I started going to the Delaware beaches regularly with friends seven years ago. We all have a taste for microbrews -- our trips involved an annual pilgrimage to Dogfish Head's Rehoboth Beach brewpub to taste the weird and (usually) delicious beer -- but our beach house fridge at the time was stocked with cans of Corona and Miller High Life, the kind of beer more suited to drinking while barbecuing or a game of beer pong.
If you wanted a "local" beer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland or the lower half of Delaware in 2007, Dogfish Head was your only choice. But recently, that area, much like the Washington region, has been undergoing a craft beer renaissance. Seven breweries have opened since April 2012, which is the same month that Evolution Craft Brewing Company moved from a tiny building in Delmar, Del., to a massive new facility in Salisbury, Md.
To research this story, I spent two weekends brewery-hopping at the shore with friends, visiting every place at least once. (We skipped Dogfish Head, choosing to focus on the younger and lesser-known breweries.) We ordered samplers, swapped glasses and rated favorites. While I love a good barrel-aged stout as much as the next guy, we were looking for two types of beers in particular: something refreshing to sip on the porch of your beach house or condo, and something that would wow your beer-snob friends who always rave about the latest and rarest thing they found at ChurchKey.
Our memories of the beach will always be more about sun, sand and mini-golf than a growler of IPA picked up en route. But spending a week in Rehoboth or Ocean City no longer means you're consigned to drinking Corona or Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. (Save those for beer pong.)
On the way to Ocean City
504 Poplar St., Cambridge, Md. 443-225-5664. www.realerevival.com.
Best for: A pit stop on the way to the shore.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: Nanticoke Nectar IPA.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: Nanticoke Nectar IPA.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 2 p.m. to midnight, Friday 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., Saturday noon to 2 a.m., Sunday noon to midnight.
RAR Brewing has what you'd expect from a hip small-town bar: a friendly staff, a weekly shuffleboard league, performances by comedians and musicians, and food prepped right behind the bar counter. (But also try the sushi, which comes from the nearby Mantra restaurant.) Then you notice the brewing equipment through a window in the dining room.
Launched last August, RAR Brewing - an abbreviation of the clunky full name, ReAleRevival - is still getting its feet wet but shows plenty of promise. Only two of the eight beers on draft in early May were RAR's: the Nanticoke Nectar IPA, a zesty hop bomb that received universal approval from my group, and Bucktown Brown, which had rich roasted-coffee notes. The other taps included DC Brau's Everyday Junglist and Dogfish Head Namaste - a sign these guys like interesting beer.
I wanted to get a growler of "The Necta," as it's advertised on pint glasses, but because of the brewery's small size, the bartenders couldn't sell it to go until the next batch of kegs were ready a few days later. The brewery has plans to expand its offerings: A saison will be released this weekend.
201 E. Vine St., Salisbury, Md. 443-260-2337. www.evolutioncraftbrewing.com.
Best for: Happy hour, snacks and growler fills.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: The easy-sipping Summer Session ale.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: One of the limited releases, such as the unfiltered Belgian spiced ale Special 608.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 3 to 8 p.m., Friday-Sunday noon to 8 p.m. Tours are Friday at 4:30 and 6 p.m., Saturday at 1:30, 3:30 and 5:30 p.m., Sunday at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.
Events: Happy hours are offered Monday through Friday; pints are $3.50 from 4 to 7 p.m.; and growler fills are $2 off from noon to 5 p.m.
Outside of Dogfish Head, Evolution - Evo to its fans - should be the Delmarva brewery most familiar to Washington beer lovers: Its core line, including Lot 3 IPA and Lucky 7 Porter, is found all over the D.C. area. That growth was possible because of Evolution's 2012 relocation from a tiny building in Delmar to a former ice plant in Salisbury, which now boasts an acclaimed restaurant and bar-sized tasting room as well as a large-capacity brewery.
The tasting room usually has nine to 10 beers on tap for sampling. On weekends, there's often a cask-conditioned ale, too. The raw bar offers $1 local oysters at happy hour, which encourages lingering. (For something more substantial, the menu at the neighboring Public House is stocked with local seafood and produce.)
There frequently are one-off and collaboration beers available to sip, and those hoping for something outside Evo's familiar but stellar lineup should look beyond the taps: The bar sells 750 milliliter bottles of the seasonal Migration beers, which are aged for months in spirits or wine barrels.
