December 15, 2018
Monday evening I had the distinct pleasure of attending a media event for Monument City Brewing Company. I was greeted with a Penchant Pils and an overview the evenings activities. What was quite surprising was the media turnout- all women beer writers! Needless to say I was in esteemed company. The purpose was to introduce those unfamiliar with Monument to the brewery, beer selections, and future plans; and to remind the rest of us of the quality product, the history, and what new adventures they were about to embark upon.
Ken and Matt Praay opened Monument City in Highlandtown in April of 2017. Prior to that they chose to market test their beers by contract brewing through Peabody Heights. The response- particularly for their 51 Rye was extremely positive. The journey had been several years in the making. The idea for the family run brewery came to Ken in 2009, after falling in love with Baltimore and its vibrant and growing craft beer scene. When his brother Matt was in town, they would brew together and continue tweaking the results. Ken proceeded to write a whopping 75 page business plan over the course of next year. As a Senior VP of Marketing for Citibank, Ken had both the insight and the acumen. Matt had been contracted to work in the Middle East, and after more than a year of midnight Skype calls the two took a hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2011 to decide if it was the right time to move forward. The bank had other ideas. Contract brewing seemed like the most logical solution- establish proof of concept while they located a building and more money to get started.
The structure they settled on was indeed historic. It was the Williamson Veneer building, built in 1901, and boarded up in 1983. It had (almost everything they needed) to serve as the old neighborhood brewery the brothers had in mind. It also, coincidentally was located not too far from the Pre-Prohibition brewery that inspired their name. The descendants of the historic brewery were kind enough to share plenty of information with the brothers, filling them with a greater sense of purpose- and nostalgia. The work ahead of them was tremendous however. There was only one salvageable window, no roof to speak of,and they had to install their own sewer lines. Yes outhouses were located across the railroad tracks if one was in need….wait what century are we livingin? It might as well have been 1900 considering all that had to be done to bring it up to code. They fabricated most everything they could themselves, and continue to do so if it makes financial sense. They even repurposed an old Miller Lite tank into a hop rocket for dry hopping- the irony of that is not lost. Despite the daunting obstacles in their path they succeeded- with hand trowels at some points, but they persevered nonetheless.
The success of 51 Rye and the core beers planned required very specific equipment that harkened back to the (German-American) brewers prior to Prohibition- including a jacketed mash tun for decoction brewing. They also purchased an oversized lauter tun for high plato brews, a 25 hectoliter brewhouse from MBT, and a host of fermenters (40, 60, 80 bbl). Within six months of opening they needed to expand. What were they doing right?
Simply put they were making quality beer VERY consistently. After listening to Matt (tour guide and Director of Brewing Operations) and Ken(Director of Marketing and Sales, and Business Ops) talk about leaning away from (instead of into) trends, and their adherence to four basic ingredients for beer….Reinheitsgebot immediately came to mind, and harkened back to yesteryear once again. The brothers denied strict adherence, but admitted that most core beers could be viewed by that standard. Where they certainly break from tradition is when it comes to their seasonal beers, occasional collaborations, or when they chose to participate in a ‘trend’ (about one timeper year). A prime example of this comes in the form of their Goetz Caramel Cream milk stout. Yes they used actual Goetz caramel creams in the brew. This is a far departure from beer purity standards- but one well received and for agood cause- MVET, which provides education and training to homeless veterans enabling them to get jobs. Like the brewers of the past, and their modern counterparts Monument City is a good steward in the community, helping veterans, supplying recycling bins, and supporting Trash Free Maryland, to name a few.
This year (2018) they will peak just over 5,000 bbls. That growth was supported by the investment in their own canning line, made with a little help from a brilliant local welder and some repurposed bakery conveyors. They have also reached the point where they need to expand once again in 2019- in part because of their desire to continue producing quality lagers that require the longer fermentation period, taking up valuable space from other core beers. They are also investing in their barrel ageing program with sherry, rum, bourbon, and whiskey barrels. Matt and Ken are working on a sour program, and have gone to great lengths to prevent contamination, but again this is a 12-36 month turn aroundfor the Lambics they have planned. Two 80 bbls, and one 10 bbl tank are on the way to accommodate the 2019 production schedule.
They are also expanding programming through their taproom to include targeted educational programs and a host of new events. This is accomplished under the thoughtful leadership of Taproom Manager Crystal Wack. Therest of the team includes Jack Obernaier, VP of Sales; Kimberely Praay,Business Manager; the two Daves- Thomas and Watt (Head Brewer and Cask Specialist) affectionately known as Dragon and Nighthawk! It is a cohesive and energetic team, and the expansion will see the seven full time and eight part time staff grow in the next year.
Unlike many craft breweries in Maryland that have a business model centered on taproom sales- 96% of the beer Monument City produces is distributed. They viewed self-distribution as a bridge too far, and felt it would serve their interests better to enter into a distribution contract. They are hyper-focused on Baltimore as their primary market and see themselves as remaining the ‘old neighborhood brewery’ for at least the next 12 years with production topping out around 15,000 bbls/yr. They hire local, buy local, and use local tradesmen and women to help get theirproduct to market.
If you want consistent, really well-made, quality beer that showcases the ingredients, and veers (most of the time) away from trendy- this is the place to be. This brewery is not about flash or gimmicks. That is whythe naming of the brews is so tough for them- it is about the ingredients(which are promptly posted on each and every can), brewed seamlessly to create a balanced, quality beer you can trust. Honest craft beer.
They have done what we all know and expect (rightly so ornot) of Maryland breweries- spur economic growth and help revitalize the neighborhoods that welcome them. Since opening, Monument City has been joined by Urban Axes, a ballroom, and a restaurant- making it a one stop location for beer, food, and fun.
Take the time to stop in if you haven’t and give them a try-whether you prefer the perfectly balanced American Brown Ale, or the seasonal offering of Woodstove- a beautifully crafted 100% malt Imperial Stout that provides a subtle ribbon of milk chocolate that dances across the palate. You will not be disappointed.
Here’s to 2019- may it be a grand and prosperous one for the Praay family and Monument City!