This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Nick Costa.
INTERVIEWED FEBRUARY 9, 2017
AT RHINEGEIST BREWERY — CINCINNATI, OH
It takes something truly special to make someone living in the beer haven that is San Francisco pack up everything and move to a forgotten neighborhood of downtown Cincinnati. But the second Bryant Goulding, co-founder of Rhinegeist Brewery, stepped into the 120 year old building over the Rhine River, he knew there was a once in a lifetime opportunity to restore the rich brewing history that once occupied the building and surrounding neighborhood that he could not refuse.
Three years after opening, Rhinegeist has grown by leaps and bounds. But like any expanding enterprise it experienced bumps along the way. Bryant and co-founder, Bob Bonder, quickly realized that if they were to be successful long term, they needed to invest their time and efforts into building a team that was as passionate and hardworking as they were. We had the opportunity to tour every corner of Rhinegeist’s historic building and sit down with Bryant to learn more about his team and what sets them apart from the rest.
Bryant, you and your partner Bob (Bonder) are not from Ohio. How did Rhinegeist end up in Cincinnati?
No, neither of us are. I grew up in Connecticut, was born in California, and I met Bob in San Francisco. Bob grew up in New York. He was living there and moved out to San Francisco on kind of on a whim. We got together via a few buddies and a ski cabin and he hired me to work for him.
What were you doing before that?
I was working at Accenture doing marketing analytics, consulting, and some supply chain stuff then started doing some work with Bob. We really enjoyed working together, but hated the work we were doing. Everything from trying to figure out how to get people to buy more furniture to analyzing where people spend their time on Coca Cola’s website. It was mind boggling complex scenarios that added up to nothing. We were just really fatigued by the lack of impact and lack of satisfaction of actually doing something that made a difference.
We know that feeling. What was next?
So he loved coffee and I loved beer, and he did a location analysis of what were the places most pregnant in opportunity for artisanal coffee, which ended up also being for beer. He moved here, opened a couple coffee shops, but it was the beer culture that really raised his eyebrows.
Bob called and said to come check things out. I told him I was NOT moving to Ohio, he was out of his mind. He really wanted to build a brewery here. Someone had to do it. There was nothing local here, but everyone was drinking all this Dogfish and Stone. They were drinking craft, there just wasn’t much stuff from Cincinnati. I came out and visited and this neighborhood felt like Williamsburg, but with the clocks rewound quite a bit. This part in particular in Over the Rhine was just white space. We moved into a part of downtown that had once been really magical, but had fallen into derelict. Now it’s picked up fifty businesses in just over the last year and it just felt like the right place to build a brewery.
Tell us more about this building. It has a ton of character.
The building we’re sitting in was originally built in 1895. It was Christian Moerlein’s bottling plant. The culture that was here before prohibition was incredible — 40 plus breweries and everyone’s uncle and grandfather worked in the brewing industry. You get great stories of their uncles foot that was crushed by a barrel that rolled off the truck. It was stories like that that were appealing.
For someone who doesn’t know the Over the Rhine neighborhood, what can you say about this part of town?
Traditionally it was a lot of German immigrants. Today it’s a mix of many classes and many ethnicities. And there’s an emerging, kind of younger, working class of creatives. There’s beers and bikes, small artisanal restaurants, and a few coffee shops and boutiques. It’s this spot that if you live in the burbs, you come in and park and walk around. It’s a great nightlife culture. It also has Washington Park as an epicenter, where there is a lot of activity. There’s a cool creative culture that’s really accessible outdoors, and has a bunch of great bars and restaurants all around as well.
How’s that changed in the three years since Rhinegeist opened?
We did not expect to be as popular in this part of the neighborhood. We are about as far north in Over the Rhine as you can get. There are a few dead blocks, but there is more building now the streetcar is running. When we opened, 2,500 people came through the doors on our first weekend. It was really hot and sweaty, and they drank a ton of beer. We were blown away. We expected people to just be in our little tasting room by the bar, and we were going to build the brewery out. But it turned out people wanted to be in this big open space. We recognized the opportunity here. It was a neighborhood I wanted to move out of San Francisco to come live in and watch evolve, but it’s been way more rapid than I expected.
Let’s talk about growth, I don’t know if I’ve seen a brewery grow as fast as Rhinegeist has. How do you manage such rapid expansion?
I’ve worked for a bunch of breweries. Bob and I are pretty entrepreneurial and creative and really care about people. It’s been the investment in employees that’s been a key piece. Empowering people to make decisions and to be excited about the job they’re doing, I think, has been how we’ve grown so quickly.
Everyone is enabled to hustle. We hire people with a sense of humor, a sense of pride and work ethic, and we are pretty collaborative. There is not a huge hierarchy. It is Bob and I and we’re here pretty much every day. We juggled a few challenges in the early years that made us realize that the quality of life for our employees and our connection to them can be at risk from growth. So we’ve tried consistently to plug back in and take more time with everyone who works here so we’re more aware of what’s going on. We have to think ahead, but we can’t lose sight of what’s important today. I think that balance is something we learned early on because we went to far a little too fast a few times.
You and Bob don’t have a brewing background, but quickly found Jim Matt to manage that piece. How much are your fingerprints on the beer?
I’ve homebrewed for a long time, but was not very good at it. I have self diagnosed ADHD, and I’ve drank enough really good beer that I knew I was not going to make Orval or Deschutes Abyss. I just couldn’t brew day in and day out.
Sounds like some of us at The Hop Review.