501 N. Bi-State Blvd., Delmar, Del. 302-907-0423. www.3rdwavebrewingco.com.
Best for: Light, fruity ales.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: BeachBreak Apricot Wheat Ale.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: Tennessee Wild Ale, a funky, slightly sour beer brewed with wild yeast, coconut and vanilla beans, then aged for six months in whiskey barrels.
Hours: Monday-Thursday 3 to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday noon to 10 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Tours are Sunday at 12:15 p.m.
Events: All beers are $1 off during "hoppy hour," which runs from 3 to 7 p.m. on weekdays.
The space occupied by 3rd Wave Brewing is a piece of brewing history: From 2009 to the spring of 2012, the former grocery store was the original home of Evolution. When Evo moved to larger premises in Salisbury, Md., Lori Clough and Suellen Vickers decided to make the leap from homebrewing to running a brewery. They opened 3rd Wave in the fall of 2012.
The one-room brewery doesn't contain much beyond a bar, a television and an area selling hats and T-shirts, but there are shaded picnic tables in the parking lot. With nine beers on tap, it's worth getting a flight (four 4-ounce pours for $6). Skip 3rd Wave's IPAs and double IPAs, which we've found to be thin and a bit unbalanced, and look for the sweeter, sunnier beers: The fruit-kissed BeachBreak Apricot Wheat is exactly the kind of smooth, quaffable beer you want on a hot day, and Dean B's Honey Saison isn't far behind.
6929 Heron Grove Ct., Parsonsburg, Md. 410-543-2739. www.talltalesbrew.com.
Best for: Spending time outside with kids and pets.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: Some Beach Island Ale.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: You won't.
Hours: Monday-Thursday noon to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday noon to 10 p.m., Sunday noon-8 p.m.
Events: Music Friday through Sunday, with performances usually starting at 6 p.m.
The most interesting thing about the year-and-a-half-old Tall Tales Brewing Company is its outdoor bar. Owner Jason Hearn ran a landscaping company before becoming a brewer, and it shows in the spacious, well-manicured back patio, which has water features and planters in addition to an extensive bar with wood-burning pizza ovens. Dogs and kids can stretch their legs and adults can play cornhole and, later this summer, volleyball in a sandy area.
My friends and I tried flights of everything that was available, and most of the offerings were the kind of beers that elicited a shrug as we passed the glasses around. Some Beach Island Ale is a light, biscuity kolsch that would be nice to sip in the sun, but nothing else made us want to grab beers to go. The most popular beer, we were told, is Red Headed Step Child, an Irish red ale that came off as too sweet and malty.
10016 Old Ocean City Blvd., Berlin, Md. 443-513-4647. www.burleyoak.com.
Best for: An unpredictable array of craft beers.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: Wit It & Quit It, a zesty Belgian-style witbier made with lemon and lime peels.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: Sour Trip, a crisp, tart Berliner weisse, or the hop-forward Aboriginal Gangster.
Hours: Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday noon to 9 p.m. Tours are every Saturday at 3 p.m.
Events: Music performances at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tuesday is bring-your-own-vinyl night, when anyone can DJ, and Wednesday is game night, with free table tennis, ring toss and board games.
The coolest bar in America's Coolest Small Town also makes some of the best beers in the Free State. Owner and brewer Bryan Brushmiller opened Burley Oak in a century-old cooperage in August 2011 and has been charging forward ever since. A wide variety of beers fly out of the brewery, from sour ales to super-hopped IPAs to barrel-aged red ales, each one more interesting than the last. I visited the brewery the week after it opened, I've gone back several times a year since and I'm hard-pressed to think of a beer I wouldn't order again.
Brushmiller enjoys putting fresh twists on his old recipes - he'll switch the hops in the Aboriginal Gangster IPA to an experimental variety to create a completely new beer, or toss Concord grapes into a cask of Berliner weisse for a different flavor profile. Burley Oak's terroir is especially intriguing: Brushmiller purchases grain from local farmers, and worked with a soil scientist to develop indigenous barley that is used in several brews.
I love getting growler fills, but I also enjoy hanging out at the bar on a weekend night. Local cover bands perform in the corner, a multi-generational crowd hoists pints at the bar and groups play ring toss or cards. The building itself, with barnlike ceilings, art by local painters on the walls and white fairy lights strung overhead, reminds me of a Midwestern beer hall. You're definitely not in Washington or, for that matter, Ocean City.
