Summer is here and things are sizzling! Maryland has seen some drastic shifts in the world of brewing. In a matter of six weeks Guinness announced plans to close the Baltimore Brewery, moving operations to Chicago; Flying Dog sold to FX MATT, closing the Frederick plant; and DuClaw was sold to River Horse, leaving Heavy Seas as the largest (and longest) Maryland independent brewery standing. The dominoes falling for the three of the state’s largest producers certainly was not welcome news for most, but there was quite a bit of good to glean from the industry as well.
Let us begin with Guinness, the shutting down of brewing operations in Baltimore does not come as a great surprise. With the announcement of the opening of Guinness Chicago it was pretty easy to read the tea leaves. Sustaining two operational plants in the U.S. on the heels of COVID was not part of the strategy. Although Diageo (parent company of Guinness) beat expectations in January 2023, on the heels of strong sales in Europe where Guinness saw a 71% increase in sales in Ireland, growth in North America was paltry, coming in at 3%. Combined with increased inflationary pressures, Diageo (and thus Guinness) was primed for belt tightening, not expansion. Additionally, it is far easier to distribute nationwide from the Midwest than the East Coast. As a salve for the Guinness Baltimore Blonde fans that recoiled at the thought of the locally crafted favorite shifting production to Illinois, Hugh Sisson, founder of Heavy Seas and merchant of the industry’s growth in the region since 1996, offered to brew the Maryland flag draped Blonde at Heavy Seas. Alas, nothing has yet come of the offer and astute shoppers might have noticed the labeling has conveniently removed the Maryland flag.
A little more than a month after Guinness revealed the closure, Flying Dog announced they were ‘joining forces’ with FX Matt Brewing (AKA Saranac). Uncapped Podcast broke the story May 22, leaving many stunned. A quick reminder – Flying Dog intentionally chose not to reopen the taproom after COVID was no longer a threat. The bottom line was never about selling pints and giving tours, but large scale production. Tea leaves anyone? Yes they will open a taproom and ‘innovation’ brewery (aka small batch experimental) in downtown Frederick while production moves to New York this summer before closing the plant completely. A bit of history here for those that forgot or might not have known Flying Dog was a Colorado based brewery before relocating to Frederick. Much like Guinness, they were a transplant to the Free State. Once they set up shop they absolutely embraced Maryland, from flag and blue crabs to Old Bay, wending their way into the refrigerators of many Maryland natives. We will see if the Maryland themes continue once they have relocated.
On June 1st, news broke that another Maryland brewery had been sold- DuClaw. This time however, it was a Maryland original. From the very first brew pub in Bel Air in 1996, to the Yellow Brick Road production facility in Rosedale, DuClaw has always been a Maryland brewery. Plagued by nagging issues at the production facility limiting tasting room opportunities among other problems, DuClaw was openly looking for a buyer for years before COVID showed up. The solution for Benfield and crew came in the form of River Horse Brewing out of New Jersey. Sweet Baby Jesus- the iconic flagship (yes I recall just how much they revile the term) beer will be brought to life in a new manger a few hours north. A long time ago, Benfield told me in an interview that he hoped the brewery would discontinue Sweet Baby Jesus, as the goal was always to provide new beers that would capture consumer’s attention and palate, usurping the holy porter. That never came to pass despite their best efforts. Even the illustrious and effervescent Unicorn Farts could not topple the king.
On a somber note, True Respite out of Rockville is up for sale as a turn-key brewery for $1.5 million. The O’Leary family (owners) has mentioned that times are extremely difficult for breweries- more than we know and that we all should double down on buying local. The nearly $13k per month rent (usury in my book- but it is Montgomery County) is certainly indicative of the financial challenges breweries face, particularly when they do not own the plant operations are housed within.
Over the past decade we have witnessed the closure of several breweries in Maryland including Astro Lab, Full Tilt, House Cat, Homaide, Baying Hound Aleworks, Growlers, and more. COVID certainly played a hand and not everyone survives the financial difficulties created by lockdowns. Maryland is nowhere near saturation, and we are well behind most states in breweries per capita according to the Brewer’s Association of America. With the closure of these breweries, our numbers will continue to wane. Craft alcohol laws in the state have reformed, paving the way for new breweries to stand on more solid footing. A cautionary tale remains however for anyone interested in opening a brewery to do their research and talk to those in the industry who have succeeded and critically those who have not. Vital information can be gleaned from those willing to open up the conversations with those who came before.
Opportunity awaits for those wading into the brewing business, but quality is key and the craft beer consumers are particular. As the number of breweries has grown, buyers are less forgiving of unremarkable brews, thus raising the bar. Negotiating finances like steep rents and excise taxes, inflation and supply chain issues coupled with finding trustworthy, reliable distributors is just as crucial to the success of a brewery as crafting consistently excellent beers. A misstep on any of these can sink even the most sought-after brand.
So what have we lost? Jobs… and beer Guinness, Flying Dog and DuClaw will continue to produce the beers that have lined our fridges for decades. What becomes of the contract brewers that relied on these facilities to produce their Maryland grown brews? We will have to see how this plays out, but the ripple effect of these consolidations might deprive us of the smaller start-ups we were just beginning to discover, and others we have known for quite some time.
There is good news to report however, as we are seeing growth and expansion in our Maryland originals from Heavy Seas to Mully’s to Rockwell to Checkerspot. The Free State has a long history of expansion and contraction when it comes to craft brewing. We are just in the process of dialing it in adn teh summer is going to sizzle!