Two decades after the iconic National Bohemian beer was last brewed in Baltimore, a surge in homegrown operations paired with a healthy thirst among craft beer lovers have revived the local brew scene.
Statewide, craft breweries have climbed from two dozen in 2011 to more than 60, with the heaviest concentration in the Baltimore area, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. Maryland's breweries accounted for $652 million in economic impact in 2014, the association reported.
And the beer engine isn’t done chugging along. The Brewers Association of Maryland said 11 more craft breweries are in the works.
“Baltimore has an incredible craft brew scene, but it’d been flying under the radar until recently,” said Chad Brodsky, the owner of City Brew Tours, which just added Baltimore as the fifth city where it offers behind-the-scenes tours and tastings at breweries. “Baltimore’s just undergoing this amazing growth in craft breweries.”
At the ever-growing number of taprooms connected to breweries, visitors can see and smell the malt, hops and yeast, then learn how it all comes together in the brews they’re sipping.
On Saturday, hordes of craft beer aficionados descended on Canton Waterfront Park for the second annual Baltimore Craft Beer Festival, sampling beers brewed by more than 25 local breweries. Brewery owners poured their beers and told their stories.
Brodsky, whose Boston-based company began the brew tours in Burlington, Vt., in 2008 and expanded to Boston, Philadelphia and Washington before adding Charm City just in time for Baltimore Beer Week, rattled off the names of five breweries that have opened locally in the past couple years.
'We absolutely see growth in Baltimore’s craft brew scene,” he said.
Pointing to the rapid growth in beer tourism nationwide, Brodsky said City Brew Tours plans to work closely with Visit Baltimore, the city’s tourism bureau, to attract conventioneers and corporations seeking an off-beat event. In Boston, Brodsky said, hundreds of conventioneers at once have gone on the brewery tours.
Brewing up a national, local trend
Bart Watson, the Brewers Association’s chief economist, said the number of craft breweries nationwide has grown to more than 4,800, accounting for an increasingly large share of the overall U.S. beer market. The craft sector is a $22.3 billion economic engine, or 21 percent of $106 billion beer industry. By the association's definition, craft brewers produce fewer than 6 million barrels of beer per year using "traditional or innovative" ingredients and are less than 25 percent owned by a big brewing company.
The growth in craft breweries, Watson said, reflects demand for more variety and more insistence on consuming local ingredients, supporting local businesses and creating local jobs.
The resurgence is particularly fitting and welcome in Baltimore, which boasts a long, storied brewing history of its own. It dates to the 18th century, when the city was home to the nation’s largest brewery, and continued with once-dominant beers like Gunther and National Bohemian in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Natty Boh had been the official beer of the Baltimore Orioles for decades beginning in the 1960s, when the Hoffbergers of Baltimore owned the team and the beer. Jerry Hoffberger had 10 cent beer nights at the old Memorial Stadium.
Today, Oriole Park at Camden Yards no longer sells Natty Boh – the O’s discontinued it early this season – but fans can sip beers at the ballgame made by local brewers like Heavy Seas Beer, Union Craft Brewing Co. and The Brewer’s Art.
Among the craft brewing pioneers, Baltimore native Hugh Sisson had studied acting in England, but gave up aspirations for the stage to pursue a passion for brewing beer. In 1984, he and his father began brewing their own beer at Sisson’s, their popular Federal Hill restaurant and bar.
A decade later, Sisson focused solely on brewing at Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe. It’s now the Baltimore area’s largest craft brewer, distributing 18 different brews in 17 states.
“In recent years, there’s been a real paradigm shift among beer consumers. Local certainly is a hot button, and there’s this emphasis on the authentic and the artisanal, as opposed to beers made by big corporations,” Sisson said. “This is true not only in beer, but across other industries like coffee, bread, cheeses. This is a significant phenomenon, and it's not going away.”
Sisson tempered some of the craft beer hype, though, with a sobering assessment: Noting market predictions of a slowdown in craft beer growth, he predicted a shakeout will lead to some Baltimore brewery closings.
But he said the strongest local breweries will not only survive, but thrive.
Sampling some of Baltimore's best
At the first City Brew Tours stop, Heavy Seas participants, who paid $90 each for the five-hour tour, stood in front of huge stainless steel vats as guide Barry Hansen traced the brewery’s history and described the fine art of creating delectable beers, slowly.
In the taproom, Craig Blackburn savored a glass of Loose Cannon, a fruity India pale ale that won a second-place award at the 2010 Great British Beer Festival in London.
“It’s good to be able to learn about what you're drinking, how it’s made, in so much detail,” said Blackburn, an Ellicott City 52-year-old. “It’s obvious these brewers really take their time to make it, to get it right.”
Blackburn, one of 11 people shuttled between four breweries by Hansen in a van, said sipping craft beers differs from drinking in his younger days.
“I don’t drink a lot of beer anymore, so it’s perfect now to make an experience of it instead of just hanging out with friends, drinking lots of beer and watching football on TV and such,” he said.
"People want to hear a story"
Many craft brew enthusiasts share that sentiment, said Callie Pfeiffer, marketing coordinator for the Brewers Association of Maryland.
“People want to hear a story, they want to know the people who are behind a product, and certainly craft breweries offer that,” Pfeiffer said. “They offer a face and a name and a story behind every beer and every brewery.
“They offer people something to do on the weekends, a whole new dynamic to drinking. It’s not just drinking for the sake of drinking, but drinking to learn, drinking to tour, drinking to hear the brewers’ stories.”
By the third of four stops on the five-hour brew tour, at Brew House No. 16, a meticulously converted former Baltimore City firehouse in Mount Vernon, those on the tour imbibed their ninth sample of local brews.
So the laughter came easily, the talk grew a little loud and everybody, it seemed, had become a bit of a craft brew connoisseur with their newfound knowledge.
Brew House, which opened last year, not only crafts its own beer but also serves up farm-to-table fare. Barry guided tour participants through beer parings for mini-courses of chicken sliders, chipotle wings, salad, soup and a crock-pot mac and cheese with aged cheddar, gruyere and pecorino topped by sourdough crumbs.
Each course was paired with a beer: the British-style stout Oats M'Goats; Northern Amber Ale, with hints of caramel, oak and citrus; the rich and creamy Double IPA; and Brew House Porter.
Brew House owner Harry Hummel, a chef and architect who oversaw the red-brick firehouse’s conversion, said pride in craft beers could help lift Baltimore.
“Baltimore is waking up to finally understand its importance in the scheme of cities,” Hummel said. “In the past five years, we’ve seen so much investment in Baltimore, so many new projects, so many people coming back to the city. The craft brew scene is helping locals think of Baltimore as a real city.”
Sam Rogers, vice president and chief marketing officer at Visit Baltimore, said the craft breweries heighten the city’s appeal.
“The emerging craft brew scene has really added to the richness and flavor of the city’s culinary scene,” Rogers said. “The tourism industry’s really changed, and people are not just looking to see things, but they really want to do things, and they really want to immerse themselves in the experience.”