AMHERST, Ohio – Breweries are built on many different principles. Dan Blatt built Ghost Tree Brewing Co. on relationships.
“I’ve been talking about this since before Buckeye Canning,” he said. “Buckeye Canning was kind of the stepping stone. I’ve always wanted to open a brewery.”
Blatt would roll the mobile-canning unit into breweries that were experimenting with cans or did not have a dedicated line installed. He sold Buckeye Canning to IronHeart Canning in 2016. He had the opportunity to stay with the company but didn’t want the travel. His former business associate, B.J. Solomon, heads up the operation and is never short of business.
When Blatt was with Buckeye Canning, he got out a lot and met brewers from all over. Brewers don’t have as much opportunity to get out of their own brewhouse as often as you might think; they are busy hunkered down and working on their product, which involves hands-on dedication to the craft. Blatt, though, was meeting them on their turf.
It was the connections he made with Buckeye Canning that helped create a foundation. He keeps in touch with a who’s who of quality brewers throughout the state: Matt Cole of Fat Head’s Brewery, Luke Purcell and Ben Northeim of Collision Bend Brewing Co., Art Oestrike of Jackie O’s in Athens, Eric Bean of Columbus Brewing Co. and Nate Cornett of Yellow Springs Brewing Co.
“Everyone is out to help each other,” Blatt said. “All my Fat Head’s friends welcomed me – ‘You let us know if you need hops or yeast or anything; we’ve got you. You helped us get into cans.’ It’s weird, they treat me like family there. I canned one beer for them – Trailhead.”
He continued: “I helped them out, and now they are more than willing to give me anything I need as far as advice or ingredients or support or anything. It’s been really, really great. I knew it would be like that. It’s been overwhelming, all the support I have from all of them.”
That support culminated a year ago when Ghost Tree opened, albeit at the inauspicious timing of the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s located on a street that looks untouched from another era, a quiet part of the Lorain County city located fewer than 35 miles from downtown Cleveland. Located near train tracks and sandwiched between a dentist’s office and barber shop, the brewpub is across from Amherst Cinema and catty-corner from The Brew Kettle. Ghost Tree has a definite cozy, corner-bar feel, but it took a lot of work for Blatt and his business partner John Rush to get it into shape.
Rush, Blatt said, is an engineer and chemist “who dove right in to propagating yeast and everything about making beer.”
They redesigned and “re-gutted” everything within the space, which covers about 1,900 square feet in the 100-plus year-old building. There was no kitchen. They re-wired everything. The previous bar sat, inexplicably, in the middle of the long space; now it lines the left wall. Four televisions hang along the brick wall behind the bar, which has the requisite plastic dividers.
“Everything is new,” he said. “The only thing we saved was the brick wall.”
They were figuring on beer before food when they were in the process of acquiring the place, then Covid hit.
“We didn’t know what to do,” Blatt said. “We were nervous as hell.”
One night, he and Rush walked outside and noticed nearby bars and eateries were busy, but they weren’t. The Covid shutdown forced them to flip their business plan: Food first, then beer. And they were going to do it right.
“No microwaves, no freezers. Everything is fresh, made to order,” Blatt said. “We smoke all of our meats in house.”
Chef is David Smith, whose munchies hit the spot, from warmed mixed nuts and tasty atypical warmed pimento dip served with vegetables. Smoked brisket nachos with Cheddar and Pepper Jack cheese also is a hit.
“It works,” Blatt said. “People love it.”
They also offer power bowls, sandwiches, salads and sides.
On a recent night, Smith was fooling around in the kitchen, coming up with a pretzel-crusted brined chicken with Dijonnaise and pickles – think high-class Chick-fil-A.
While Smith toils in the kitchen with menu offerings, Blatt – who has been brewing for almost 30 years – focuses on the beer.
About the beers
Blatt, from Denver originally, has been brewing since 1992. He earned a couple of degrees at Northern Colorado University where, during his senior year, he tried a 22-ounce bottle of New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Fat Tire. It opened his eyes to what craft beer could be.
“I couldn’t believe what I was tasting,” he said.
Being in Colorado and trying craft beer for the first time is like driving a Maserati for your first car. He was spoiled, and he was hooked. He got a home-brew kit.
“My first beer was an absolute disaster,” said Blatt, who kept reading and brewing and landed a brewery gig. He met his wife, who is from Northeast Ohio, while both were teaching. They moved back here. He teaches kids with significant disabilities, then heads to the brewery where he occasionally has to don his educator hat.
“Try this with this food, try that with this food,” he’ll tell customers.
