Baltimore’s star-spangled beer scene
By Greg Kitsock,
O, say, can you see two years hence, when Baltimore will celebrate the bicentennial of Francis Scott Key’s penning of “The Star-Spangled Banner”?
Our national anthem has an intimate connection with strong drink — beer in particular. The flag that inspired it was assembled in the malt house of George I. Brown’s brewery on East Lombard Street. Key set his composition to the meter of an English barroom ballad called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” And the first public rendition is said to have taken place at a watering hole called Captain McCauley’s Tavern.
When Baltimoreans break out in a beery baritone to celebrate that long-ago victory over British invaders, they’ll have plenty of hometown beer to fill their mugs. Like Washington, Baltimore is experiencing a rebirth of local brewing.
Brewpubs in ballparks are rare but no longer unique. The Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field in Denver paved the way in 1995. In April, Dempsey’s Brewpub and Restaurant opened at 555 Russell St. on the right-field side of Camden Yards. Former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey is a partner in the operation; his bobblehead likeness graces the tap handles for the four house beers: Wild Pitch Wheat, the grainy Rick’s Red Ale, the faintly coffeeish Pine Star Stout and Rain Delay IPA. (A golden ale will soon replace the stout for the rest of the summer.)
Brewer Jim Dequattro drops by two or three times a week to brew on the malt extract system in the back of the restaurant. Specialty Products, the North Carolina firm that provided the 155-gallon stainless-steel fermenters, also supplies the concentrated barley broth that Dequattro tweaks with some extra hops and specialty grains before turning it over to the yeast. This shortcut system allows Dequattro to skip the usual mash but limits the range of beers to the more mainstream craft styles. “We deal with upwards of 30,000 to 40,000 fans on a game day, and not everybody is ready for Triple-Hopped Death IPA,” explains manager Vincent Vazquez. “We’re trying to get them to give craft beer a try.”
The piney, Cascade hop-accented IPA (the brew pub’s bestseller) will cut through the fat if you’re ordering bacon on a stick, one of Dempsey’s signature appetizers. This tasty, if not exactly heart-friendly snack consists of skewers of chunky bacon dipped in maple syrup, each sticking out of an empty bottle in a six-pack. Dempsey’s stocks a few more-assertive bottled brews from regional breweries, including Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA and Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale.
Dempsey’s is open year-round. Be advised, though, that a pint of the house beer, normally $3.50, increases to $7.75 during home games.
Stake out a bar stool at Max’s Taphouse on June 29 for the debut of another new Baltimore brewery, Union Craft Brewing. Co-founder Kevin Blodger, who used to work for the Gordon Biersch and Capitol City chains, plans to introduce two beers: Duckpin Pale Ale, which Blodger describes as a hoppy, “West Coast” take on the style; and Balt Altbier, a toffeeish German-style brown ale.
The brewery occupies a nondescript industrial-park type of building across from the Woodberry light-rail stop and a stone’s throw from a glass-blowing factory and Woodberry Kitchen restaurant. Blodger’s plans are to open a tasting room by late July, to install a canning line and eventually to expand distribution to the District. He also would like to squeeze in a batch of gose (a low-alcohol, tart ale seasoned with coriander and salt), a style that won him acclaim at the Gordon Biersch in Rockville.
Peabody Heights Brewing has even grander ambitions. The company takes its moniker from the old name for the Charles Village neighborhood. It’s situated in a 50,000-square-foot former soda-bottling plant that, with its yawning bays and ubiquitous floor drains, is ideally suited for beverage manufacturing. “We’re putting in the Olympic swimming pool over there,” jokes co-founder Steve Demczuk of the now largely empty facility.
Demczuk brews his Raven Beer at Clipper City Brewing in Halethorpe. Once Peabody Heights fires up its kettles (first brew is set for July, says partner Hollis Albert), Demczuk will transfer production of the amber lager here and augment the Raven with other Edgar Allan Poe-themed beers, including Pendulum Pilsner, Tell-Tale Hearty Ale and Cask of Amontillado (a strong, malty double bock).
Demczuk and Albert are installing a 30-barrel brew house, a sizable operation for a start-up brewery. The pieces are being trucked cross-country from British Columbia, and a couple more vessels arrived shortly before my recent Baltimore visit. Demczuk and Albert are inspecting them for dings and other damage. (Political cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher, who publishes in the Economist under the pen name KAL, is designing the labels and popped his head in for a conference with Demczuk.)
Peabody Heights will have enough capacity, says Demczuk, to rent tank space to parties interested in contract-brewing. He says he’s talking with a man from California who owns the rights to the brand Oriole Beer.
What does Hugh Sisson, dean of the Baltimore craft beer scene, think of this new wave of breweries? Sisson founded Clipper City (maker of the Heavy Seas line) in 1995. He survived the so-called “shakeout” of the late 1990s, when the market became glutted and craft beer growth slowed to a single-digit crawl, and witnessed competitors like Baltimore Brewing, Brimstone Brewing and Oxford Brewing vanish into history.
Will there be enough thirst to support all these beermakers?
“For the time being, I’m taking the stand that a rising tide floats all boats,” he answers.
Kitsock is editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.