“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” reads a Ben Franklin quote stenciled in Gothic print above the long copper-top bar at Max’s Taphouse in Fells Point.
It’s 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, and God’s love is flowing fast and furious. It doesn’t hurt that the Ravens’ first exhibition game of the season plays on most of the bar’s screens—or that the resurgent Buck Showalter-led O’s play on the others. But, still, something is different.
“Let me try that Lagunitas I.P.A.,” says one Flacco-jerseyed patron sidling up to the bar. Bartender Jason Mislan nods and begins pumping a cloudy ale from a wooden cask.
Seconds later, a burly man nods to Mislan. “Which of the Stillwater Statesides do you recommend?” The bartender notes the various attributes of each of the brews from the new Baltimore-based brewer, ultimately recommending the Stillwater Special with Cabernet-soaked French oak chips, licorice root, orange peel, rose hips, lemon grass, and agave nectar. The big man nods, and Mislan pumps the concoction from another cask.
Many of those assembled tonight share the sentiment. It’s the opening night of Max’s 3rd Annual Rare and Obscure Event, which runs for four days and is a haven for folks who like a little rose hips in their beer. But those who don’t are welcome, too.
“Gimme two Bud Lights!” Mislan’s shoulders slump almost imperceptibly at the request from a preppy-looking dude in flip-flops, as he turns to retrieve two bottles from the glass-door refrigerator. Max’s has 102 beer taps—among the most in the country. But unlike most other bars with dozens of taps, Max’s refuses to load its with Bud, Miller Lite, Coors, and the like—what manager Casey Hard calls “TV beer.”
“There’s just too much good beer out there,” says Hard, who stocks only cans and bottles of “TV beers.” “I really don’t want to waste a tap on something like that.”
Hard’s dedication to small-scale craft beer—particularly to brews produced locally—represents a growing constituency of Baltimore drinkers. They choose to explore beer that is more flavorful, more thoughtfully produced than the varieties that are typically advertised on Monday Night Football. And, to the relief of long-suffering area brewers, they are finally beginning to recognize the existence—and excellence—of locally brewed beer.
“There is as good a concentration of really quality producers in a relatively tight radius around Baltimore as there is anywhere in the country,” says Hugh Sisson, whose Heavy Seas brewery (formerly called Clipper City) in Halethorpe is distributed to 20 states.
“The local market is really beginning to get some momentum—finally,” he says. “It seemed to take a long time.”
The biggest indicator of a Baltimore beer renaissance is Baltimore Beer Week, which launched last year, with tremendous success. In 2009, BBW included an opening tap celebration aboard the U.S.S. Constellation, appearances by Orioles legend Boog Powell, among others, and sponsored events at dozens of local bars and restaurants.
“I anticipated we’d have 35 sponsoring establishments, maybe 150 events,” says Joe Gold, a fixture of the local beer industry, currently working for Victory Distribution, and the founder of Baltimore Beer Week. “We actually had 72 establishments and 372 events. I was blown away.”
The plans for this year’s Baltimore Beer Week, scheduled for Oct. 7 to 17 are even more grand, including a Baltimore Beer Festival in Canton Waterfront Park on the closing Sunday. Already, organizers have heard from breweries as far away as California, Colorado, Scotland, and Belgium, who plan to send representatives to the event to promote their brews. Much of the emphasis, however, will be on Maryland breweries, including Stillwater, Brewer’s Art, Frederick’s Flying Dog, and flagship sponsor Heavy Seas.
What’s more, the plans for Baltimore Beer Week have been feverishly documented by local bloggers—including friendly rivals beerinbaltimore.com and beerinbaltimore.blogspot.com—who share the brewers’ passion for local beer. It’s a welcome change for old hands like Heavy Seas’ Sisson, who opened Maryland’s first brewpub, Sisson’s, in 1989.
“Perceptions of Baltimore beer are slowly turning,” says Sisson. “Baltimore Beer Week will slowly but surely help turn this large sailing vessel a little bit more.”
Beer has a long history in Baltimore. The city’s first commercial beer maker, Barnitz Brewery, opened in 1743 at Baltimore and Charles Streets. During the 1800s, dozens of regional brands were manufactured in Baltimore. So many were located southeast of Patterson Park that the area became known as Brewers Hill. In the 1900s, the Baltimore-brewed Gunther, Schaefer, and National Bohemian beers were among the region’s most popular brands.
During the 1970s and ’80s, consolidation in the beer industry led most local breweries to close down or leave town. The last major local brewer, National Bohemian, merged with Canada’s Carling in the mid-’70s, and was ultimately bought by Pabst Brewing Co. It hasn’t been brewed in Baltimore since 1996. Still, while small local brewers have struggled to sell their wares here, many Baltimoreans still call Natty Boh their own.
“That loyalty baffles me,” says Gold, shaking his head. “It’s not even made here!”
Sipping an English-style bitter called Victory Gassy Jack at Max’s on a Tuesday afternoon, Gold explains the frustration he and other beer-loving Baltimoreans have felt over the years, watching venerable local brewers like Globe, Oxford, Cap City, and Baltimore Brewing Company go under, often because local bars and drinkers didn’t support them.
