Breweries and Neighborhood Revitalization

There is much excitement surrounding craft beer in Maryland. Over the course of the past two decades the number of craft breweries in the state has risen dramatically, along with a growing foundation of not just local, but regional and national fans of the Free State’s malt beverages. Coming off of the most recent Great American Beer Fest (GABF), many turn their thoughts towards medals and the ability to place ‘GABF award winner’ next to their beers in the taproom. That is all well and good, and Maryland has many GABF champions among her ranks; but is it the most important thing?  It would be easy to digress and discuss quality beer, and the varying palates as I have in the past, but that is not where this post leads. Instead, it is time to discuss what the breweries are doing on the ground, in your local community, and what benefit the average citizen (beer drinker or not) derives.

 

The phrase ‘economic impact’ sounds exciting, full of promise, and pleasing, particularly if you throw in a figure over $800 million. Often those numbers are viewed (and ogled or challenged as the case may be) from a somewhat esoteric and detached frame of reference. It all sounds good (or bad) but what does it really mean for the people living there? The easy answer is that breweries are building and rejuvenating communities. When Union Craft Brewing announced the Union Collective opening in 2018, the anticipation was great. Why? Primarily because of the impact they were already having upon their community since opening. Union Collective will extend its economic tentacles well beyond the initial brewery. Yes a larger space equates to more craft beer produced, more equipment to buy, more sales, more jobs that need to be filled, and more people visiting the taproom.  The oft misunderstood part of this is what it does for the neighborhood at large. Union is taking a vacant, deteriorating structure in a forgotten part of town and revitalizing it. Many partners have signed on to operate within the collective including Baltimore Whiskey Company, Earth Treks, and Charm City Creamery. This will not only draw a diverse market of consumers, it will also continue the critical process of revitalizing the community. Money coming in via jobs and tourism feeds the regeneration of the neighborhood. This includes buildings undergoing repairs, remodeling, and repurposing to attract businesses and new residents. It forces improvement in vital infrastructure like roads, schools, and utilities. Often property values rise once the first dominos (like the building of a new brewery) have fallen. Additionally, the purposeful community outreach and philanthropic work breweries across Maryland engage in must also be factored.

 

Recently NPR covered the opening of a small craft brewery in a remote town in Nebraska where they detailed a dying town looking for a way to breathe life back into it. The answer was a brewery.

 

“If your town isn’t growing, it’s dying.”[1]

 

No truer words have been spoken. It must also be said that the demographic that breweries tap into (pun intended) includes a younger crowd that is often the impetus for change. This was witnessed with the yuppies of the 1980’s that purchased and renovated older homes in moribund neighborhoods, improving entire community (and property values) right along with it. On any drive through Maryland and her cornucopia of towns and cities, detritus can be spotted in each and every one. It might be the old abandoned grocery store in Easton, or the long dormant Sellers Mansion in Baltimore, or a boarded up Mom and Pop corner store in Carroll County, but they have a common element- potential. If a brewer has a vision, these buildings can provide a home, and that can start a revolution.

 

We all want our cities and towns to thrive, with a reduction in crime, and greater participation in the work force for its inhabitants. Breweries are a critical driver toward that goal. To achieve this, our voices must be raised in concert and heard through the statehouse in Annapolis to change the laws and allow our great industry to flourish. Foment the brewing industry and we are all partnering in the rejuvenation of our forgotten communities and people.

 

Sláinte!

 


[1] Kirk Siegler, “Tapping Rural America: Craft Breweries Breathe New Life Into Small Towns.” NPR, October 7, 2017.

 

The fine art of Coopers

For over 2,000 years barrels have been crafted to hold liquid gold of varying types. The science behind the construction is fascinating, but the craftsmanship is exceptional and has evolved since Rome ruled the western world. The Romans adopted the method of storing and transporting beer in wooden containers instead of amphorae from the Celts. The process has changed little over the course of two millennia, but the nuances have become more refined, adjusted not only for technological advancements but the expertise and preference of the master coopers constructing them.

