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Looking for in-depth coverage of stories that are important to Northeast Ohio and beyond? WKSU reporters take the time to dig deeper on the stories that deserve more time, to talk to the newsmakers you want and need to hear from.

To Understand Ohio: How Craft Beer Can Help Rust Belt Cities

Photo of Phoenix Brewing Company
The Phoenix Brewing Company in Mansfield, Ohio, is located in a 100-year-old building which used to be a mortuary and funeral home.

Craft breweries have been on a steady rise throughout the country becoming hot spots for people and providing benefits to local economies. Ohio now has over 300 craft brewers and is one of the top five craft brewers in the country.  

We've been checking in with Ohio author David Giffels as he travels around the state for his new book, "Barnstorming Ohio". Each month he discusses what he’s finding in a series of conversations we’re calling “To Understand Ohio.” This month Giffels visited a small brewery in Mansfield.

A small city's new attraction
The Phoenix Brewing Company doesn’t have your typical setting for a brewery. The company has taken over a former funeral home and uses the 100-year old building to create the morbid atmosphere that creates the mood inside. This doesn’t create a sense of dread, but rather a sign that a small city has begun a resurgence.

“There’s enough new energy there to support sort of a boutique, locally-owned, leisure activity that suggest that a town’s spirit is coming back,” Giffels says.

Returning home
The co-owners of Phoenix Brewing Company (along with Scott Cardwell and Steve Zigmund) are Duncan and Carmone Macfarlane, a husband and wife team. Mansfield is Duncan's hometown. He went away to school at Bowling Green, met and married Carmone, and eventually the couple made their way back to Mansfield. They didn’t want to just return to the city; they wanted to find a way to make a difference in the community.

Giffels says the couple wants to make a commitment to the town, and that message is an important one.

photo of Llalan Fowler's Ohio heart tattoo
After living in Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York City, Llalan Fowler returned to her hometown of Mansfield, where she now manages Main Street Books. She marked her return to Ohio with a tattoo.

Giffels also spent time at Main Street Books, a small, locally-owned business downtown. Llalan Fowler manages the store. She had moved away, and lived in Washington D.C., Boston and New York.  When she turned 30, she decided she wanted to come back home and make a difference in Mansfield.  She even sports a tattoo on her arm that shows the outline of Ohio with a heart in the middle where Mansfield is.

“It’s super important lesson is how important either people who moved away and decided to come back or people who stayed commited to their hometowns, how much of a difference they can make,” Giffels says.

Smaller towns can be swept away and forgotten but that can be offset by the passion and hard work by some residents who have a deep care for the city.

The power of craft brewing in Ohio

Larger picture
Giffels speaks about what the local businesses can mean for a town like Mansfield. He says, “You can see evidence of a town being pulled up by its own bootstraps pushing back from a long decline.”

Some may see a city that is struggling and see it as a place that has no hope, but others see a place worth trying to save. Mansfield is the story about a city working against the norm and rising above.

Giffels says, “It’s a story of how a small group of committed people with optimism can push back against forces that others might think are too great to overcome.”

photo of David Giffels
Author David Giffels takes a moment to stop by the WKSU studios to talk about his latest travels and research for his next book, Barnstorming Ohio.

Giffels is writing his book to give a voice to some of these lesser known areas throughout the country. Places that can tell their own stories and how they continue to make their way and show resiliency in today’s America.

"To Understand Ohio" is a series of monthly conversations with David Giffels. We're checking in with him each month as he travels around the state working on his new book, “Barnstorming Ohio," ahead of next year’s presidential election. The book is expected to be published in August 2020.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include the name of one additional co-owner of Phoenix Brewing Company.

Andrew Meyer is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.