A few days ago I made the short drive from Fort Wayne across the Indiana/Ohio state line to meet with Mark Young of Two Bandits Brewing in Hicksville, OH. My mission was to chat with one half of the Bandit team about his story, and the story of beer that he distributes across the the region.
Hicksville is a quintessential, northern Ohio one-horse town. To be fair, maybe a two-horse town. Either way, with a population of around three and half thousand, and a website that that describes the tiny town as, “The Village of Hicksville” you get the general idea. (I later learned that ‘village’ has a specific meaning in the administrative world of the state of Ohio, i.e., a municipality with a population of less than 5000). Given the relatively small size of the place you might not expect to find a brewery that has locations in two separate states to be situated on the main street of Hicksville, but there are reasons for that as I learned.
Mark Young is an enthusiastic man. He talks with sincerity and an intensity that are both persuasive, and that each exude a genuine interest in the work that he has taken on. With his partner and brewer Bob Garza, the two Hicksville natives opened the doors of Two Bandits in March of 2017.
Mark is a little unusual among some of the beer people I have talked to recently, in as much as he firmly places himself on the operations side of things as opposed to the work of brewing. Obviously he’s still a ‘beer guy’ (I’m not sure how one could be the co-owner of a brewery and not be), but he’s quick to make it clear that he’s more ‘front-of-house’ than Bob, and that he often leaves the day-to-day brewing to his partner.
I usually start my interviews with brewers with questions about their earliest memories of beer, and I ask Mark about his own recollections of the same. His reply is quick, and he goes straight into reminiscing about his maternal grandfather. Living just a few yards away during his childhood in Edon, OH, Mark was treated to a sip of PBR by his grandfather from an early age. Mark is quick to recognize that particular American classic as a nostalgia beer for himself, and with good reason. A self-described rule follower, Mark goes on to describes an adolescent and college journey at Northwest State (where he studied Business Management and Marketing) as being largely removed from beer drinking before the age of 21, and he says he only really started noticing the craft scene probably 12-15 years ago.
Like many of the folk in the this part of the world Mark’s early forays into better beer were dominated by Mad Anthony and the beer that they put out in the late 90s and early 00s. During much of that time Mark had been working at K-Mart, Lowes and for the City of Bryan, OH in their waste water management department, where he learned some valuable lessons still applicable in the brewery today. The processing of waste water and the brewing of beer are mostly nothing more than giant chemistry experiments, and experience of wet chemistry at the bench taught Mark some great lessons in consistent process and cleanliness that stand Two Bandits in good stead today.
We soon get to talking about the origins of the brewery over a pint of Two Bandits Kölsch for me, and a Double Oh Seven for Mark. In 2015 Young pitched the idea to (at the time) home-brewer Bob Garza who was a work colleague of Mark’s wife. Bob’s background in instrument calibration at Parker Hannifin, along with Mark’s experience in waste water processing, provided a solid background for the journey on which they were about to embark. Within 24 hours of Mark’s original pitch, Bob had said, “I’m in!”, and the Two Bandits story had begun.
After one year of pursuing finance, finding a location, processing the paperwork, and getting the business plan together, they started work on the building that is now their first location in Hicksville in August of 2016. Brewing on a 1 BBL system that they purchased new for around $7000, they opened the doors to Two Bandits in March of 2017 with 24 half-barrels of beer on hand.
After only a few days they realized that they had a problem – they simply didn’t have enough beer to sustain the initial enthusiasm. Light on their feet as a relatively small enterprise (a common thread that runs through a lot of Two Bandits work), they quickly acquired some guest beers to fill out their eight taps. Six or seven guest beers in fact, with only one or two of their own being available after that initial surge. Through the remainder of 2017 and into 2018 Mark describes a constant struggle of trying to match production to demand, and the need to keep guest beers in the rotation. Things didn’t get any easier when the pub added four more taps.
Among those first Two Bandit beers are four that they brew to this day. Killer Bee (a honey-based IPA), Dead Frog (a DIPA), Razzmanian Devil (a raspberry wheat), and Black Shadow (a stout) can still be found in the tap rotation six years on, whereas one other early beer Fountain Street Ale (a light, American lager), has since evolved into other, similar offerings. Mark tells me that Two Bandits have brewed a total of eighty-eight distinct beers.
In early 2018 Mark described the beer as being ‘still good’, but lacking the consistency that he and Bob craved. It was apparent that the 1 BBL system just couldn’t keep up with their needs, and in August of 2018 they switched to a new, 6 BBL system with a combined 24 BBL capacity for fermentation and Brite storage. This afforded a more consistent product, a greater efficiency, and in terms of removing the guest taps created a more singular, Two Bandits beer experience in the pub.
However, in mid-2019 Mark still felt there was more expansion – or at least more development of the operation – needed. That led to the purchase of a canner that is capable of producing 3000 cans per day, a significant upgrade from the old, manual canning machine that they had been using to that point. The canning decision turned out to be serendipitous in terms of what was about to hit – COVID!
When Ohio shut down the operation of many service businesses in March of 2020, the ability for Mark to stealthy re-position Two Bandits quickly once more came to the fore. Essentially they went to 100% canning, and started delivering beer, by hand, to customers door-to-door. Between March and July of 2020 there were weeks when Mark was delivering six days a week in his truck, as a whole new market opened up by luck rather than judgment. Of course, what wasn’t luck was Two Bandits’ ability to move quickly and to adapt. With the canning ‘revolution’, and the re-opening of business in July of that year, 2020 turned out to be a pretty good year for the business despite having to lay-off staff.
Also in 2020, January in fact, Two Bandits opened their second location in Coldwater, Michigan. I asked Mark “Why Michigan?”, and a wry smile came over his face. I thought he might say something like, ” … because of the sympathetic beer culture of MI”, but he admits to a little hubris (his word not mine) on his part. On the face of it attempting to open a second location in another state, where the headache of a whole additional raft of bureaucracy would come into play, wouldn’t necessarily seem like the best idea, but Mark has his reasons. He wanted (and wants) Two Bandits to be a regional brewery. Now, the Brewer’s Association actually has their own definition of what a ‘Regional Brewer’ is, and that definition is based upon size. They call a regional, “A brewery with an annual beer production of between 15,000 and 6,000,000 barrels.” Mark has paid no attention to that and prefers his own definition (which frankly makes at least as much sense as the BA’s), as, ‘A brewery with locations in more than one state of a locally defined region‘. He’s happy to concede that it’s been hard work in Coldwater for Two Bandits, but confirms that he and Bob remain committed to the long term future of the operation to the north.
The dine-in restaurant/bar/pub experience remains central to what Two Bandits is all about. As well as being proud of the food that they produce (for full disclosure I have never eaten at either of their locations), Mark sees the brick and mortar locations as huge marketing assets. After all, if you are in that gas station, convenience store or grocery store and are making a choice from a wall of beer, what better marketing that you remembering that great experience you had a one of the Two Bandits locations?
What of the future? Well, Two Bandits has been one of the more savvy breweries around of late. Starting small, and with incremental, controlled growth, Mark anticipates more of the same going forward. With the equivalent volume of 130 kegs of beer being distributed to retail partners last month, he wants to grow the business in that same, considered, steady manner. Who knows, maybe this particular ‘regional brewery’ can take on more adjacent states in the future?