When the giant beverage firm, InBev, purchased Anheuser Busch in 2008 for 52 billion dollars, some people said it was the end of the American beer industry. At the time, there were just a couple hundred craft beer breweries in the country.
Things have changed a great deal in the past 5 to 10 years. The craft beer industry has taken off. There are now more than 3000 craft breweries across the country with hundreds more opening each year. They make thousands of barrels each year in their warehouse brewery compared to the 40 or 50 million barrels of Bud brewed by the giant. The “giant” craft beers like Boston Beer Company and Sierra Nevada make one or two million barrels of beer each year, and that still is only a few percent of the beer market. Yet, they are big enough that true craft brew aficionados consider them a distant second choice to their favorite local brew. On an unseasonably cold November afternoon, we decided to do a craft brew tour up the I-95 corridor from Washington D.C. to Baltimore. The goal was to pick up some local beer as a Holiday presents for the office. Since we were driving, we thought we would visit four breweries, stopping to split a draft at each place, and purchase two to four six packs if we liked it.
Our first stop was Jail Break Brewery.
Located a mile off of I-95 in the Laurel region of Maryland, it recently opened in April of 2014. Like most breweries, it is located in an industrial complex of warehouses, next to furniture distributors and moving and storage companies. This is quite typical of small breweries. From what we can tell, the requirements for a craft brewery are high ceilings, access to lots of water, easy access to a loading dock to move the kegs out, and at least 10,000 square feet of concrete floor space. Industrial parks work well.
We knew we were at Jail Break because directly out front was a food truck. These breweries typically do not have food licenses. It’s a flip on the restaurant without the liquor license that lets you bring in your own bottle of wine. In the Jail Break tap room, you can have all the alcohol you want, but you have to bring your own food. The food truck this Saturday was serving Philly Famous Cheese Steaks. The truck had MD plates, but maybe they get up to Philly a lot. We passed on the food since the afternoon was young, which in hindsight was probably a bad idea.
Walking into Jail Break the vibe is uber cool.
The ceilings are high with exposed ducts and such.
A large room holds picnic tables and bar tables with stools.
A large u-shaped bar is in the back with the huge chalk board of offerings on tap to the side.
Behind the bar is a panel of large glass windows through which can be seen the 20 feet tall beer vats where the business of brewing takes place.
There is a mixed crowd of hip young folks who biked to the industrial park on their one-speed for a brew.
The mix comes from the two of us representing the over forty crowd.
A couple of twenty-somethings, Lea and Liz, who look like they just got done playing a pick up game of women’s soccer introduce themselves as our wait staff as we grab a couple of empty stools at the bar.
Everyone is super friendly.
Lea and Liz immediately want to know who we are, where we are from, why we were taking notes and pictures.This isn’t the kind of place you go to sit in a corner and drown your sorrows.
We told them about our brew pub tour and they told us the history of Jail Break Brewery, and why it was the best brewery we were going to visit today.
We ordered the flight of four beers to share.
Liz added a couple on the house that we just had to try. She shared that the head brew master for Jail Break left Dogfish Head Brewery because he felt that Dogfish had gotten too big and was stifling his creative energies. Dogfish is too big! Most people have not heard of Dogfish. Now he was free to brew a Feed the Monkey Hefeweizen or a Jalepeno IPA. Hey, nobody puts a Jail Break brew master in a corner. That is how the craft beer movement is rolling. The patrons like the breweries small and quirky. They want success, but not too much. We loved the vibe and the beer and wished we had ordered the Faux Philly Cheesesteak, but the afternoon was not getting any earlier, so we had to keep moving. But, first we picked up a case of the Big Punisher Double IPA, the only beer Jail Break currently cans, a “She’s Crafty” T-shirt, and Liz threw in a couple of tasting glasses on the house. As we left, Liz shouted, “you’ll be back.” I think she is right.
Motoring up I-95, we took a jog over to the Halethorpe area and dropped in on Heavy Seas brewery.
Heavy Seas is a craft brewery that has been around since 1987, a bit longer than last April. Their product line looks polished and consistent from a marketing perspective. Each type of beer has a pirate-themed name. There is a Small Craft Uber Pils, a Loose Cannon IPA, and a half-dozen more. The warehouse is large with big truck loading platforms ready to ship out thousands of cases of beer. We found the tap room over on the side of the large complex. The tap room has the vibe of a 1980s basement; drop ceilings, old pictures in frames with a pirate theme, dark corners.
