Brewing up an empire

A little more than a year ago, Crooked River Brewing Co. was on the brink of ruin. The local brewery’s debts had exceeded its assets, and the company was in bankruptcy proceedings.

But C. David Snyder, a Cleveland entrepreneur who had recently sold his Realogic IT firm to New York-based Computer Associates, swooped in at the last moment to rescue the company, just 48 hours before its liquidation deadline.

Many people snickered that the move would serve as an expensive hobby for Snyder, further speculating that his recently deepened pockets would ensure Crooked River would at least survive long enough to allow him to live out a lifelong fantasy.

But Snyder wasn’t in it for fancy. He viewed the investment as a serious one. He had a plan, a goal, if you will, to become the largest microbrewer in Ohio and a major player in the national marketplace.

Since then, Snyder, who invested more than $500,000 of his own money to save the ailing company, has delivered on his promise. Within days of taking the brewing reins, he revamped Crooked River’s marketing plan and reassessed where the company was spending its advertising dollars.

Snyder then snapped up several smaller breweries. The purchases gave him access to those breweries’ national distribution channels. Last year, Snyder said he decided to buy Crooked River out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy because he’d heard the only problem was cash flow.

“It was a classic small business problem,” he said immediately after the purchase. “They were undercapitalized. I just sold Realogic and have some funds to invest.”

It didn’t take long for Snyder to initiate an aggressive growth campaign which resulted in Crooked River becoming the largest independent brewer in Ohio. The company won that distinction in June after its purchase of Cincinnati-based Hudepohl/Schoenling, a move that also put it among the nation’s 20 largest brewing companies.

But Snyder wasn’t finished. In August, Crooked River’s holding company, Snyder International Brewing Group LLC, bought Maryland-based Frederick Brewing Co. Its addition, combined with Hudepohl and Crooked River’s fare, gives Snyder ownership of 50 brands of beer.

While Snyder is one step closer to his goal, he’s also improved Crooked River’s core product. His first big move was to create Expansion Draft, a brew that hit the shelves the day of the new Cleveland Browns expansion draft. It was a daring move, mainly because it was a cold-filtered beer in the tradition of Budweiser and Miller High Life — precisely the type of product that microbrew enthusiasts typically avoid.

But, as with other ventures Snyder touches, the new brew was a hit. More than 9,000 cases sold by the end of February, and as the Browns return season kicked off, it continues to be a big seller.

Snyder has other plans to keep the company moving with the development of new Crooked River brews. While he hasn’t been specific in what those will be, he says he plans to relabel some of the company’s existing brands to gain wider appeal.

Jim Vickers ([email protected]) is associate editor at SBN.