Ghost Tree brews off site but will be getting a five-barrel system installed in April. Blatt enjoys naming beers after music and movie references:
• Pressure Drop Saison – Toots and the Maytals’ song remade by the Clash and more recently, David Gray.
• Sure Shot Pilsner – Beastie Boys.
• Sammy McFiddich, an Irish Red Ale, is named for Carl Spackler’s greenskeeper boss in the 1980 film “Caddyshack.”
• Ca$h after Ten was a playful poke at Gov. Mike DeWine about the previous 10 p.m. alcohol cutoff. The Double India Pale Ale is Ghost Tree’s best-selling beer.
As Blatt bellied up to the bar and described his beers, a regular sauntered over.
” ‘Hey Dan,’ ” he said. ” ‘I had your Irish Red. I grew up in Scotland, and the Irish Red was better than everything I ever had in England, Scotland or anywhere.’ “
A grateful Blatt can only smile and say thanks.
“Amherst is really receptive to Ghost Tree,” he said. “My house beers are outselling everything four to one. I order Bud Light every couple of months now. I have to have it here. It goes against everything I say and believe in, but there are people who just want a Bud Light.”
Craft vs. mainstream battle
The diversity of beers at Ghost Tree forms a great collection. A cooler behind the bar holds crafted sours and fruited beers along with an assortment of Ohio-brewed ales (North High, Jackie O’s) and locally owned ones (Fat Head’s, Masthead). But you can also get run-of-the-mill suds like Michelob Ultra.
“The younger folks who come in are versed in craft beer,” Blatt said. “I’m not getting college kids who want a cheap beer and quick buzz. It’s wonderful. … I was surprised Amherst was into this exploration. I thought I was really going to have to teach the customers about ‘Hey, here’s my Pilsner. You like Bud Light? Try this.’ They’ve been pretty good about it. Six out of 10 will opt for Ghost Tree’s Pilsner.”
He added: “What I found out is that the Bud Light drinker or the Coors Light drinker or the Bud drinker thinks everything I am serving is a hop bomb. They don’t like those. But that’s not what I am trying to serve you.”
For those whose palates might be a bit tired from India Pale Ales, Ghost Tree’s beers are worth checking out. As Blatt says, “I went through my IPA phase in the early 2000s. I appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a (Fat Head’s) Head Hunter. … I love these IPAs that these Ohioans are brewing, they are some of the best in the country.”
But he sees a slowdown in the “extreme IBU phases,” the International Bittering Units whose increments go up with a beer’s respective bitterness. So a malt-forward beer or well-rounded Stout could be in single digits while a West Coast-style IPA can push 100 IBUs.
“I pride myself on having a nice guests beer (selection),” he said. “I only have cans for any craft.”
He also came up with an intriguing sales promotion: IPAs have a shelf life, so he started pulling together a mystery four-pack of surprise beers from places like Rockmill, Revolution and other breweries. It turned out to be a win-win. “People love it,” he said. They are packaged in a black bag, and it helps pare inventory.
But he still makes sure there are a few mainstream lagers on hand.
“It keeps people here,” he said. “Joe Bud Light will come in here and say ‘You got Bud Light?’ And his wife will say ‘Hey, can I try your IPA?’ Typically, he said, it’s men who want the Bud Light while women opt for craft ales. “I just want people to try different things.”
A canning line is coming. A permanent sign is slated to be installed in April. And Ghost Tree has settled into its place along Church Street.
“It’s been fun. I’m just happy I’m finally here,” Blatt said. “The light is at the end of the tunnel with the brewhouse.”
Six-pack of facts about Ghost Tree Brewing Co.
• It’s at 223 Church St., Amherst. Ghost Tree also owns the narrow alley adjacent to the brewpub, and Blatt hopes to convert it into a patio.
• He credits Rush’s wife for creating the name. Blatt recalls: “She said, ‘What about those ghost trees coming out of the quarry lakes?’ So she, I guess, named the quarry trees, ghost trees, and here we are.”
• Hard seltzer, cider, mixed drinks and wine also are available.
• Live music is on Wednesdays and Saturdays. On non-live music nights, the tunes played are as diverse as the beer selection – bluesy-jazz, Cracker and Elton John all were heard on a recent evening.
• Blatt is hoping to hold a beer-vs.-wine pairing with food.
• Art on the wall rotates monthly and is for sale. “Hey, this is your gallery,” Blatt tells the artists.
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. And tune in at 8:05 a.m. Fridays for “Beer with Bona and Much, Much More” with Munch Bishop on 1350-AM The Gambler. Twitter: @mbona30.
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