Coopers are artists, and each one operates on known, standard practices, but that is where the similarities end. Some coopers prefer uniform size staves for example, while others prefer alternating widths. Like many of the arts, it comes down to the preferences of the master craftsmen, and their own specialized techniques. The starting point is always same- the selection of the wood, traditionally oak. The wood will be weathered (aged) in preparation, and then both steamed to enable bending of the staves for construction (mise en rose), and fired (toasted) to specifications determined by the brewery, winery, or distillery. The characteristics of the wood comes through the process and into the brew, making it the most crucial decision before the first cut is ever made, or the first stave planed. It ultimately constructs the flavor profile of the liquid in the barrel to varying degrees based upon toasting, and length of ageing in the barrel. Master coopers always choose wisely, as that is part of their craft.

An intriguing aspect is the natural water tight seal achieved in the process, without seals, adhesives or other artificial methods. Dowels are used, notably for the head, along with metal hoops to secure the staves, but really nothing else. It all boils down to the craft. This harkens back to the ancient technology of boat building. Ancient shipbuilders also followed a similar process in achieving near water tight construction, but unlike coopers they chose to slather bitumen (pitch, or what is commonly known as tar today) on the finished vessel to procure (and perhaps guarantee) a completely water tight seal. Even when the Romans instituted the Celtic invention of barrel making to store beer and wine, they did not adapt this new ‘bitumen less’ technology toward their seafaring vessels.

Many of the Maryland breweries prior to Prohibition had coopers on site crafting barrels for their touted brews from John Frederick Wiessner to National Brewing. 10,000,000 barrels were in service in United States breweries prior to Prohibition. The invention of steel kegs coincided with Repeal, and threatened coopers traditional role in American breweries. Fortunately it would be another few decades before metal would completely supplant wood. When breweries did decide to turn away from wooden barrels, coopers remained the premier option of wineries and distilleries. All was not lost for coopers and breweries however, as they have seen a much welcomed resurgence in recent decades, not as the primary container for transport, but instead as the vessel to age and enhance golden, malted libations. Although it seems unlikely that barrels would unseat modern metal kegs as the choice for delivery, they have been lauded for their craft, their history, and their contribution to the renaissance of cask ales in America.

All hail the return of coopers to the brewing industry, like Free State Cooperage of Maryland, demonstrating a tradition thousands of years strong, and only getting better and more in demand.
Sláinte!

 

Food and beer pairing: an art, a science, or neither?

Today is National Cheeseburger Day. What does that mean for beer? Consult the Brewer’s Association of America beer and food pairing guide and a hungry consumer would be directed towards a pale ale, with a cheese suggestion of cheddar, or derby with sage. Epicurious also recommends a pale ale to complement any burger endeavor. Other experts suggest a light lager as the perfect accompaniment for burgers. For epicureans, merging taste appropriate food with beer has lagged behind the wine and food pairing craze that evolved decades ago. Perhaps it has. In addition, many would say beer drinkers got it wrong, and often.

Not too long ago the recommendation to pair spicy foods with an IPA was standard operating procedure. More recently, it has been made known that pairing a hoppy IPA (with an often high ABV) with spicy food only enhances the heat instead of complimenting it. For most, not all, dousing, instead of fanning the flames is the desired result. To accomplish balance, one must consume a beer with a higher malt characteristic than usually found in IPAs to accentuate, but not increase the spice. Lobster, a personal favorite, if only an occasional luxury, is even more intriguing. Recommended pairings range from a clean crisp lager, which makes perfect sense, to high alcohol Belgian tripels, porters, or even sours. Well, to make heads or tails out of this might ruin a perfectly good lobster!

What is the answer? Science? Dr. Nicole Garneau seems to think she has the answers. Well, at least some of them. Garneau, along with Lindsey Barr created the new beer flavor map that has standardized flavor descriptors for the craft beer industry, the first update since 1979. Taste is an ongoing scientific experiment. Garneau delves deeply into the taste ‘sense’, and even started a sensory program for breweries called the Draught Lab. She also directs the Genetics of Taste lab in Denver. Garneau argues that there are six, not five basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, savory), the sixth being fat. Fat! Well perhaps that is what is so tasty about lobster? Well all this science should most certainly guide craft beer consumers to the correct food and beer pairings. Or should it?

I appreciate science greatly. It reveals deeply held secrets, and guides us through a host of things we had no prior comprehension of. Science helps cure diseases, repair injuries, and sends us to the moon. I am just as curious as the next person as to why that delicious IPA pairs so well with blue cheese. The science behind it is absolutely fascinating. Will it however guide my food and beer decisions? Sometimes. I have always said, “Every palate is different.” What tastes mind numbingly rank to one person, may come across as a cornucopia of floral and vegetal wonder to another. That should truly be our guiding force, our individual palate. Do not dismiss the science however, as that is a useful and important advantage to help council us (at the very least) in the direction of what most likely will pair with that cheeseburger.

