Homegrown alcohol industry a bright spot for Ohio

Homegrown craft breweries are flourishing in Ohio.

Jeremy Hobson: Ohio is the latest state to turn to its liquor industry for jobs. The state recently transferred control of its booze-buying arm to a state-funded, privately-run job creation agency called JobsOhio. And the deal couldn't have come at a better time for the agency. Liquor sales are up for imported spirits and homegrown libations.

Brian Bull of WCPN reports from Cleveland.


Brian Bull: Last year was one of the rainiest ever in northeast Ohio -- not the best weather if you raise grapes.

But Nick Ferrante of Ferrante Winery in Geneva, Ohio, is toasting 2011 anyway, because of strong sales.

Nick Ferrante: We just loaded 15 cases of wine into a gentleman's car, so I think we're going to finish strongly, by 5 to 6 percent.

Bull: Over last year?

Ferrante: Yes, I think so.

The Ohio Department of Commerce says there are now 164 licensed wine makers, about a third more than there was five years ago. The number of licensed beer makers has nearly doubled from 2007. Commerce head David Goodman says alcohol sales in Ohio are at record highs.

David Goodman: So far this year, we're at approximately $770 million in revenue, which is historic.

That growth jibes with national alcohol sales. Craft breweries in particular have seen beer sales improve over the last two years -- good news for companies like the Great Lakes Brewing Company, based in Cleveland. Its kegging line rolls barrel after barrel, almost nonstop. Co-owner Patrick Conway says Great Lakes saw record sales in 2011 -- up 30 percent over 2010. And he added 20 new positions.

Patrick Conway: And we are penciling in another healthy double-digit growth again for next year, I think around 20 to 25 percent.

Seems like most alcohol makers share these high hopes, including entrepreneurs like Tom Lix, who'll introduce his Cleveland Whiskey brand next summer. While many startups are dealing with post-recession jitters, Lix is confident.

Tom Lix: Five years from now, we'll be a $50 million company, employ about 35 to 40 people, and I think it'll be a great success for us.

In an economy where it seems every major industry has dried up, alcohol flows on.

In Cleveland, I'm Brian Bull for Marketplace.

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