Here’s the kind of place Trailhead Brewery is: On a Friday night, both outdoor picnic tables, which constitute most of the indoor seating, are occupied. There’s just one seat left at the short bar, which I take, watching players rotate in and out at the lone dart board. The scores are hard to see, but in large print chalk, a quote from Hunter S. Thompson tells you everything you need to know here: “Good people drink good beer.”
If this were a basement or man cave, you’d only be surprised by how many friends came out on such a cold night. Otherwise, the small room, which is full but not crowded, feels a lot like someone’s home. Which is sort of the case for Eli Smart, Trailhead’s owner and brewmaster.
By day, he’s in daddy mode, hanging out with his 2-year-old, Calvin, and saving the grown-up conversation for later as they work from toddler games to baby-food bland cartoons.
“Then I come here and serve beer to adults,” Eli says, a full smile on his face.
He’s one of the folks playing darts, taking his turns between conversations at the bar and refilling growlers with one of the four beers on tap. I order the Dark Passenger, a Belgian imperial fittingly named for fictional Dexter Morgan’s evil urges. It’s a favorite among the regulars. At 10.5% ABV (alcohol by volume), it doesn’t take much to stir one’s own repressed impulses, which trend more whimsically uncharacteristic than felonious.
Or so it seems as Andrea Irland tells me when I explain what I ordered. She says the first time her husband David had Dark Passenger, he was talking about getting a tattoo after the first pint. After the second, he said, “We should all get tattoos.” By the bottom of the third, he decided Eli would administer the ink.
None of them got tattoos that night, as best I can tell, but Eli wears the Trailhead logo on his forearm. It’s either a reflection of his commitment to the brewery, or of its impact on him. Probably both.
“I always wanted to open a brewery,” he says, “But I didn’t know it’d be this small.”
Having made batches at home for years, his aspirations for a brewery grew out of his time in Colorado where the microbrewery scene is significant. But being daddy daycare most of the week makes doing anything more too difficult right now.
“I tell people I’m just a homebrewer with bigger toys,” he says, later adding, “I plan to get bigger as my son gets bigger.”
Eli grew up in Hawaii but didn’t follow his friends to the University of Oregon, instead abandoning the West Coast for an education degree at Ohio State where he met his wife, a native Buckeye. They moved to the Highest State and he tried his hand at teaching, but it wasn’t for him. A couple years ago, when they moved to the Akron area for his wife’s new job, they eventually decided Eli should take his hobby full-time.
Trailhead opened on October 25, 2013. In the year or so since, he’s worked up a nice list of reoccurring beers, like the Calvin and Hops, a nod to his little boy and a bright, pungent concession to demanding “hopheads.” It’s popular with the regulars and newbies alike, but popularity alone doesn’t guarantee a beer’s return. There’s a vanilla wheat he says he won’t make again despite the praise it earned. A man of high standards, Eli just didn’t like the way it turned out.
As is, he typically makes a batch a week, good for three kegs. The rotation gives him and his customers some regularity while keeping everything fresh. That schedule and the brewery’s small size also allow him to experiment, which is good. He needs the outlet for his creative side because he spends so much time thinking about beer these days.
Thus, the barrel with a pile of cranberries at the bottom and his plans to soon work with Bent Tree coffee as he has already with Pearl.
He says Akron has been more impressive than he expected and he really likes “the vibe” in Merriman Valley, where he set up shop. This despite the presence of R. Shea Brewing, another nanobrewer, opening up just a couple doors down in the same plaza.
“Oh, Ron?” Eli says, referencing R. Shea’s owner. “He’s a good guy and makes good beer.”
So, you don’t feel competitive, like someone’s stepped into your territory?
“No. Beer is real collaborative,” he answers.
If anything, Eli says he’s excited because their proximity and relatively similar size means there’s a better chance the two will work together.
Between the bar and a bookshelf, one of the picnic tables has filled up with a group joking and laughing as they seem to simultaneously play trivia and UNO.
A guy in what appears to be a ski suit claims the other picnic table, sitting on the tabletop and facing the bar. He’s outed as the owner of the only Trailhead growler left in the building when an older, bearded customer tries buying it from Eli.
“I’ll take $650 for it,” the tabletop squatter offers, clarifying, “In cash.” His would-be customer was thinking something closer to five bucks. They do not reach an accord.
Back at the bar, Andrea, David and their friend Heidi are talking about the best reason to visit East Liverpool—the mystical-sounding “Point of Beginning” resides there—when Elise, the Irland’s 21-year-old daughter, walks in to hang out with her parents.
It seems odd to me but as the parent of an almost 4-year-old, it gives me hope my little girl will still like me when she’s no longer required to by law.
David says it’s like this a lot for them. On Wednesdays, he plays darts here with their son Bryan Shaun, who he’s also caught on occasion sampling the tap instead of hunkering down in class. Eli jumps in saying that he’s only skipped class once. They go back and forth playfully about it for a minute before the conversation changes and Eli takes another turn at the dart board again.
And all at once, Trailhead feels less like Cheers and more of what it really is: a little family.
Correction: Shaun, I’m sorry. I’m a moron and misspelled your name “Bryan.” My most sincere apologies, sir. – Chris H.