The craft beer business has been booming for the last two decades. Since the late 1980’s, craft beer has been slowly nibbling at the edges of the big name beers that people knew well and enjoyed. Sam Adams led the charge at a time when there were roughly 90 breweries in the United States. That number has grown to over 2,500 in 2013, and it looks like there is no slowing down. Dayton has multiple breweries and brew pubs opening in the area, adding to the seventy that already dot the state of Ohio. As this beer explosion was happening, there was a business that was quietly growing with it. Belmont Party Supply, owned by community supporter and beer advocate Mike Schwartz, will be celebrating 30 years of business next year. They also have been named by several websites and magazines as one of the best beer stores in the world. While beer lovers see Mike as a cornerstone of the Dayton beer scene, it was something that may not have come to pass if events played out differently.
“I actually quit drinking beer, because I am not a fan of carbonation, and I don’t like cold beer,” Schwartz said, sipping a Bell’s Expedition Stout at the Trolley Stop. “I didn’t know anything about drinking a warm beer like English ale. I was so slow at drinking my beer it would turn warm, and obviously we all know what an American major tastes like when it turns warm.” He quit drinking beer around the same time he bought the Belmont Party Supply in January of 1984. It was two years before the craft beer movement was even truly born, and he bought Belmont as it was going out of business. Mike had been sidelined by illness from his day job as an electrician, ultimately bought the failing shop for one reason. “I was bored!”
The explosion of craft beer in the late 1980’s helped his business, and his knowledge of beer, grow. That growth eventually led to some problems in the middle of the 1990’s. “They were putting a lot of crap on the shelves. Very expensive crap. I started to see breweries putting money on their labels and not in their beers. The consumers stood strong. I had to react by tasting beers before I put them on the shelf. At one time I had distributors bringing me beers to evaluate before they carried them. It was that bad.” Mike developed a reputation in the area as the guy that knew beer. “I used to have my beer manager collect the samples. She would sit down and pour the beer on Friday afternoon. Then she would tell me what to evaluate it as. I would evaluate it. She would not tell me the price. I would evaluate it by how much money I thought they put into it and how it fed into the style.” He had good taste even then. He was selling North Coast and Avery beers before they were widely popular.
He gained some of his vast knowledge of beer the same way most of us do: trial and error, tasting many different beers, and learning about their flavors through experience. He also went the extra step and became certified. “First of all I took the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). If you are a brewer, that will teach you how to brew. It will teach you all the physics, the science behind all the beers. What they are supposed to be, how they are supposed to taste, and what makes them taste that way. Yes, you have certain ingredients, but it’s how your treat that certain ingredient to get the flavor you want.” There is another program, the Cicerone program, which is for beer handlers. Mike suggests that if you are a beer lover, either of those programs would be beneficial for your knowledge of beer. He also networked to learn more behind the scenes information about the beers and the programs he loves. He has met such beer luminaries as Gordon Strong, one of the creators of the BJCP and a master brewer in his own right; Randy Mosher, 27 year veteran of home brewing, author, and part owner of Five Rabbit Brewery in Chicago; and Fred Karm, brewer at the increasingly popular Hopppin’ Frog brewery in Akron, OH. Some of the luminaries in the beer world he had the pleasure to interview, and those interviews are posted on the Belmont Party Supply’s website for all of our benefit. Mike’s reputation grew as his business grew, and soon he was not just known through the state or the region, but the world.
For those of you not in know, Belmont Party Supply is known well beyond the confines of Dayton. Mike spoke about one of the incidents that illustrated how widely known this local beer store is. “My wife went out to San Diego last year for a family wedding and people that grew up next door to us flew in as well. They had just come back from Belgium. They were doing a brewery tour, and they asked they tour guide if they ship to the United States. The tour guide asked ‘Where are you?’, and our friends said in Ohio, right by Dayton. He responded by saying ‘Do you know Mike Schwartz over at Belmont Party Supply? He carries our beer. That to me is an impressive thing.” BeerAdvocate has rated it as one of the best in the country, and RateBeer has it ranked as one of the top beer places in the world. After being in the business for thirty years, Mike knows what it takes to create a successful business. “I did not do that all alone. I am the guy at the top but it took great people working for me, and the customers that requested beers. We worked hard with the distributors. I could not have done it without the distributors. We carry some of their slow moving items, and when we do that, they feel the need to pay us back.” And pay him back they have. One of the beers he was paid back with was the ultra rare and highly desired Westvleteren 12. “It came in through Shelton Brothers Importing, through a distributor of course. We carry all of Shelton Brothers beers, and they have showed us appreciation by giving us some one offs.” It is smart business practices like this that allow Belmont to carry beers no one else has, and end up with beers that everyone will want.
