Gasper, vice president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. Gasper oversees the Downtown Council, a Taste organizer. "The volume we did from that area was not that much."

OK. I can talk volume and profit.

But I thought Taste of Cincinnati was three days of sampling the best this city has to offer in food and drink, as well as music and fun. It says as much in Taste's mission statement:

"The event's mission is to showcase fine dining and entertainment, help maintain a vibrant downtown by drawing people to the venue, and to generate revenue for the Downtown Council and the Greater Cincinnati Restaurant Association."

Nowhere does it say the weekend menu should be decided exclusively by what makes the most money per square foot of Central Parkway sidewalk.

Beer money

Last year, each of the five microbreweries under the tent paid a $1,500 entry fee. Taste sold the beer, staffed the tent and kept the profits, about $250 per half-barrel of beer.

The Main Street Brewery alone sold 20 half-barrels of beer under the tent last year.

"That's not huge business," admits Jim Elkus, Main Street's co-founder.

Still, 20 half-barrels is a nice chunk of change. And then add on profits from four other local microbreweries.

I also don't buy the problem of an extra $1 per cup. Yes, Taste works to keep the portions affordable at all booths. This $1 tariff for microbrewed beer is reasonable, and people can always go elsewhere. But if microbreweries are excluded, where do people go for a taste of different beer?

Gasper says she's optimistic today's meeting between Taste's organizers and the exiled brewers will have a happy ending. "We're going to get this fixed," she said. "We overlooked a major area of interest."

Taste's organizers need to either put the small brewers together under a tent or give them their own beer booths. But let them into the event.

Taste's profits go to good causes such as lighting Fountain Square at Christmastime, putting big bands on the square during the summer and holding the city's annual police appreciation dinner. It's all supposed to be about bringing people downtown.

And that's why the microbrewers deserve to be in Taste of Cincinnati. They're living the "help maintain a vibrant downtown" part of Taste's mission statement.

The microbrewers' pubs bring people downtown and to Over-the-Rhine. They have helped make the Main Street entertainment district a place we can point to with pride.

They do this by being downtown throughout the year. Not just on three days over the Memorial Day weekend.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.