Craft breweries are a hopping business on the Delmarva shore

BERLIN, Md. — There was a time when Denise Buccheri came to the coast to lie on the beach.

“Not anymore,” the 60-year-old said, sipping a beer called Rude Boy at Burley Oak Brewing Co. “Now we go to the breweries.”

The Maryland and Delaware coasts, long synonymous with crab houses and beach getaways, have become an unlikely destination for a thriving craft beer industry. The first beer-making operation came nearly two decades ago, when then-26-year-old Sam Calagione opened Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Rehoboth Beach.

The success of the company, now a multimillion-dollar enterprise that includes multiple alehouses, four production facilities and a new beer-themed inn in Lewes, Del., has given way to a new generation of coastal microbreweries. Growing interest in craft beer is also helping turn the Eastern Seaboard into a year-round tourist destination.

“The breweries are going up like crazy,” said Tony Hilligoss, founder of Brews Up, a store in Berlin that sells home-brewing equipment. “Over the past five years, it’s grown and grown and grown.”


Pub brewer Ben Potts checks on his work at the Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

The latest addition, Ocean City Brewing Co., opened its doors this summer. Others, such as 16 Mile Brewing Co. in Georgetown, Del., and Tall Tales Brewing Co. in Parsonsburg, Md., have expanded in recent years. The local community has created a “toast the coast” Web site and app to help visitors navigate the burgeoning beer and wine scene. Even longtime party haunts Fager’s Island and Seacrets have begun selling personalized brews created by Evolution Craft Brewing Co. in Salisbury, Md.

“As breweries and wineries have become more and more popular, it’s really helped the local economy,” said Susan L. Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. “It’s become a way to expand the tourist season.”

‘Cheers’ on the beach

“I don’t really drink beer. I don’t even like it,” Tom Janasek said on a recent afternoon.

But there he was, sipping a pint of light ale at Burley Oak Brewing Co., just as he had done the weekend before.

The first time he came to the brewery, Janasek says he almost walked right out because “there was no gin.”

But in the months since, he’s warmed up to the cozy, wooden brewery, where he stops by once or twice a week.

“It’s like ‘Cheers’ — everybody knows your name,” said Janasek, who has a house in Ocean Pines.

Bryan Brushmiller, 37, started Burley Oak three years ago after he was laid off from his job in construction. He took out a second mortgage, cashed in on his retirement plan and converted a 120-year-old cooperage into a production brewery. He says the venture was profitable in its first year.

(Brushmiller would not disclose his start-up expenses, but said it typically costs between $500,000 and $2 million to get a microbrewery off the ground.)

Today, 80 percent of the company’s revenue comes from beer sales at the brewery’s front bar. Burley Oak makes about 1,200 barrels of beer on a given year — roughly, Brushmiller says, the amount Dogfish Head could make in 36 hours.

The company’s beers are still bottled by hand on a folding ping-pong table at the back of its production facilities. It takes eight people eight hours to assemble 500 bottles.

“We’ve built this business off of $5 and $6 pints of beer,” Brushmiller said, adding that he plans to quadruple the brewery’s beer-making capacity by 2015. “People are coming here year-round now, not just during the summer.”

Dogfish’s beginnings

Before he created one of the largest craft breweries in America, Sam Calagione drank a lot of very cheap beer. Mostly it came out of rustycans that he bought by the 24-pack.

After college, Calagione took a job waiting tables in New York City. It was there that he got his first tastes of Sierra Nevada Celebration and Chimay Red.

“I was immediately smitten by flavorful beer,” he recalled.

A couple of weeks later, on his way home to brew beer for the first time, Calagione passed a bodega with ripe cherries on sale.

“I brought them home and squished them into my first-ever batch of pale ale,” he said. “It turned out great. After that, I had a focus.”

Calagione began experimenting with different foods: Coffee, raisins, liquorice roots, beet sugars.

He eventually raised $220,000 from family and friends to found Dogfish Head in 1995.

At the time, it was the smallest brewery in America. Calagione was the company’s only brewer and made 12-gallon batches of beer at a time.

But it wasn’t an immediate success.

“It did take a while. I’m not going to lie,” Calagione, 45, said. “For a lot of folks, the concept of a small brewery was very alien. In time, we were able to rally the locals around what we were doing.”

The brewpub turned a profit in its second year. The production part of the business, however, wasn’t profitable until its fourth year.

Dogfish Head continues to grow. This year, the company is on track to produce 230,000 barrels of beer, roughly 17 percent more than last year.

Calagione would not disclose annual revenue, but said the company recently underwent a $51 million expansion.

On a typical summer day, more than 500 people stop by the original brewpub — which now doubles as a distillery for the company’s rum, gin and vodka. Roughly 1,000 people tour the company’s production brewery in Milton, Del. every week.

“My favorite days are when we’re making something,” Calagione said. “I love to work on what’s next, whether that’s a recipe for beer or a vinegar we’re doing at our pub. That’s what fires me up.”

More than 100 people were gathered at the Dogfish brewpub on a recent Sunday afternoon. The bar was full.

“When we’re here, we of course have to come to Dogfish,” said Casey Ruud, owner of Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop, Wash., who was visiting with his daughter. “It’s the leading-edge of craft brewing in America.”

Further down the bar, it was Craig Goldman’s first time trying Dogfish Head. He isn’t much into craft beers, he said; instead, the 46-year-old favors Yuengling, Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite.

“But I guess that’s something I shouldn’t admit around here,” the Manalapan, N.J. resident said.

Goldman had biked to the Dogfish Head brewpub after seeing lines out the door. After asking around at the bar, he ordered a 75 Minute IPA.

Then he took a sip.

“It’s all right,” Goldman said, shrugging. “But it’s not going to become a lifelong commitment.”

Brotherhood of beer

There are more than a dozen breweries dotting the Delmarva coast, but that didn’t stop Joshua Shores from opening one more this summer.

Ocean City Brewing Co., nestled in a candy-colored strip of coastal Maryland, sells 12 of its own beers, as well as others by Dogfish Head, Evolution and Fin City Brewing Co., which is also based in Ocean City.

“It’s a brotherhood,” Shores said of the craft beer industry. “We share our recipes, we share our beers. When somebody opens another brewery next door, you embrace them.”

Heather Jamison, who lives in Baltimore, stopped by this month with her parents.

“It’s awesome that this is in Ocean City,” the 28-year-old said, after a round of beer flights.“We’ve never had anything like this here.”

Judy Garrett knows that all too well. The Perryville, Md. resident, who owns a home in nearby Selbyville, Del., says she has long awaited a craft brewery in Ocean City.

“We used to go to Fager’s Island or we brought our own beer and drank at home,” Garrett said. “This is a lot more fun.”

For Jim Dautenhahn, last week’s visit to the coast was as much about research as it was relaxation. The commercial real estate developer says he hopes to open a microbrewery with his son in the next five years.

“I’ve done the tour at Dogfish 10 times; I’ve done the tour here 10 times,” said Dautenhahn, as he sipped a beer at Burley Oak. “I’ve been drinking craft beer for as long as craft beer’s been around.”

Dautenhahn says he used to dabble in home brewing, but has since turned the reins over to his son, who has a three-tap kegerator at his home in Charles County. The two of them collaborate on recipes and taste their creations every week. When it comes time to find a location for their operations, Dautenhahn says he will look no further than along the Delmarva coast.

“Breweries like to be around other breweries,” he said. “It’s just like gas stations.”

More on this story:

Q&A with Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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