Baltimore: Still Beertown, U.S.A.?

 

By Thomas Cizauskas

Originally published:

Mid-Atlantic Brewing News (Vol5, #3) June / July 2003, p.6

 

            (Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles celebrating great beer towns of the Mid-Atlantic area.)

In the greater metropolitan area of Baltimore, 1.8 million bbl of beer are consumed yearly. That’s 595,188,000 bottles of beer on the wall.

Does that make Baltimore a great beer town?

Frank Griffin, draft manager of National Distributing, has seen beers come and go. He began his career with National Brewing Co., of Natty Boh fame, in 1955. He fondly remembers the nearly 30 breweries in the city during his youth. “Baltimore had a brewery in every neighborhood then,” he says, turning out brands like Gunther, Arrow, American, Brehm’s and Hals.

Jerry Hoffberger, owner of the Orioles during their glory days in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was also owner of National Brewing. That leverage and a clever television campaign, featuring his iconic one-eyed cartoon mascot, rocketed Natty Boh to undisputed local dominance. Nearly three out of every four drinkers drank National Bohemian. Griffin observes, “If you drank Bud, you were from out of town.”

Ray Klimovitz is the technical director for the Master Brewers Association of the Americas. He initially answers the question, “Is Baltimore a beer town? Well, it used to be.”

“In 1965, there were still five breweries in Baltimore and two in Cumberland,” Klimovitz says. “I fondly remember the brewmasters at those breweries at the time … . I liked especially going to the American Brewery on Gay Street; they had an enclosed courtyard with picnic tables and a barbecue spit, along with the cold beer! 

“We had some good beers back then in the ‘Land of Pleasant Living,’ but we didn't have the freedom that today's small brewers have in brewing a lot of beer styles.  We brewed lots of good old American lager beer and at times we could actually brew some bock beer in January and February when we ‘cleaned out the vats,’ as our customers in Highlandtown and Canton used to say!”

Volker Stewart is one of a newer generation. He is the owner of the Brewer’s Art, an upscale midtown Baltimore restaurant and brewpub. It is the availability of a vast diversity of better beers, regional, national and international, that to him “reflects and nourishes a thriving beer culture in Baltimore.”

Joe Gold—who once worked for Young’s Brewery in London and has been a tireless promoter and maven of good beer in Baltimore since the mid-1980s—credits the beer savvy and dedication of the city’s publicans as holding great promise for Baltimore’s future as a beer town.  He credits “folks like John Fleurie of Duda’s” as being zealots in their promotion of good beer. 

Others single out Bertha’s, Racer’s, Mick Kipp at Pickles Pub, Ken Krucenski of Sean Bolan’s, the Thirsty Dog in Federal Hill, John Stevens Restaurant  (for the food and beer), and Bob Simko and Casey Hard of Max’s on Broadway.

Referring to Max’s on Broadway, one local brewer said that this multi-tap bar located on the waterfront in the Fells Point neighborhood alone “would single-handedly qualify Baltimore as a beer town.”

 

Managers Simko and Hard proudly display their 100+ taps, 300+ bottles, and newly installed hand pump for cask-conditioned ales. They tell of Max’s original mission to pour every local and regional brand and how that mission has been expanded to include a “pan-stylistic” panoply of imported beers from “Xingu to Singha.”

But Hard and Simko have also noticed a burgeoning hometown pride, especially with newer residents.  Pointing to two prominent tap handles, they exclaim, “Brewer’s Art Resurrection Ale has become a local cult beer among the newcomers.” And “Clipper City is on fire!”

A growing beer sophistication and demand have encouraged Baltimore retail shops to expand their selections as well.

Joe Falcone of Wells Liquors notes that he stocks over 140 varieties of Belgian beers, and 1,100 varieties of beer overall. It’s not only beer drinkers who are demanding more choice, he says. “Baltimore’s wine drinkers are experimenting with better beers as well”.

John Pollack, beer buyer for the Old Vine, states, “The younger drinkers are buying more of the beer, but as they spoil their palates, they’ll remain with the better beer as they grow up.” He asserts, “The overall beer scene is better now than a few years ago because the trend followers have fallen away, leaving the stronger beers and breweries.”

 

A “Pale Blue” Society

 

Patrick and Sherri Casey own Legends, Ltd., an importer and distributor in Maryland. They point out that current Maryland law protects the smaller shops against the incursion of large and national chain stores. Without this protection, the small producers and suppliers of better beers would be squeezed out.

Sherri Casey mentions the neighborhoods of Baltimore as conducive to local pride and hence a strong beer culture. “Baltimore may have been a blue collar town when I grew up here”, adds Patrick Casey, “but now it’s a ‘pale blue’ society.” He explains that an influx of financial, high-tech and medical professionals has added to the city’s demographics. Residents are traveling more and demanding better beers when they return.

Duane Gerushat, well-traveled Baltimorean and good beer lover, maintains, “The nice thing is that you can get styles and the well defined edges of these styles—a true pils or Doppelbock at Baltimore Brewing, a nice Belgian at Brewer’s Art, a classic bitter at Wharf Rat.” He continues, “As corporate America takes over the brewing scene, we are losing the individuality that could be found 10 years ago. Fortunately, for those of us who drink in ‘Balmer,’ the brewpubs have maintained a unique edge. Perhaps we're behind the times—but that's just fine!”

Historian and beer logger Alexander Mitchell IV gives Baltimore the nod over Philadelphia. “It’s one of the few places I've ever seen I would tell someone to book a room and hire a designated driver or use the Metro. The places in Chicago, Philly, etc. are too spread out to be effective with too many terrific places stuck way out in the suburbs.”

 

Stand By Your Brand

 

But will Baltimore become a brand loyal beer town again? 

Joe Gold worries that the very access to better beer from everywhere else acts to hinder support for a new generation of local beers. However, Baltimore beer pioneer and Clipper City Brewing Co. owner Hugh Sisson flat out rejects the notion that “brand loyalty has anything to with defining a town as a beer town.” He mentions a study that shows that even consumers of Anheuser-Busch products only purchase those beers 50% of the time.

Others do display a loyalty to the local beer. Like Bo Lemke, a member of the Cross Street Irregulars, a Baltimore homebrew club. He proudly notes, “In Baltimore, we have a symbiotic relationship with our breweries, whereas the city to our south is a town of itinerant drinkers.” 

Or Ron Kodlick, the president of the only U.S. branch of Britain’s Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood, a consumer rights group for cask-conditioned ale. He defiantly insists, “I don’t need to go anywhere else for beer.”

Or Frank Griffin. Even though Natty Boh is now brewed out-of-state (by Pabst at the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, PA), Griffin sees hope for the resurgence of local brands. “Maryland and Baltimore recently opened their arms for Yuengling. Maybe the timing is right for the new locals like De Groens and Clipper City.”

Although he doesn’t find brand loyalty as a necessary aspect of a beer culture, Clipper City’s Hugh Sisson is banking on it with his “Old Baltimore Style” McHenry Lager. He says, “We see commercials that say: ‘It’s all about the beer.’ Well, I believe they need to say: ‘It’s all about Baltimore.’”