Farewell to a Maryland Tradition


By: Thomas Cizauskas, � 2000 (updated 2007)

Linthicum, MD - In 1998, a Maryland tradition of British heritage, begun by the British Brewing Company in 1988, and continued as the Oxford Brewing Company during the 1990s, was sadly, but with fond and delicious memories, placed to rest after operating for 10 years.

When it began brewing in 1988, the British Brewing Company wasthe first micro-brewery to operate in Maryland since the repeal of Prohibition, some 55 years earlier.

original 

Oxford Class label for British Brewing CompanySteve Parkes, a degreed British brewmaster, opened the brewery in Glen Burnie, a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, with his partner, British small-businessman, Craig Stuart-Paul. Financing was provided by a third principal, the owner of a chain of real ale pubs in the UK.

Parkes' highly-acclaimed cask-conditioned Oxford Class Amber Ale became not only Maryland's pioneer microbrew but its first post-Prohibition cask ale.

Bertha's, a restaurant and watering hole in the historic Fells Point district of Baltimore, Maryland, was British Brewing Company's initial account. Famous for its slogan, Eat Bertha's Mussels, the establishment would hand-pull the ale from casks set upon the bartop, another first for Maryland.

Investigating initially sluggish sales, Parkes discovered, to his dismay, that other local bars and restaurants were serving his beer at temperatures far colder than those appropriate for British ales. He tweaked his recipe to accomodate American practises. Nonetheless, Oxford Class Ale rapidly developed a loyal following among beer aficionados in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Acclaim

In the 2nd and 3rd editions of his Pocket Guide to Beer, beer writer Michael Jackson described Oxford Class as: a very English-tasting ale, malt-accented but very well balanced. Sometimes found cask-conditioned as Oxford Real Ale.

In their 1997 book, The Encyclopedia of World Beers, Benjamin Myers and Graham Lees said: Baltimore beer-lovers flock to bars on Fells Point for Oxford Brewing's Special Old Bitter or wintertime Santa Class Ale .


Brewery Sold

The company briefly flirted with bottling its ales, using a second-hand machine. Mechanical difficulties and quality control issues forced a return to draft-only production.

By 1992, harsh economic realities had taken hold and Parkes dissolved the partnership. He moved on to the Humboldt Brewing Company in California, where he would garner several awards and achieve commercial success.

In 1993, the bank foreclosed and sold the British Brewing Company to partners Jim Stotsky, and husband and wife Marianne and 'O.B.' O'Brien. Stuart-Paul would leave shortly thereafter.

The trio rechristened the - now Linthicum, Maryland based - brewery as the Oxford Brewing Company. Under their stewardship Oxford would reached its sales zenith in 1995. Ironically, it was a decidedly un-British beer which that year was the best-selling locally produced microbrewed draft beer in Maryland.


Raspberry-Wheat

Before his departure, Parkes had designed and brewed a one-off beer to celebrate his partner's wedding: an ale fermented with raspberries. When several kegs remained after the reception, the brewery sold them to local accounts. The supply was quickly consumed and the pubs asked for more. Surprised but pleased, the brewery acquiesced.

By 1995, the simply named Raspberry Wheat Ale, infused with in excess of 8 pounds of raspberries per barrel, had become the primary product of the brewery. Oxford Class Ale did not fare well as well. In competition with the now burgeoning roster of other micro-brewed amber ales, its production fell to relatively low levels.

Brewery Expansion

Oxford Brewing Company labelTo increase sales, the new owners turned to contract brewing for local restaurants and pubs. Beers were brewed for other breweries, among them, Capitol City Brewing Company and Frederick Brewing Company.

In 1994, Oxford contracted with F.X. Matt Brewing to brew the bottled version of Oxford Class and with the now shuttered Dubuque Brewing Company for bottled Raspberry-Wheat.

Oxford's 14.5 US bbl kettle and entire Hickey Equipment Company brewhouse had been originally shipped in pieces from the UK and reassembled in Glen Burnie, MD. Its old-fashioned propane gas-fired heating rings, submerged within the wort, would sound as a jet engine revving for take-off. Its fermenters, true to its English roots, were traditional open-topped 15 and 30 US bbl fermenters.

An expansion strategy of draft-only production and contract bottling soon followed, directed by beer industry veteran Mike Jaeger. By the 1996, the open fermenters had been sold and the fermentation capacity, now exclusively in closed conical unitanks, had been increased several fold. New equipment and laboratory facilites were addded.

The End

But it was not to be enough. The late 1990s saw the market for fruit-based beers collapse, as well as the demand for micro-brews themselves.

So, on Wednesday, December 30, 1998, the old kettle was fired up for the last time. Shortly thereafter, the equipment was sold. The fate of the brewhouse is unknown by this writer. But many of the Century-built unitanks are now in service for the Terrapin Brewery of Georgia.

Oxford's brands were purchased by Clipper City Brewing Company of Maryland, which by then, had already assumed the production of the bottled versions of Oxford Class Ale and Raspberry-Wheat. (As of 2003, Clipper City had discontinued production of Oxford Class Amber Ale - due to poor sales, according to principal Hugh Sisson.)

Other draft brands

Other draft brands which achieved success for the Oxford Brewing Company included

A Legacy of Success

Past brewers for the British/Oxford Brewing Company:


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