Cheers!

In times of trouble…

In reflecting upon a country in chaos from two major hurricanes of late, I have been awed by the generosity of spirit people have shown toward one another in their time of crisis. I have also been inspired and humbled by the philanthropic actions taken by so many. JJ Watt thought it would be a challenge to raise $200,000 for hurricane Harvey victims, and instead raised over $20 million! The Cajun Navy traveled at their own expense to rescue so many of those trapped by the flood waters, and returned with provisions to aid those survivors in need. Many volunteers went back to flood ravaged neighborhoods to save quadrupeds left behind and terrified. Several animal rescue organizations like Best Friends and the Humane Society mobilized to help those animals in Texas, and were already in place before Irma struck. We witnessed the creation of Corpus Craft Cares, a non-profit disaster relief fund set up by three Texas breweries (Lorelai, Lazy Beach, and Rebel Toad) to aid disaster victims. Lone Star Brewing set up a disaster relief fund, donating $25,000 as seed money with a goal of raising $250,000 for disaster victims by December.

In light of this, it seemed only appropriate to take this time to address those historic craft brewers of Maryland and their charitable contributions to the communities they resided and operated in. Many brewers provided regular donations of food and goods during extreme weather events be it winter storms, or summer droughts, for the homeless and indigent populations of Baltimore that could not survive without it. This was laudable, and greatly needed but they also rose far above almsgiving. Brewer John Wiessner, son of George F. Wiessner, proprietor of the 19th century Fort Marshall Brewery in Highlandtown started an orphanage in 1905. Originally titled the J. F. Wiessner Children’s Asylum the name has since been changed to perhaps a kinder moniker, The Wiessner Foundation for Children. This institution is still operational today funding organizations whose sole mission is to help children. A remarkable accomplishment considering John’s own brewery was closed down.

A contemporary of Wiessner, George Guenther Sr. was the son of the mayor of Wirtheim, Germany who immigrated to Baltimore to open a brewery. He successfully produced high quality lager beer for decades. Guenther’s son kept the brewery open during Prohibition to provide jobs for the workers and beer for the neighborhood, but was forced to sell the operation two years prior to repeal. Despite the sale of the brewery, the Guenther family still operated a home for ‘incurables’ which also served as a foundation to support humanitarian efforts across Maryland. Other post Prohibition brewery philanthropists include the Hoffberger family, owners of the National Brewing Company. The brewery opened in 1885 and survived into the modern era due to the acumen of the Hoffberger family, who purchased the brewery in 1933. Often noted for their support of professional sports teams like the Orioles and the Colts, their charitable accomplishments outshined all other interests. They created the Hoffberger Family Philanthropies to support children’s development, health, and education in Baltimore. These consolidated foundations fulfilled that mission for more than 70 years and continue to do so today.

Some historic brewers went far beyond financial philanthropy and were willing to risk their lives for those in need. John G. Lipp immigrated to Frederick Maryland to seek his fortune in the brewing industry in 1840. His brewery was an incredible success and staple of the community for 44 years. The remarkable generosity Lipp demonstrated was not the housing of his workers, or his notable contributions to the city of Frederick, but in offering his home as a safe house on the Underground Railroad, aiding countless slaves in their quest for freedom. Lipp left an enduring humanitarian legacy that far outlived his brewing contributions.

Fortunately for the beer drinkers of today modern brewers have taken up this philanthropic mantle, by supporting charitable endeavors, and honoring the legacy of those that came before. Communities know that in times of trouble they have an ally in their local brewery.

Sláinte

 

 

Pumpkin Style and other Seasonal Musings

I recently read an article by Fritz Hahn (Washington Post) addressing the irritation of Pumpkin Ales and fall seasonals appearing on store shelves in summer, when few consumers show interest in drinking them. I too have often complained about this phenomenon, particularly when October hits (and I am ready to drink a fall seasonal beer) and there is nothing to be found. Hahn engaged a variety of breweries and distributors to get to the crux of the matter. The results pointed to a supply chain cast six months into the future. The concern for breweries was a lack of beer on the shelves once summer seasonals were sold out if fall offerings weren’t to arrive until September.

