MOUNT VERNON – Steve and Tina Ballantyne attended the June First Friday as spectators.
They walked around downtown Mount Vernon, among hundreds of others, popping into storefronts and dining at local vendors. They met friends at Happy Street Brü-Werks and had a beer.
It was a time of reflection – looking back on all they'd been through over the last year – and anticipation. They knew that by this time next month, their lives would be much different.
"It was nice," Steve said. "It was our last hoo-rah before getting to the real work here."
This Friday, after months of hard work and preparation, the Ballantynes will open Mount Vernon's third brewery. It will be located downtown, at 7 N. Main St. – between Main Street Makers Market and Down Home Leather, where Pieces Sewing and Alterations used to stand.
The Mount Vernon Brewing Company will serve a variety of craft beers, cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks. It will also serve sandwiches, subs, charcuterie boards and more.
"People are going to wonder why we’re opening a brewery, because there is (Stein Brewing Company) just down the street. There’s Happy Street, which we go to all the time. And we like them both. We’re regulars at both of them. But I always feel like there’s always room for more craft beer ..." Steve said with a smile.
"They’re all very different places. So we’re not trying to reproduce what the other two breweries in town have done. We’ve kind of had our own vision.”
And that vision began years – maybe even decades – ago, according to Tina.
The couple met in the early 1990s while attending Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center in Columbus. They began dating shortly thereafter, and over the years, developed a shared passion for beer.
It began as a dream – the idea that one day, they'd run their own brewery. Over time, however, the stars began to align.
"We just wanted to make sure it was the right time in our lives," Tina said. "And now, our kids are grown, so we have the free time to do this.”
The couple moved from Columbus to Mount Vernon 15 years ago, when Steve took a job with Knox Community Hospital as a network engineer. They'd always liked the community, Steve said, and the move gave them an opportunity to raise their children in a quieter setting.
“The schools were better for the kids, in our opinion …" said Tina, who worked for years as a veterinary technician. "And just the small-town (atmosphere) – you know, coming from that big of a city to here, it was a nice feel for the kids.”
As their children grew older, Steve and Tina began to think more seriously about starting their own brewery. The conversation arose naturally, time and time again.
"We love going to different breweries," Steve said. "And every time we'd go, we’d be like, ‘You know, we can do this.’"
The Ballantynes' preparation began mentally. They completed the Columbus Ale Trail twice, Steve said, and at each stop, they'd think about what they'd do differently.
"It was fun to see how other people did it. Every place you went to was very different, you know? And I still feel like some of the places with the best beer had the worst luck at running a business ... You know, some folks had a huge following and great numbers of people coming to drink their beer, and they had like the most awful beer you could imagine," Steve cracked.
"We learned a lot ... We were always taking notes. Like we would say, ‘Man, if I ran this place, there’s no way I’d do that.’”
Around the same time, Steve and Tina began experimenting with home brewing. They'd make batches of craft beer in their kitchen on the weekends – a method of relaxation after a long week of work – then package them in bottles and cans. What they didn't drink, they'd give away to their friends – usually with a personalized label on the side.
"We still give away a lot of beer," Tina said with a chuckle. "They’re probably more anxious for us not to open because they know that they’re gonna get to drink a lot more free beer right now.”
They took note of what their friends liked and didn't like, and began looking around for potential business locations. The search quickly became complicated.
"We had looked at a lot of spaces around town, and some of them looked great on the outside, but were disappointing inside, and vice versa," Steve said. "Some of the spaces were perfect, but the landlords were a little iffy about a brewery – you know, they just didn’t like the idea or didn’t understand the idea."
Finding a spot downtown proved especially difficult, Steve said, given state regulations that discourage the operation of bars within a short distance of churches.
"We actually looked at a property on the east side of the Square that we really loved ... but (it was) just too close to three churches ..." Steve said with a laugh. "(The churches are) allowed to object, that’s really what it is. So we don’t know if they would object, but we didn’t want to go down that road."
Despite these challenges, the Ballantynes kept looking.
“I’ve been carrying around a zoning book under my arm for like two-and-a-half years now. Every time we’d drive by a new place and saw a 'For Rent' sign, we’d scribble it down and then we’d go home and check it out later. And a lot of times, it was just zoned improperly, and we know what that involves and we just didn’t want to try that," Steve said.
"We definitely had to find a place that was already zoned 100-percent for what we were trying to do, so that there’s no objections. We didn’t want anybody to object.”
Steve registered the name "Mount Vernon Brewing Company, LTD" with the state in 2018, knowing the time would come. Then, last July, the Ballantynes struck gold.
"We came across (this property) and the landlord was super excited ..." Steve said. "He gave us keys right away, and we just started to fix it."
The previous business owner had vacated the property a few months prior, Steve said, and the inside needed work. So the Ballantynes got busy. They spent the summer and fall toiling in the heat (the space did not have air conditioning originally), stripping the interior down and rebuilding anew.
