With the help of new investors, a pair of beloved Ohio beers is getting a second lease on life.
Drink Up Columbus first reported last week that Hilltop Heritage Lager and Hilltop Light Lager, formerly made by Columbus' Four String Brewing, would be making a return. The brewery unexpectedly closed last year without providing details, but founder Dan Cochran said in a statement that he wanted to get his most popular brands "back to the market as quickly as possible."
That happened because of Blake Squires, an Akron-based tech and product entrepreneur behind a collection of startups—and the subsequent sales of those companies to new owners—in areas of digital media and health and wellness. He's currently the founder and managing partner of Generator Works, a team of entrepreneurs that have so far only invested in health companies and focus on "data, tech, and symbiotic networks to optimize products, operations, sales and marketing for startup to high growth enterprises."
According to his LinkedIn profile, Squires has served as president and CEO of Hilltop Brewing LLC—the new company overseeing production of the Lagers—since January. The two beers will be contract brewed at Brew Detroit, a Michigan-based company that was previously featured on GBH and has a client list that has included Stroh's, Greenbush Brewing, Lake Brothers Beer, and Kid Rock's own Badass American Lager.
According to Drink Up Columbus, the brands are set to return to stores by July 4. At this time, there’s no indication if the newly formed company would face any copyright issues from Clarkston, Michigan’s Hilltop Brewing, which exists about 40 miles away from where Hilltop Heritage and Light lagers will be made. Four String did own the trademark for "Hilltop Heritage Lager" at the time of its closing, which it presumably provided to Squires.
Regardless of what comes of the brand, Heritage Lager was an unqualified success when Four String went under. With 16-ounce six-packs selling for around $8, Heritage Lager was representing almost 60% of Four String’s IRI volume sales in grocery, convenience, and other stores in Ohio. The 4.2% ABV Lager created as a craft entry into the country’s most popular overall beer style grew by 46% in Ohio stores from 2017-2018. In 2018, Heritage Lager sold about the same volume in Ohio IRI stores as SweetWater 420 Extra Pale Ale, Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA, and more than the entirety of Terrapin Beer Company’s lineup.
The Light Lager version, debuting in 2018, immediately became the brewery's #3 brand behind Heritage Lager and Brass Knuckle American Pale Ale.
In a release provided to the Columbus Dispatch, Squires said that “we constantly hear how much people miss Hilltop," and Cochran added that “it seems to resonate with local beer drinkers a lot.”
For a few years, there's been continued interest by breweries to bring back classic and heritage beers, often examples that represent popular brands from a generation or two ago. The comeback of Hilltop Heritage Lager is part of that broader movement, especially as more small breweries put Lager onto shelves.
Brands like Lone Star (+4%) and the Narragansett family of beers (+6.3%) showed growth from 2017-2018 in IRI stores, with Rainier and Yazoo's Gerst Amber Ale selling high volumes amongst otherwise flat growth. Gerst represents Yazoo Brewing Company's top-selling packaged brand in grocery and other stores after the Nashville brewery brought back the local legend—Gerst was made in the city from 1893 to 1954, excluding during Prohibition—in 2015. Even Upland Brewing Company's Champagne Velvet, which first came to life in 1902 and was revived in 2013, is among the top core beers for the Indiana brewery in IRI stores.
Given Squires’ background and investment acumen, it seems that the success of those brands would be a no-brainer to resurrect. Especially if there’s a chance down the line, as he has with other companies, to sell the brands for a profit.
It’s all part of an ongoing investment into beer from those not in the industry. Pennsylvania’s Weyerbacher just sold a 55% stake to a private equity group and Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing Company sold an undisclosed majority stake to a venture capital firm and real estate company as a way to kickoff its own consortium of breweries. They’re just two examples of breweries going down that road, which has also included the likes of Dogfish Head and Stone.
As sales slow and breweries work to find new niches to fill (including hospitality), the unfortunate reality of company closures is also met with new opportunity, albeit from previously unexpected places. There are examples of doctors opening their own breweries, but the idea of healthcare entrepreneurs jumping in to run a business venture in the brewing industry still feels a little different. Regardless, given the popularity of Hilltop Heritage Lager before Four String’s shuttering, Ohio drinkers are likely to be singing a happy tune soon enough.