Happy New Year!

A look back at the Maryland craft brewing industry in 2018, and glimpse of what is to come in 2019.

Welcome to 2019! After a brief hesitation I decided to open the year with a recap of 2018. There was much to celebrate:  several new breweries opened in Maryland- many to rave reviews for the high quality brews they were turning out; the rise of the sour to heretofore unseen proportions- with literally a sour in every brew kettle (completely NOT attributable to Budweiser despite claims to the contrary from Ab-InBev); a sharp rise in Veteran owned breweries across the Free State; and a developing appreciation for the NEIPA in nearly every brewery.

Unfortunately accompanying the triumphs came a pall of darkness cast over the brewing industry in Maryland like a malevolent trespasser. Some breweries closed, others read the tea leaves and chose friendlier climes across our borders to craft their beer. There was also much hullabaloo about a ‘contraction’ coming in the craft brewing industry to which I will comment upon later.

Most that have read this blog for the past few years have become well acquainted with the changes taking place in the industry- particularly those in Maryland. This also assumes most are familiar with the battle raging in Annapolis to adjust the antediluvian, obsolete portions of the laws governing craft breweries. Please note that I did not say ‘all’ breweries which is the relevant point here, and an important distinction.  I will be the first person to suggest that mega breweries[i] can wreak havoc upon distributors (and retailers) without specific franchise protections in place. History bears witness to this fact. For smaller craft breweries however those protectionist statutes, from franchise laws to taproom sale limits can spell an end to a craft brewery wasting the funds and life blood spilt in the quest to make their dream a reality. Despite the incredibly vocal support of the voters for these statutory changes, and a Comptroller bent on helping the brewers at all costs- the 2018 legislative session devolved into a mud wrestling competition that unmasked the naked, ugly truth of politics, “power is the great aphrodisiac.”[ii]  Much of the wrangling taking place had absolutely nothing to do with craft beer and everything to do with a power struggle.

The epicenter of that power struggle was the entitlement of a handful of career politicians in the legislature and the vigorous influence of the distributor’s lobby throughout halls of Annapolis. This push for corrective legislation deteriorated even further when those legislators not only tossed aside proposed legislation without consideration of the benefits to the majority of Marylanders, but chose instead to examine alcohol regulation in the state as a means of stripping it from said Comptroller’s office. That examination has since turned into a procession of neo-prohibitionist troglodytes (with their entourage of acolytes) trying to return us to the dry days of the Volstead Act. Not surprisingly they are accompanied by many of those bloviating self-important legislators that just love to try and manipulate witnesses in an effort to defend their indefensible shenanigans.

In the midst of this stage show behold our champions- Cindy Mullikin (President of the Brewers Association of Maryland) and Hugh Sisson (Founder and proprietor of Clipper City/Heavy Seas) interjecting relevant commentary on behalf of the breweries complete with supporting documentation, statistics, and above all –common sense- something that seems to be missing from many of the actors involved in the hearings. They have represented Maryland craft beer extremely well in the face of these unscrupulous narcissists.  The findings of this task force have yet to be released- and honestly I don’t know what they are going to suggest. If pressed I believe they will advocate for at the very least another increase in alcohol taxes, and at the worst- state control of all alcoholic beverage sales, which would be as dismal as one imagines for the industry.

This is where it becomes important to focus on 2019 and what we should be celebrating. The Brewer’s Association of Maryland is doing a fantastic job on behalf of the more than 80 breweries across the state. Every craft brewery regardless of size should be proud they are so well represented- because they are! No matter what the findings of the task force is not law- it is just a recommendation. Those findings would need to be crafted into proposed legislation and taken to the appropriate committee, debated, and voted upon first- before making it to the full house and senate for a vote. Hmmm…It almost sounds as if I still have a bit of faith left in the process…I do. Trust me I am almost as surprised by this revelation as you are! Let me share another brilliant quote from Henry Kissinger, “Ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.” When it comes to craft beer in Maryland these words have never rung more true.  

I still believe that most humans will heed the advice of their better angels and make the right choices for all the right reasons. Hopefully this applies to more than the ten percent of the legislature in Maryland. Only time will tell of course.

So, what do we have to celebrate in addition to our great team at BAM? Well let me start with Patriot Acres, and Checkerspot, and Valhalla, and Maryland Beer Company, and Cult Classic, and B.C. Brewery, and Inverness, and House Cat, and True Respite, and Full Tilt (it was a long time coming gentleman), and Guinness, and oh so many more that I haven’t mentioned. In addition there are several breweries in planning set to open in 2019 and beyond from Patuxent to Ten Eyck….

