Back before Prohibition, the Leisy Brewing Co. bottling plant was home to the largest brewery in Cleveland. Leisy churned out up to 700,000 gallons of beer in a year before the U.S. government placed a ban on booze. The company never completely recovered from that event and closed in 1958.
Many of the Leisy structures were torn down in the decades since the brewery’s demise, but one five-story brick building on Vega Avenue is still playing a big role in the ongoing evolution of one Cleveland brewery: Platform Beer Co.
On one rainy May evening, Platform President Justin Carson walks through the building and discusses the plans in place for each floor of the 120,000-square-foot space.
One floor is being converted into a storage and shipping area. The one above that will hold old casks used for barrel aging batches of beer. The main floors currently house most of Platform’s brewing and canning equipment, including a new canner that’s more than twice as efficient as the old setup. That’s a good thing, because Platform ordered five brand new brewing tanks, which brings the total at the Vega location to eight. Construction is also underway for a new event space that will feature food from a notable, but as of yet unnamed, Cleveland chef.
While more conservative businesses might be hesitant to take on as many projects as Platform, Carson doesn’t seem worried. In a sense, the ongoing changes in the old Leisy’s building are right in line with Platform’s aggressive rate of growth. However, the company’s origin began with a much different idea than where the company is currently heading.
“The objective originally was to brew for other companies, but Platform grew so quickly that we never had any tank space there,” Carson says back at the brewery’s tasting room on Lorain Avenue. “JAFB in Wooster opened up about six to 12 months before we did. Do you know what JAFB stands for? Just Another Fucking Brewery. When I read that, I went to my partner Paul [Benner] and said that we needed to be really creative with whatever we’re doing, something that differentiates us.”
That new spin was to help local home brewers start their own breweries in addition to producing beers under the Platform name. By the third brewer, Carson and Benner realized that people didn’t necessarily want to leave their jobs and start their own businesses; they were passionate amateurs who wanted a chance to make and can their recipes with professional-grade equipment.
While the home-brewing incubator didn’t pan out quite as planned, the public was responding to Platform’s beer offerings. Instead of brewing beer for other businesses, the company went to work experimenting on its own recipes. They used data analysis to learn about ongoing beer trends and applied their own twists to create products based on both creativity and what the numbers suggested that people wanted.
“That’s how we try and apply things; if somebody does something here and it’s proven, can you do it slightly different and have it still work?” Carson says between sips of Luchador Lager, a beer made in collaboration with Momocho’s Eric Williams. “That’s how my mind works—trying to constantly differentiate ourselves and figure out ways to do things slightly different, but not crazy different.”
Carson and the Platform team have never been afraid of being a bit different, including their propensity for taking on multiple projects instead of aiming for slow, gradual growth. While not all businesses could sustain such an aggressive path, Platform has thrived, expanding from producing 90 barrels in the company’s first six months to upwards of 2,000 barrels in a single month these days.
That number should continue to grow in the next year thanks to the new tanks at the Leisy building that will help them increase production of their own beers and contract space out for other local businesses. In addition to the ongoing changes down on Vega Avenue, Carson, Benner, and Platform’s 70-odd employees have plenty of other projects to handle, such as the ongoing growth of a tasting room that opened in Columbus back in 2016 and potential distribution to Philadelphia. Platform even maintains a tie to its incubator roots by partnering with a few home-brewing competitions each year and agreeing to can the winning recipe.
While not everything has always gone exactly to plan, Carson has no regrets about the aggressive pace Platform has chosen for itself.
“When someone asks that question of whether or not you grow too quickly or if you feel like it’s too quickly, you’re still going at your own pace,” he says. “It’s one of those shame on you situations. If you don’t grow from your mistakes and don’t improve it, then you should probably close your business and not do it.
“I tell my employees all the time, especially when you can tell people are getting burned out or feel overwhelmed, the coolest thing is when you look back three months, six months, 12 months and think, ‘Wow, we really accomplished that.’”
Time will tell if Platform can manage to keep up the pace, but for now the business is building something exciting in the heart of an old Cleveland brewing institution, and Carson, Benner, and company wouldn’t have it any other way.