Mike Schwartz’s beer expertise is not just in tasting in and selling it, but brewing it as well. Brewtensils started as shop within Belmont Party Supply, helping local brewers make their own beers at home. It eventually grew into its own shop right next door, offering not only brewing supplies but brewing classes and contests as well. His favorite style to brew is imperial stouts. “It is very English, it tastes better the warmer it gets. I have had bartenders pour me a glass and put it in the microwave for ten to fifteen seconds to knock that chill off.” The classes not only give Mr. Schwartz a chance to help local brewers pursue their craft, they also give him a little insight into what brewers are starting to explore. Many big beer trends start in kitchens of amateur brewers, so this becomes a little lab for him to observe. What is he seeing on the horizon? “I really think you are going to see more herbs going into beers. People are more conscious of nature. Some of the people herbs are using for flavor and bitterness are phenomenal. Your saisons are increasing now. You can play all kinds of games with saisons with herbs, ginger, lemongrass, all kinds of stuff. I see that coming around the corner, I really do.”
Beer brewing classes and tastings around town are just a few ways Mike stays in touch with the community. And he is a big supporter of this community. He is part of the brain trust that is bringing Big Beers and Barley Wines back for its fifth year at the Roundhouse on October 5. For the connoisseurs of craft beer and looking for more local flavor, this is one of the last big beer festivals of the year. The list of beers for this year’s festival is impressive. Revolution Brewing’s Very Mad Cow stout is almost worth the price of admission on its own. Mike has other reasons other than supporting local breweries and beer lovers. “This organization (the Resident Home Association) came to me and asked me to do a beer tasting for them. I said ‘No, I want to do a festival. I want to do a knockout festival.’ I told them they would have to handle all the money, but I will not accept any users or advisors fees. No one will make a penny off of this. This is the fifth one, and now we’re typically putting in $8000 to $10,000 a year in profit.” He gives back quite a bit to the community that supports him, not just locally, but nationally. He has done charity work for others as well, like our veterans. “Probably the neatest thing I have ever done in this trade was helping my sister down in Columbia, SC, home of Ft. Jackson. She belonged to an Elks Club, and she asked me to come down and do a beer tasting for the Wounded Warrior Walk. It is the hospice for wounded warriors. We raised quite a bit of money. I got to meet some high ranking officials down there. One high ranking officer invited me out to the firing range to fire some of the big guns. I wasn’t able to go because I was flying out the next day.”
The wisdom Mike has about beer and his willingness to share it is obvious to anyone who speaks with him for any length of time. It makes Mike a quiet but influential figure in the beer community, and he knows there is plenty of room for everyone. “I think the breweries have a great chance in Dayton, especially with Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Kentucky not too far away.” And he thinks Dayton has just started to hit its stride. “I don’t know what happened to Dayton. It has one of the world’s best water supplies. It is very comparable to English water. It is beautiful ale water, and there is plenty of it here.” When asked if he thought that the Miami Valley was getting too many breweries and brew pubs too soon, his answer was a very quick “Absolutely not.” He even sees some lessons that the “fizzy yellow beer” producers can teach all of these new brewers. “Back in the late 1800’s, Anheuser Busch was making a European style lager. They almost went belly up until they decided to lighten the beer up by using rice. Anheuser Busch actually listened to the consumer, adjusted, and hit a home run. Americans were looking for a lighter, drier finish. I don’t have a problem with yellow, fizzy beer. There is a beer for everybody, and we all need to accept that and honor someone’s beer. If that’s what they like, that’s what they like. If everyone is drinking that beer, they leave my imperial stout alone!”
Mike Schwartz is not just a lover of beer; he is a lover of the industry and the community that supports him. He gives that love right back in a way that raises all the people around him. He does what he can to make sure everyone gets the help they need. His view of success sums it all up quite nicely: “If you work hard all your life and you take all the proceeds and experience and keep it to yourself, you really haven’t gained anything. But if you can share it with other people and do good for unfortunate people, which makes me feel good. That’s success right there. You can live in your mansions, but if you can’t share it, you haven’t succeeded at life.” I would gladly raise a glass to that sentiment.