Which brings me back to that contraction… what contraction? Union Craft has expanded (the Collective) right along with Heavy Seas, Frey’s, and B.C. Brewery, and many others. Let us not forget the expansion plans of Dark Cloud Malt House which is yet another reason to fully embrace 2018 as a stellar year- the rise of malt houses once again in our region. It is finally time to reclaim our rich heritage of growing and malting our own grains for Maryland craft breweries.  Don’t forget that drinking locally crafted beer made with locally grown malting grains saves the Chesapeake Bay! After the Conowingo Dam debacle that should certainly make malt and the craft brewing industry a priority for everyone in the state. It also serves as a reminder that if you look, there is always a reason to celebrate and support Maryland craft breweries!

I don’t know what will happen in 2019 but I do know Maryland craft beer has not even come close to reaching its zenith.  There are many industry-centric bills headed to legislative committees in the Maryland General Assembly beginning on Wednesday January 9th. There is also a wealth of support from voters for this industry that has revitalized Maryland communities and consistently strengthened its powerful voice with action. For now I am enjoying the delicious fruits of our craft brewer’s labor- always mindful of their sacrifices, determination, incredible skill and dedication to this ancient and enduring craft that we love.

 Sláinte

P.S. ***Please continue to be a vocal advocate for your craft breweries and ask your representatives about the industry share with them how they can help ensure their communities success by supporting craft breweries.


[i] My personal definition of ‘mega’ includes any brewery producing over 500,000 bbls annually. Others choose to use the Brewers Association of America definition of craft as any brewery producing more than 6 million bbls annually (along with other caveats).

[ii] Henry Kissinger, NY Times January 19, 1971.

Open Gate Brewery Opens

It has been a while folks, thanks for bearing with me! Last night after 8 straight hours of demolition work (yes swinging away with a sledge hammer) exhausted, thirsty, and owing our dear friend some beer for his assistance we trekked over to the new Guinness brewery. It happens to be 10 minutes from my house and on the way to the airport- to which my friend was headed.
I knew what to expect having seen the drawings, but conceptualizing it and seeing it in reality was something different. For anyone that has travelled to Dublin, Ireland to the original St. James Gate Brewery there was a certain level of expectation. The Open Gate Brewery can handle the comparison as there are similarities, particularly the grand scale and the grasp of the brewery’s long history. The Open Gate Brewery has a very ‘new world’ feel- as it should. It was crisp and modern yet gently cradled nuances of the old world Dublin original. It was a beautiful meld of both traditions on an expansive campus. In the upcoming months more will be completed to add to the experience- and that is exactly what it was.
As a band played on the terrace, I chose air conditioning. I was pleased to see the usual suspects on tap- Guinness Stout, Foreign Extra Stout, and the like. What I chose to partake of was the Crosslands Pale Ale made with local ingredients- specifically Dark Cloud Malthouse malt, and Black Locust hops. It was exactly what I hoped it would be- refreshing, delicious, and well- crafted. Although the restaurant was not yet open, small plates were offered at the bar, along with copious refills of much needed water. My only disappointment was in not being able to partake of any Golden Ale series (experimental beers) that had been available in the temporary taproom.

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I was also happy to see quite a few of my craft beer connoisseur friends- some now happily employed at Open Gate Brewery. Although I was a bit mind-muddled from the day, I was able to recognize a few things that I wanted to share with all of you. First and foremost I am very aware of the controversy surrounding the entry of the new Guinness Brewery into Maryland. I want to put that aside for now as all of you know I will NEVER stop fighting for our craft breweries here in Maryland and a proper change to the archaic laws that bind them. I want to offer another perspective today.
The Open Gate Brewery was extremely well run and organized. The staff was incredibly diligent, genuinely smiling and kind- despite the volume of folks near closing. Yes, I can absolutely see people flying into BWI airport to experience the Guinness Brewery without having to cross the pond- although if you get the chance to travel to Ireland always take it! I personally do not think this is a bad thing. Beer tourism absolutely brings people into your brewery- large or small. This country is filled with craft beer travelers and our fine Maryland breweries already consistently lure beercationers year after year. I believe this brewery will add to those numbers- not only at the Guinness Brewery- but at each and every Maryland Brewery. With the availability of beer bus tours one merely has to step off of the airplane, drop their luggage at the hotel, and hop on a bus to sample more than 80 delicious Maryland breweries. It is ideal really, and everyone wins.
The other observation that I feel VERY strongly about is this: Crosslands Pale Ale is really good for Maryland. It brings national attention to the quality of both the hops grown and the malt made here in the Free State. I think this is outstanding. I could not be more proud of our local farmers and maltsters, and excited at the doors this may open for them. Even folks that don’t regularly drink craft beer will get a chance to sample the quality of our local ingredients. Not only will this urge them on to sample more from our diverse breweries, it will inspire more investment in planting malting grains (that save the Chesapeake Bay) and expansive malting operations to supply our breweries.
Sure I could go on about jobs, and the boost to the economy at this point… but I know you already have that figured out. Whatever your feelings, I respect them. I wanted you to know I am rooting for our Maryland breweries, farmers, and maltsters-each and every one of them.
Sláinte!