This debacle is absolutely comprehensible, but I seem to recall a time around a decade ago (give or take) when fall brews came out in September/October not July or August. Certainly things have changed since then, and increased competition is definitely a factor. This does not however address the issue. What is the possible solution, empty shelves? Not the best decision. In reconfiguring the brew calendar and distribution needs, fresh ideas are necessary, and as the old adage implies,

Necessity is the mother of invention. 1

It would be simple to suggest that breweries increase production of their staple or ‘flagship’ beers that are offered year round to combat empty shelf syndrome during these inter- seasonal lulls. I for one enjoy my ‘go to’ beers that I can always count upon for quality, and year round availability. I like the reliability, as the beer shelf in my refrigerator can attest to. Delicious, nutritious, comfort liquid for any occasion or season. I also appreciate the adventure of variety, seasonals, and exploring the unknown. Would it be too crazy to suggest inter-season offerings? Wait- that is already happening. A quick look at any of your local breweries at this time of year produces a cornucopia of special offerings like collaboration brews. Now this is where it gets exciting. Well planned and thought out collaborations have produced some incredible results. Many Maryland breweries have received national recognition for their outstandingly crafted mergers. The Partnership Series Olde Ale between Heavy Seas and Union Craft is just one that comes to mind among several across the region.

Not all breweries have the opportunity to collaborate, or produce quality brews when they choose to brew together. There are other options to fill the void, including an increase in their portfolio of brews. Unfortunately not all brewers can take advantage of this under current state franchise laws. One local brewery (who shall remain nameless for this article) created a tasty new brew to fill that void, but was told by their distributor that they would not even attempt to place that (quite tasty) new beer in retail establishments. They were left with no option but to keep it in their taproom. Hmmm was this competition? Or was this our fear becoming reality- that there aren’t enough distributors in Maryland for the number of craft breweries, thus allowing those remaining distributors to basically dictate to the brewers what will be sold and when?

Perhaps the ancient world has something else to offer us in the form of Archimedes, “Eureka!”2  If he could figure out a solution to his difficult mathematical dilemma, we in Maryland can discover a new approach to seasonal brews…

Beer for thought!

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1. Plato, trans. By Benjamin Jowett, The Republic (New York, Anchor, 1960).
2. Archimedes, trans. by Sir Thomas Heath, Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1897).

 

What lies beneath?

Uncover what resides beneath the streets of Maryland.

The floods that ravaged Ellicott City last year unearthed an unexpected mystery- underground caves. Research conducted by the Howard County Historical Society team led by Shawn Gladden revealed that the caverns below Main Street were multi-purpose. They served as a hideaway for booze during Prohibition, importantly as a stop on the Underground Railroad (as with many properties in Howard County) and cold storage for a saloon and beer garden in the 19th century. This was not at all unusual for Maryland.

Prior to refrigeration the coolest place to lager beer (age at cooler temperatures for about 2 months) and to store it was underground. Subterranean Baltimore was a cavernous network of lagering cellars excavated deep beneath the streets of Canton, Highlandtown, Federal Hill, and the northern Bel Aire/ Gay Street quadrant of the city, as the grounds were immensely suitable for such an undertaking. Frederick and Cumberland also witnessed vast lagering cellar excavations, fomenting growth of the industry in those well-travelled, populous locales. To produce and offer quality beer, and grow a brewery’s customer base, deep underground vaults became a necessity. Admittedly, a few brewers attempted the same feat by digging instead into a tall hillsides with somewhat dodgy results. Depth was key to reaching proper temperatures and good beer.

What began as good quality control measures for brewers eventually branched into another, most valorous mechanism for societal change. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, many slaves sought freedom via the Underground Railroad. Success was dependent upon safe places to hide from slave catchers while traversing northward to (hopeful) freedom. Maryland was a critical state with several safe ‘stops’ for fugitive slaves. Although great risk was incurred by those that hid these travelers, many Marylanders stepped up, including brewers. After all, they possessed the perfect hiding place (or weigh station) that was oft overlooked. Once the Civil War broke out the cellars continued to provide hiding places, not just for slaves, but for other valuables- from jewelry to horses, and even a few AWOL soldiers. Many of the brewers paid other men to serve in their place during the war, so they could remain with their family (and businesses) as a measure of both physical and financial protection. Civil War era brewers shared numerous stories of soldiers from both sides taking beer, property, horses, food, and anything they could lay hands upon from the breweries and their homes. This was rampant, and many had to devise methods of protecting their property and securing their post war survival. The lagering cellars offered just such an opportunity. When soldiers did discover these hidden underground gems, they often took possession of the cellars as places to hide guns, ammunition, and lie in wait for the enemy.