We saddled up to the bar which has no stools and order the Small Craft to share. The barista was accommodating and dutiful – pour your beer and move on. A small crowd of mixed folks sat at the five tables and talked over their beer. There were no food trucks within 1000 feet.
The beer was good, but the vibe was tired. I’ve seen a lot of stores with the Heavy Seas products in their chilled beer section, and that was clearly what this brewery was about. No one had quit their job to try strange beer ideas here. We picked up two six packs of Loose Cannon, but new we would not be back to this tap room.
We were headed from Halethorpe to the Woodberry offshoot of Hampden to Union Brewery. As a Baltimore suburban native, my best guess route was 95 to MLK across Mt Royal to 83 and up to Falls Rd exit. Google maps disagreed. They liked a more direct route up Washington Blvd and across Fulton St for a hardcore look at one of the toughest and most abandoned sections of Charm City.
Fulton Street is not a destination, it is a sobering reality of life in The Wire marked by abandoned buildings, boarded up homes and bars on any edifice hinting at a sign of life. Corners are patrolled by kids on bikes and hooded men with cell phones while barber shops and liquor stores are the businesses of choice. The only reason to venture through the Fulton Street corridor is to cut across the city, and when you see this wasteland of poverty and crime, you might find yourself wishing you took the longer, more gentrified tour. We felt humbled and saddened as we took the hard right onto Druid Park Drive for final approach into Woodberry.
Union Brewery isn’t clearly marked. It’s a quick left once you cross the tracks, with a vinyl banner on a gate marking the entrance.
The parking lot was full, locals eating Kommie Pig sandwiches at wobbly plastic picnic tables while a line of bearded men and their women waited four deep in line for a pour of the Double Duckpin or Anthem.
The roar of I-83 could be heard in the background as locals rolled in on bicycles and 1990s vintage Camrys to grab a beer with a friend before the 4 pm closing time.
It was crowded but respectful.
Two appropriately shabbily dressed 30 year olds with trucker hats pulled down low worked the rail and swapped kegs.
We shared the cask version of the Double Duckpin with a Kommie Reuben from the truck outside, cutting the line by calling out the can man – if you’re buying more than a pour, they seemed to pay attention.
We skipped the tour – the crowds and the backstories seem to follow a familiar formula – successful company man trades in his suit and tie to live the American beer brewing dream.
How they make the beer is not nearly as interesting as how it tastes and the vibe of the imbibing crowd.
After scoring a 12 pack of the double duckpin, we left Hamden in pursuit of the Ozzy, our favorite 9 percenter in our favorite brownstone mansion, The Brewer’s Art.
The Brewer’s Art is an institution in the Baltimore beer brewing scene.
I remember going there as a student at University of Baltimore some 20+ years ago, part of the underground crowd, pushing into the smoke filled dungeon for a midnight pint and esoteric conversation.
It still has that same feel to me today, aging timelessly, an iconic brewing institution.
It was not new cool and trendy like Jailbreak, nor had it aged poorly like Heavy Seas.
It was a craft beer establishment long before craft beer was trendy and aging like an Ivy League school.
Ozzy has been the subject of much controversy of late. It’s been brewed and poured over the past 17 years but its growth in popularity and distribution got Ozzy’s people in a snit, and a cease and desist ensued. The name has been retired, but the formula is the same, with a new devilish moniker – Beasley – a homage to the downstairs bartender who has been drafting for The Brewer’s Art for the past 18 years. Canning is underway for the new reveal in the next few weeks and for now you can scavenger for the last remaining Ozzy in a few local beer stores or you favorite craft pub. We reminisced about picking up our six pack of Ozzy and enjoying it on the lawn listening to the Kelly Bell band at Artscape five months earlier. Alas, that was the last six pack of Ozzy we would ever see. With Ozzy put to rest, we opted for the Resurrection – a brown abbey ale with a lot of body served in a chalice glass, to accompany the red lentil burger with rosemary garlic fries. We took a case of Resurrection with us as we left.
With three cases of craft beer in the trunk, we fought our way south along the I-95 corridor back home, ready for our next Beer Hopping Adventure!