Written By : Douglas Trattner from Cleveland Scene
Willoughby Brewing Company, launched in 1998 by T.J. Reagan, helped spur the revitalization of downtown Willoughby while simultaneously making some damn fine craft beer. The award-winning brewpub, set in a 120-year-old railcar repair depot, enjoyed a remarkable run under a handful of owners until January 2020, when the landlord locked out the last owners for nonpayment of rent.
Since then, the hulking property has sat fallow. But as luck would have it, entrepreneur Bobby Ehasz was looking for his next craft beer project. Ehasz, a career military guy, is a partner in Pompatus Brewing, a nano brewery in Bainbridge. While scouting locations for possible expansion, he was pointed in the direction of downtown Willoughby. While the former brewpub was not a good fit for Pompatus, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up, he says.
“In `96, `98 when they were building this place out, they had some real vision,” he explains. “Whoever did that was brilliant; they really did a beautiful job getting this place built.”
Already work has begun to convert the former Willoughby Brewing into Tricky Tortoise (4057 Erie St.). It’s a hefty undertaking considering the building’s current state of affairs, but Ehasz is already knee-deep into the venture.
In terms of interior renovations, Ehasz says the goal is to strike a balance between the building’s rich history and classic architecture and the desire to create something more modern, crisp and bright.
“There’s a lot of history here, and it’s a beautiful, gorgeous, historic building,” he says. “It just feels heavy.”
He plans to open the space up by removing some interior divider walls. He’ll update the lighting, paint the walls and highlight the metalwork. A second bar will be built in the dining room to remove some pressure off the main bar in front of the brewhouse. In preparation for the return of live music, the stage will get a facelift and the sound and lighting systems will be updated.
Ehasz intends to preserve the artfully painted classic beer labels that adorn the brick walls. And that elevated model train that circles above? It’s nonnegotiable, he says.
“My father-in-law is a train engineer, so when we walked in the place my wife is like, ‘We’re keeping the train,’” he says.
In terms of food service, Ehasz says the emphasis will be on “brew” rather than “pub.” After all, the dining scene has exploded all around the brewery in recent years.
“I don’t want to be a restaurant that serves beer, I want to be a brewery that will feed you,” he explains. “My intent is to strip the kitchen and really cut it back. I’m not going to stand there and sauté people’s green beans. That’s not what we need to be doing.”
He envisions a simple pub menu with items like wings, pizza, pierogies and pie, but that could change once he hires a kitchen manager.
Ehasz’ first major hire was Caleb Brown, a brewer who worked at Platform/AB and Thirsty Dog. Brown is inheriting a storied brewhouse – one that turned out award-winners like Peanut Butter Cup Coffee Porter and Railway Razz – but guests can expect Brown to start with mainly classic styles, albeit with his own twist.
“It will be fun to see what the equipment and space creates,” he explains. “You know, a lot of times a brewery has a house flavor, so to say, and we’ll see how that’s changed and what trajectory it takes.”
Unlike the bigger, bolder, wilder creations that his former employer was known for, the suds at Tricky Tortoise will lean clean, drinkable and have a broader appeal.
“In my mind, you’re always pushing to educate the consumer towards balance and nuance rather than to how many hops can we throw in this and how many flavors can you throw in that,” he says. “I think that’s what we’re seeing in the craft market overall right now. The pendulum is swinging back from the pastry stouts to things with nuance and balance and simplicity.”
Brown has been on the job for months and he’s excited to fire up the brewhouse, get the beer flowing and become a member of this close-knit community.
“Willoughby is such a unique place and Willoughby Brewing was such a cornerstone to the whole city, especially that downtown area, that getting it back up and running is more than just the brewery, it’s part of the essence of that community up there,” he says.
Ehasz has set an ambitious goal for himself when it comes to opening the doors.
“We are trying to figure out a way to get through all the paperwork and all the processes and all the health departments and all the licenses and everything else to have some sort of soft opening party for Halloween,” he says.