“Baltimore Beer Week came out of my feeling that there was an apathy in our region toward all the beer that disappeared,” he says. “I’ve traveled the world and worked for many different breweries, and I don’t see apathy like that anywhere.”
Sisson, a sixth-generation Baltimorean, says it’s part of Baltimore’s eternal inferiority complex. “There’s a certain amount of, ‘If it’s made here, it can’t be any good’—which is a damn shame,” he says. “There’s still a not-necessarily-merited fascination with things that come from outside our immediate environs.”
Over the last couple years, however, Sisson and others have noticed a change. Not only have sales of local beer improved—Baltimore sales of Heavy Seas are up 11 percent in 2010—but there is a bigger general interest in the brewing industry reflected in the blogs and Baltimore Beer Week.
Part of that is an increased interest in craft beer nationally: In 2000, craft beer made up about 7 percent of all beer sales. Today, it’s almost 10 percent. And, as the market’s grown, the beers have become more marketable.
In Baltimore, the most popular locally-brewed beer is Resurrection, brewed in the cramped basement of Mt. Vernon restaurant and brewpub The Brewer’s Art. And for those whose idea of craft beer is a bitter, sour-tasting ale, Resurrection’s lighter Belgian-style taste will come as a surprise. While more bitter beers derive their flavor from abundant hops, Resurrection, though it does have hops, gets its sweeter taste from malt and yeast.
“For years, the idea among some craft brewers was that hops were the source of all flavor, so people would hop the daylights out of beer,” says Volker Stewart, who opened The Brewer’s Art in 1996. “I think by eliminating that as the driving force in your beer, you can really open your market up.”
Resurrection is the top-selling beer at Max’s Taphouse, Pratt Street Alehouse, and other craft-beer-oriented bars around town, mainly because of it’s rich, accessible taste.
“Resurrection is phenomenal,” says Brad Klipner of beerinbaltimore.com—a Best of Baltimore winner for “Best Beer Blog”—and contributor to national beer newspaper, Ale Street News. “Brewer’s Art may do Belgian styles better than the Belgians.”
And Brewer’s Art is reaping the rewards. “We can’t meet our demand—we are brewing to capacity,” says Stewart. “The demand is very high for the draft products, especially the Resurrection,” he says. “I get several calls a month, ‘Hey, I’m opening up a place, can I get Resurrection?’ I promise to put them on the list.”
It begs the question: Why hasn’t Resurrection spread beyond Maryland?
The answer has a lot to do with Maryland’s “three-tier” alcohol system, which states that one company cannot sell beer directly to consumers and also manufacture it on a large scale. Brewpubs like the late, great Sisson’s and The Brewer’s Art are permitted as long as their brewing operations remain small, connected to the bars. But when Sisson wanted to open a separate facility to manufacture Clipper City, he had to divest from Sisson’s (now Ryleigh’s Oyster) first.
Stewart is coming up against the same thing. Earlier this year, he began contracting with a manufacturer in Pennsylvania to put Resurrection in bottles and cans, but their limited capacity prevents him from distributing it widely. And he enjoys running The Brewer’s Art—which boasts excellent cuisine in addition to beer and was named “Best Bar in America” by Esquire for two straight years—too much to give it up.
“We’re just not interested in that,” he says of selling The Brewer’s Art and starting a business exclusively to manufacture and distribute beer. “We have kids now.”
Hugh Sisson could be described as the father of Baltimore’s modern beer industry. When he turned his father’s bar, Sisson’s on Cross Street, into a brewpub in 1989, few had heard of craft beer—or microbrewing, as it was called then. If they had, they probably pictured crazy bearded men stirring up moonshine in a bathtub.
“When we decided to brew our own beer, there were maybe three brewpubs in the country,” says Sisson. “They weren’t legal in about 35 states, so it was pretty radical.”
Besides brewing its own brands, Sisson’s featured a broad range of imports—it was likely the first bar in the city to have Guinness on draft. Before long, the bar attracted a clientele of beer lovers from around the region. Within a few years, Sisson became convinced he could succeed with a Baltimore-based brewery. In 1994, he left Sisson’s and created Clipper City Brewing Company. “Being at Sisson’s gave me a false sense of market acceptance when I left,” he says. “I was surrounded by people who liked this kind of stuff.”
Within a few years, Sisson realized that to make Clipper City a go, he would have to reach beyond the Baltimore market. Today, now that his beer is distributed in 20 states, it’s finally gaining acceptance into his hometown bars in great numbers.
“The craft beer industry is today where the California wine industry was 25 years ago,” says Sisson, who is also a wine connoisseur and co-host of WYPR’s “Cellar Notes.” “People are now beginning to speak with some facility about what an India Pale Ale is, asking what kind of hops you’re using, and they understand what you say when you answer.”
Brad Klipner of beerinbaltimore.com, reflects the excitement people feel about beer. “I love trying the different styles,” says Klipner, 34, his eyes widening. “There are so many breweries doing similar styles, but they taste different. There’s different yeast, different malt, different hops—even different water.”
This year, Klipner became Baltimore Beer Week’s official blogger. It’s a bit like a band’s biggest fan becoming the bass player, but the local industry couldn’t be happier to have teammates like Klipner and his many readers. “This year is the peak of the craft beer movement,” he says. “It’s all coming together.”