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Meet 2 craft-beer brew masters with Ohio State roots

Land-Grant Brewing founders Adam Benner and Walt Keys are Buckeye pals making a business brimming with college-like fun.

Adam Banner chuckles as he shows friend and work partner Walt Keys something on his cellphone. Walt’s expression says he is surprised and delighted. Both men are white with beards, wear ball caps and have sunglasses somewhere on them—for Adam, on his hat; for Walt tucked into the pocket of his button-up. Walt holds a beer in a plastic cup and they’re among many people as it’s their eclipse-day event.

Land-Grant founders Walt Keys, left, and Adam Benner enjoy the festivities at their eclipse day party.

Adam Benner ’06 and Walt Keys ’06 spent two years as roommates at Ohio State, occasionally talking about someday creating a business together. Oh, and they might have discussed the idea over a beer or two. “Maybe,” Walt says with a smile.

Well, their business turned out to involve craft beer, which Adam began home-brewing as a hobby, prompting Walt to design names and labels.

In October 2014, Adam and Walt opened Land-Grant Brewing Company, located in the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus. The co-founders started with three other employees. A decade later, the staff totals 65, and the brewery produces about 10,000 barrels a year.

“When you have your own business, you have milestones,” Adam says. “You make it past your first year, then your fifth; now it’s 10. Not a lot of small businesses make it this long. Luckily, we have an incredible team.”

Adam is Land-Grant’s president, directing the business operation and handling much of the company’s strategic planning. Walt serves as creative director, overseeing brand design and marketing.

“I know the life of an entrepreneur, and Walt is a creator,” Adam says. “We really understand our roles in the organization and how we can best support the rest of the team.”

The company is “Land-Grant” because Ohio State is a land-grant university, and that replaced their intended name of “Oval Brewing” after they learned of an Austrian distillery already called that.

“Our idea was that this would be a central meeting space, like the Oval on campus,” Walt says. “You remember those nice days when everyone meets at the Oval because they’re on the same wavelength and want to gather and experience things together. We’ve carried that idea over to the ‘Land-Grant’ name.”

Land-Grant creates a community vibe with a variety of events and activities — live music, trivia contests, pickleball — that bring people together inside the original taproom and outdoors in the beer garden and next to Gravity Experience Park.

One such event occurred April 8 when Land-Grant celebrated the solar eclipse by offering free glasses for safe viewing, interactive experiments with a COSI team, local food trucks, a live band and a special black IPA called “Totality.”

We spent that day with Adam and Walt as they hosted a couple thousand people.

Standing over a hip-height table in a big room with concrete-clock walls, two white men look at a piece of paper one is holding to point something out. The customer is Adam Benner, and he is smiling.

8:30 a.m.  Adam: Generally, on a normal Monday, I’d be catching up and seeing how things went over the weekend. We’re not having any of our typical meetings today. Event mornings are stressful. Here, I’m checking in with Steve LaRosa, superintendent of Compton Construction, which is building our innovation taproom in Gravity Experience Park across the alley.

Walt Keys, a bearded white man, sits at a computer holding an iced coffee in one hand and his computer mouse in the other. He’s smiling over something on the screen that can’t be seen. On the wall behind him is a giant Ohio State football poster, a shot of the players and fans on the field, and text says 2002 champs reunion.

10 a.m.  Walt: I started renting this studio space across the street in 2022. This is my sanctuary. I can lock in and do my creative stuff. This is a nice place to sometimes step away from the chaos. Adam is always running here, running there, tinkering with this and that. We have very different minds. I think that’s what makes us a good team.

Standing on an outdoor stage, Adam raises one hand as he talks to the crowd. Behind him are Walt and three people dressed up like earth, the sun and the moon.

2 p.m.  Adam: From our beer garden stage, I see a crowd of people and think that they wouldn’t normally hang out together. This eclipse is unifying, like sports. We don’t really have a typical customer. There are retirees on down to young kids. All different communities come here and find their space. That’s important to us. It’s at our core.

Walt and others wearing eclipse glasses marvel as they look up at the darkened sky, watching the moon cover the sun. The light in this photo shows how the eclipse made it much darker during daytime.

3 p.m.  Walt: The eclipse is cool and it boggles my mind to see how many people came here. On a normal day, you can be stressed by the business side. Then you have a day like this — beer garden is packed, everyone’s having fun. You can step back and say, “We made something people care about.” It’s really humbling.

In a factory where a line of shiny but blank cans moves through move on a narrow conveyor belt, a woman wearing a hat and Adam talk while he holds one of the cans. The cans don’t yet have tops and are still empty, presumably as the move along the line to be stamped or wrapped with the brand emblem, filled with beer and sealed closed.

4 p.m.  Adam: The craft beer industry is maturing, changing into being very competitive. We now offer three types of beer year-round and a couple dozen rotating varieties and seasonals. They’re made on-site in our 9,000-square-foot production brewery, where I’m chatting with packaging operator Catherine Maloney on the semi-automated canning line.

Walt carries his red-headed daughter, who looks to be about 8 years old, as they take a selfie at the eclipse party. He’s wearing a ballcap that says Land-Grant. His daughter puffs out her cheeks, purses her lips, and side eyes her dad’s cellphone camera.

4:45 p.m.  Walt: It’s great to have my two daughters, including youngest, June, with me this afternoon. My wife, Erin, who works part-time at Land-Grant in administration and HR payroll, brought them here after school. Adam’s wife, Lauren, oversees the taproom and, as our director of partnerships, brings in community groups and organizations. She was here today at 6:30 a.m.

On a city street lined with clumps of greenery and brick buildings, Adam walks his dog, a thick basset hound. Though Adam looks down at his pet, the dog looks into the camera.

5:30 p.m.  Adam: Lauren and I were able to stop by our German Village home to walk our dog, Quincy. We’ll head back to Land-Grant for evening duties as our event wraps up. It was amazing to see all the people having fun, thanks to our team and corps of volunteers. Great day.

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