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CINCINNATI -- You can sum up Blank Slate Brewery in one phrase: One man army.
Up until recently, owner/brewer Scott LaFollette was running the entire show just by himself.
That meant he had to operate the brewhouse, transfer the beer to his four fermenters and keg the beer all by himself, all day, every week. And that’s when that independent streak goes even deeper.
LaFollette didn’t just start and operate the brewery on his own; it’s also entirely funded by himself, his wife and a small bank loan. There are no partners or investors.
While it means many long days and hard nights, LaFollette is free to make his beer his way and no one can tell him otherwise.
Scott LaFollette, owner and operator of Blank Slate Brewery.
“When you have a huge bank loan or investors, sometimes the business of keeping them happy becomes more your business than trying to do what you set out to do. So I’ve tried to do this in a way that I’m pretty much beholden to no one but myself. The flip side of that is that if something goes wrong, I’ve got no one but myself to blame,” LaFollette said.
The brewer has been making beer for almost 15 years now but until opening his brewery was a homebrewer with big dreams. He got his start in brewing as a chemistry student in college.
“Even before I got out of college, I had these dreams of doing it for a living somehow. I even started trying to figure out how I could make a small business out of my basement to brew beer, but I quickly figured out that most of my ideas were all illegal. So I decided I should try and finish my college degree and work for a little while,” he said.
While working, LaFollette kept learning about beer, the brewing industry and he perfected his recipes. LaFollette said he finally got to a place about 10 years into his career that he either needed to make a go of it or give up on his dream.
“I’m basically starting my life over with a blank slate,” LaFollette said. “I could sit here and plan forever and still never think that I was ready. I could be studying and studying because you’re never done learning but the rest we’re just going to have to learn on the fly.”
It was really Lafollette’s wife that helped spur him to action.
“My wife is a saint. She’s been very, very supportive,” he said. “She was the one who in the end said, ‘You either need to do this or give it up because I’m tired of listening to you talk about it for the last 12 years.’ [laughs]”
Lafollette got support for his business plan, then took the leap and found his current space on the East Side. He had been buying equipment over the previous decade and was able to rehab his 2,000 square foot brewery and move the equipment in.
LaFollette has named his three fermenting tanks Larry, Curley and Moe after the Three Stooges.
LaFollette bought his original three fermenting tanks from Mt. Carmel Brewing to get started and his family and friends helped him get the space ready for brewing.
He upgraded his brewing capacity in August by purchasing some larger fermentation tanks from Rivertown Brewery which they had replaced with larger tanks of their own. LaFollette’s tanks were sold to a small start-up located between Cincinnati and Columbus.
“It’s sort of a ‘circle of life’ thing, which is pretty neat,” LaFollette said.
The brewer said it will increase his capacity from 28 barrels to 52 barrels and the switch should be done by the end of September, allowing him to keep up with demand better.
He said he hopes to expand to the rest of the building eventually, which would add 3,000 more square feet and the opportunity to add a tap room and bottling line.
Just like his brewery was a blank slate before he brought life to it, so goes LaFollette’s process for making beer.
He said he doesn’t brew in traditional styles and is always looking for new takes on the old classics.
“I like to look at the original styles, and then when I design recipes I like to start over from scratch with a blank slate,” LaFollette said.
He said while homebrewing, he spent almost five years learning the classic styles through and through to figure out exactly how they worked and then how to use new ingredients and processes to make exciting new beers.
“We don’t really brew to traditional styles. I like to take existing styles or maybe lesser-known styles and twist them up a little bit -- do things a little bit different to them. I like to use the analogy, ‘If you like pale ales, I can take you to the store and there will be 10 of them on the shelf so there’s no reason to make No. 11.’ So we try to do things a little bit different,” LaFollette said.
Blank Slate makes an average of eight different recipes per years, with only four available at a time.
The brewer said he’s been working on many of his recipes for years. Of those, he will have eight that he can make throughout the year but will only have four going at any one time, depending on the season.
“I don’t have any aspirations to ‘take over the world,’ as they say,” LaFollette said. “I’m perfectly happy being a small brewery. A little bit bigger than we are now is definitely in the plans but I have no intentions of becoming the next Sam Adams or anything like that. I just want to brew the things that I want to brew and hopefully everyone likes them. We’ll basically grow as big as we have to grow to get to where I can pay my bills. I don’t have any aspirations to get rich in this business. If you do, you’re sadly mistaken because you don’t make a lot of money in this business.”
LaFollette may have started with a blank slate, but now his tanks are full of in-demand beer and he’s done it all on his own.
Blank Slate Brewing Company is located at 4233 Airport Road.
They can be found online at: http://www.blankslatebeer.com/
Photography by Emily Maxwell, WCPO Digital photojournalist
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