"We did a lot of scraping and peeling and pulling of nails, and then prepping all the walls, getting them primed," Steve said.
They also applied for a state liquor permit, which is required before any new brewery can open. This process typically doesn't take long, Steve said; when they began renovations last summer, they expected to be open by Christmas.
But because of the pandemic-related delays, the Ballantynes heard nothing for months.
“COVID was a nightmare. We waited eight months to hear anything from the state," Tina said. "And that’s just because everybody was working from home, so they didn’t have the staff to come out and do the inspections."
The wait wore on the Ballantynes, Tina said. While Steve kept his full-time job at KCH (and will continue to do so after the brewery opens), Tina had stepped away from her career as a veterinary technician. She wondered, during those long winter months, whether this business – a decades-long dream for her and her husband – was worth it.
“It was difficult," Tina said. "There were times I was like, ‘I gotta get a real job, I can’t be here doing construction and brewing and that stuff. I’ve gotta get a real job that pays money.’ But if I do that, I don’t have the time to be here, getting this place ready and getting the brew ready."
But the Ballantynes held on. They stayed the course, despite the circumstances. And in April, after eight months of renovation and anticipation, the state responded. The approval process began.
It was smooth-sailing from there, Steve said. Knox Public Health approved the operation in June – the final hurdle in a year full of hard work and waiting – and the Ballantynes began brewing.
"And we’ve just been brewing non-stop for a couple weeks," Steve said Tuesday with a laugh. "And now we’re kind of at the point that everything we’ve brewed is coming ready ... We’ve got a little bit left on the shelf to then replenish, and then we’re right back to brewing.”
The inside of the property has been completely transformed – now home to a full bar and window seating (the space holds roughly 50 people, according to the Ballantynes). There is a back room, where people can eat and drink while they watch their beer being brewed (a majority of the MVBC's hops come from Rustic Brew Farm in Marysville, Steve said, just an hour away).
There is also a digital membership system being developed, Steve said, where patrons will be able to sign in to win rewards and have their favorite music played in the brewery.
“We made it!" Steve said proudly, when asked where he got the idea. The system requires a complex technological hook-up between several devices, including an Alexa speaker and a Windows tablet.
"We had lots of time," Tina cracked.
The brewery will have 10 taps running at all times, Steve said. Patrons will be able to purchase half-pours, full-pours, or flights of four. The brewery will also offer growler and howler fills, as well as bottles sold in four-packs.
A wide variety of original beers will be on-tap this weekend, including two IPAs, a lager, two seltzers, a Russian imperial stout, a chocolate cherry stout, a whiskey barrel stout, a Hefeweizen, and a blueberry lemon shandy. Seven kinds of cocktails will also be served, along with non-alcoholic drinks.
Patrons will also be able to order a wide variety of cold subs, sandwiches and wraps. They will be able to create their own charcuterie board, choosing from different kinds of meats, cheeses, fruits and bread. Chips, cookies and candy will also be sold in the establishment.
"We kind of leaned in on the food," Steve said. "We originally were gonna do food, then we threw it out. A lot of people really wanted food. That’s like the second or third question we get. ‘When are you gonna open?’ is number one, ‘What kind of beers do you have?’, and ‘Will there be food?’ That’s pretty much the three questions we get."
Like the drink menu, the brewery's food selection will change over time, Tina said. Some of the changes will be seasonal, and some will be based on customer preferences.
“We’re trying to feel it out," Steve said. "Not all of those are gonna be top-sellers. So we’re trying to feel (it out) a little bit, see what sells.”
All alcoholic drinks at the brewery are named after family pets, family jokes, or a combination of the two. These were the most popular names among their friend group, Steve and Tina said, so they ran with it.
"We had a whole bunch of really strange names, some of which had historical context for Knox County, and we ended up scrapping a lot of them because the pet names were much more popular," Steve said.
The names also reflect the family atmosphere Steve and Tina were striving for with the business. Their two children, now in their 20s, will work alongside them at the brewery.
"It’s a family thing," Tina said. "And I know when it comes to beer, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not a family thing.’ But it is."
Long-term, the Ballantynes hope their business becomes a staple in the community. They'd like to get involved with First Fridays, and become an active part of the city's downtown revitalization. They'd like to potentially partner with the other two breweries in town on different concepts.
But for now, they're focused on just one thing: bringing their idea, decades in the making, to the public.
“It’s scary. It’s exciting," Tina said. "Because we’ve put everything into this now, so hopefully it works."
At the same time, in many respects, the pressure is off now. Both Tina and Steve agreed the process, while difficult, has been gratifying in itself. They've proved something to themselves along the way.
"It’s definitely worth it," Tina said. "Even if it doesn’t work out, we’ve put everything into this. It was worth it."
Steve looks at Tina and chuckles.
“Can’t say we didn’t try.”
The Mount Vernon Brewing Company is open from 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It's open from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, and from 12:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. The brewery is closed on Tuesday and Thursday.