When we opened, we knew we wanted to be a breath of fresh air from the west coast. We were going to play heavily with hops, but we really wanted sessionability and finesse in our beer. Originally we’d planned to bring someone over from the west coast. Jim, our head brewer, was already here and knew Bob because he came in to roast green coffee beans and was asking for tips. He has a background as a chemist and a homebrewer, then worked at Sun King in their quality control lab. He set that up, then moved on to working on the brew deck, fell in love with a girl from Cincinnati, who he’s now married to, moved to Cincy, started a little brewery here, but was really frustrated by that. So we gave him an out.
How’s his style reflected here?
He brewed the real hop forward, hop blast, late hop addition, not super bitter, traditional methods. He was really involved in digging up Amarillo, Mosaic, Galaxy, Nelson and probing deeper into styles that really didn’t exist yet. The fifth beer we ever brewed was Fiction, which was a fictitious style. It was a Belgian extra pale ale. I’d never seen New Zealand hops, Belgian yeast, and pilsner malt in one beer. We loved it, and still can’t get enough Nelson hops to brew it enough. But we have cans in the basement ready to rock when we do have them.
Jim has an amazing finesse where yeast health has always been very important. He’s now since pivoted into quality control. We want to make sure our beers are the best. And if they’re not, we tweak them, because we want them to be the best. I think that continuous improvement has been key to where we come from, but there’s also that signature finesse and drinkability. Even if it’s a dark beer like Panther or Cafe Ink, there’s a balance. I don’t know how to make beer like that, but Jim can translate our instincts and intentions into liquid.
What breweries do you take inspiration from when evolving Rhinegeist?
Firestone Walker is one. I spent six months at Golden Road to launch their cans because we didn’t really have a timeline planned for when Rhinegeist would open. I toured Firestone Walker and Matt Brynildson gave me a three hour walkthrough of everything from their glycol pumps and sizing, the mistakes they made early on, to stainless steel drains with catch basins so that bolts and clamps wouldn’t go down the drain. Brynildson takes things to the next level and we respect the heck out of Firestone from the finesse of 805 and Pivo to their deeper barrel-aged and wild stuff.
So you have three years under your belt and have already seen extensive growth. What are the next three years going to hold?
We now have a plan of what we are going to sell per brand in each of the territories. Last year we were guessing, and there is still a decent amount of estimation in there, but we really have a plan we’re going to be executing. Also, we’re not going to be adding as many people, so the HR side of things is going to slow down. Internally there is going to be less churn. It’s mostly been adding bodies, but it’s hard when you come to the same place and you don’t know people. We went through a window six months ago where we were scaling up, but now that names and faces are under control it feels like a real team again.
What about on the beer side?
We’re adding more tanks to get to 150,000 barrels. Our kegging and canning line are built for that. We’re launching our sour program in the next six months that I’m really excited about. Fast growing is not our identity — it’s more of the outcome of the way we’ve put the pieces together. That top line goal is not what we’re about. We have a pretty young ownership that’s hoping to be here for the long run. We’re going to take some lumps and have tough years, but if you have a team intact that feels empowered and loves what they do, you’re pretty invincible. We’re moving toward employee ownership in the next few months and a lot of things to make this a better place.
Where outside of Ohio can we find Rhinegeist?
We filled out Ohio this year, Kentucky was filled out the year before, and Massachusetts now. Next year we are opening Pittsburgh in March and Indiana a little after that, which is probably not news yet, but it’s a small amount of geographic growth that we can really penetrate in those places and continue to learn. We’re launching beer in Boston because I grew up in New England. We wanted a market we would get our ass kicked in. We wanted to learn from that.
You’re choosing to get your ass kicked?
Yes, kick us in the teeth. We have our mouth guard in, we’ll figure it out. It’s been going really well. It’s been cool to be close to the Tree House’s, Trillium’s, Heady Topper’s, and Hill Farmstead’s of the world and watching that really competitive environment. We’re finding our space in it and telling our story to people who have not sat in the brewery.
There was a presentation I saw the other day that stated 60-70% of people were more likely to buy your beer after they’ve been in your brewery. That’s part of the magic mix of getting people here and you can’t do that when you’re selling your beer a thousand miles away. We had to figure out a way to translate all the authenticity and awesomeness that we have with all 200 employees into a brand that’s more than just the beer itself. I think that’s where you make the decision. You’re buying something because you want to experience and enjoy it, but you’re also investing in something you believe in.
Where do you feel your beer fits in the Ohio or greater national scene?
Cincinnati is a real exciting place right now. Our growth has brought us to be one of the bigger ones here. Everyone has been growing so fast, it’s been hard to connect and get together to spend time as brewers. We want to make huge investments in the community here, and Cincinnati as a city is evolving. We’re playing a role to help guide and form that process.
I would like to be a beacon of quality and innovation. A lot of companies profits go to shareholders, and not many companies profits go back to the people that made those profits. I think having a creative model where people can reap the benefits of what they sow will be powerful. It will be reflected in the brand, and in the strength and intensity of the impact our people make because they are winning for themselves. We’ve had three or four Rhinegeist babies this year. People are having families, and we’re watching each other grow up and supporting each other through these powerful life moments. That’s just a really cool thing. Reflecting on that and watching each other grow, both professionally and outside is powerful. We get to create a product that allows us to enjoy each other, then play ping pong at the end of the day.
Photography by Nick Costa.
Thank you to Bryant for sharing his time and passion as well as a few beers along the way. Anyone traveling through southern Ohio should make a point to stop over the Rhine and enjoy a pint or two in Rhinegeist’s amazing tap room.