After the Civil War, ‘Ice machines” became a standard feature of late 19th century breweries, obviating the need for the cellars for those that could afford this new mechanical refrigeration. Those deep cellars however were not forgotten and evolved into perfect contraband storage for bootleggers (and ‘in the know’ citizens hoarding booze) during Prohibition! It turned out to be ideal when federal dry agents decided to conduct raids (since Maryland never paid for or appointed local agents), as they knew nothing of the vast subterranean vaults just below their boots. After thirteen years, liquid gold flowed legally once again with those agents none the wiser.

Many of these cellars have since been filled in, a critical aspect to the vast infrastructure built atop. Some however, like those in Ellicott City are still concealed, waiting to be rediscovered, revealing secrets and deepening our understanding of Maryland’s rich history.
Sláinte!

When Craft Brewers Sell…

In recent years we have witnessed a vast growth in the craft beer market as well as a bit of a sell off. Why? The American dream? Certainly the entrepreneurial spirit of America includes building a successful business, selling it off and retiring comfortably. Many craft beer lovers are quick to castigate brewers that choose this path, often out of a sense of betrayal. The American dream also and often includes the creation of a business that foments the growth of communities through jobs and economic development, leaving a lasting legacy, sometimes for generations. This is the visage many staunch supporters of craft beer relish. These ‘dreams’ are not always mutually exclusive, but are often at conflicting purpose, most often based upon circumstance instead of (perceived) betrayal.

Currently, DuClaw Brewing founder Dave Benfield was quoted in a Baltimore Business Journal article as seeking an equity partner or new owner. As this information quickly spread, I was informed that DuClaw was not for sale but merely in need of funds to expand the taproom and canning line. This was based purely upon demand that the brewery could not meet until necessary funds became available. This is a perfect example of the convergence of needs potentially altering the course of the brewery. To remain competitive a brewery must be able to host patrons for tours and samples, and taprooms make that possible. That taproom however must be suitable to the interested number of attendees. Additionally, cans are the beating heart of craft at the moment. They are practical, prevent deterioration of the product for longer time than bottles, and are more portable (approved for beaches, parks, etc.) These are all practical business matters that smart breweries should invest in- if the demand is present. It clearly is in the case of DuClaw. So why tack on the extra- potential new owner clause. After all, it has served only to upset loyal DuClaw drinkers and begin an imagined countdown as to when AB-InBev will come calling.

Many breweries facing these sorts of expansion needs also require investment partners. 21st Amendment just sold an equity share to Brooklyn Brewery in a quest to drum up financial influx without ‘selling out’ to big beer. Brooklyn has also acquired an equity stake in Funkwerks, again helping them to remain competitive without ‘selling out’. 1 Brooklyn is a strong- perhaps ideal partner in the craft beer world, and has led the way in helping other craft brewers across the nation get started. Brooklyn cannot however invest in every craft brewery across the country. There are other interested investors, but there are major pitfalls to accompany them.

Last year Jim Koch of Sam Adams took part in a craft beer forum in Bethlehem, PA with Dick Yuengling and Ken Grossman. Koch made a statement regarding equity investors in the craft beer market that was rather jarring, “Equity investors have got to get a liquidity event…” meaning equity investments have a finite life span (anywhere from three to ten years) and at the end of that they need to be paid for their investment, quite a bit of money. If necessary this means resale, or a public offering. 2  The prediction? A great wave of sell-offs in the next decade for craft breweries that took on private equity partners. This is exactly the path many craft beer consumers object to. What is the alternative to investors? Not being able to meet the consumer demand equates to losing business, and the brewery’s market share in the region- or nation as the case may be. This is a downward trend that successful breweries want to avoid, as it may spell the end, particularly in highly crowded markets like California where they are nearing saturation. That is the antithesis of the American dream, and the very last thing craft beer consumers desire.

Beer for Thought…