In Ocean City
Inside Hooper's Crab House, 12913 Ocean Gateway, Ocean City, Md. 410-213-1771. www.fincitybrewing.com.
Best for: Sampling beers over all-you-can-eat crabs.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: Jackspot Amber Ale.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: Blackfin Black IPA.
Hours: Open daily at 3 p.m.
Fin City, which tapped its first keg in April 2012, bills itself as "Ocean City's Oldest Brewery." Its evolution has been remarkable: Two years ago, homebrewer Vince Wright set up equipment in the loft over the bar at Hooper's Crab House. One of Fin City's first efforts was a thin lager named Fin Light, which a Hooper's bartender once described as "like Coors Light." Now Fin City is making pale ales and black IPAs that are sold Maryland-wide.
The Fin City beers you find in bottles are produced at Baltimore's Peabody Heights Brewery, but the five on tap at Hooper's still come from the nanobrewery. Our favorites included the Jackspot, an amber ale with caramel and nutty flavors, and the Blackfin Black IPA, where the roasted malt gets some citrus flavor from the hops.
Hooper's has been a fixture in West Ocean City for more than three decades; its barnlike structure has an airplane hanging from the ceiling, an authentic NASCAR racecar in the dining room and life-size statues of the Blues Brothers on a platform above diners' heads. The all-you-can-eat crabs are a big draw, and this isn't really the sort of place to get a flight of beers.
But don't miss the "Stadium Cup Special": Buy a 22-ounce plastic cup of Fin City beer for $6, and subsequent refills are $2.50. That deal proves tough to beat at any bar, unless you're a big fan of the 75-cent Natty Light drafts at Fish Tales on Wednesday nights.
913 Atlantic Ave., Ocean City, Md. 443-373-1224. www.facebook.com/Backshore.
Best for: Hanging out on the boardwalk.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: Boardwalk Blonde.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: They'll probably dig the flights, but not for the beer itself.
Hours: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
You're not going to beat the view from the patio at Backshore Brewing: Situated right on Ocean City's boardwalk, the place offers a broad expanse of umbrella-studded beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The most in-demand seats are in a booth fashioned from an old VW bus - it's a great Instagram photo-op that provides a prime vantage point for people-watching.
I enjoy the funky nature of this cramped storefront brewery: The half-dozen barstools are fashioned from old kegs, and the wooden boards on the bar top were once part of the boardwalk. Order a flight of four beers and you'll receive a vintage plastic skateboard with holes drilled into it to hold the glasses containing 5-ounce pours. Order all six of the rotating beers and the flight arrives in a wooden surfboard.
But Backshore's beer is wildly inconsistent. When friends and I stopped in last summer, shortly after its April 2013 opening, our assessment was that the beers were okay - inoffensive, not particularly memorable, but a step up from the ubiquitous Miller Lite or Landshark.
A trip in early May, though, was a disappointment. One of the six beers we tried was a Maerzen called Novemberfest, which tasted like it had been sitting in the tap lines all winter. The 410 Kolsch was fine for a summer beer, and the light, sweet Downtown Sugar Brown, one of the better beers last year, was just as I remembered. (It's worth noting that since my most recent visit, the brewpub has tapped a new IPA and a stout aged in bourbon barrels, which sound more interesting than anything I tried.)
Temper your expectations and enjoy the scenery, but don't go out of your way.
8. Ocean City Brewing Co.
5509 Coastal Hwy., Ocean City, Md. www.ocbrewingcompany.com.
Planning to open June 1.
In a perfect world, the Ocean City Brewing Company would have been open May 1, with a dozen of its own beers on tap. But red tape and delays with licensing and permits have taken a toll, and the brewery now hopes to open June 1, says owner Josh Shores.
But you won't be able to taste Ocean City Brewing's beers right away: Because of the permitting delays, brewer Mark Fesche won't be making his own recipes until this week at the earliest. If all goes well, they'll be on tap in mid-June. In the meantime, Shores says the two dozen taps in the pub will be filled with local craft brews.
What's most impressive about Ocean City Brewing right now is its sheer scale: The 18,000-square-foot building, which formerly housed a lumber company, includes a 30-barrel brewing system, which is more than three times the size of Burley Oak's and six times the size of Fin City's. The restaurant area of the brewpub has 200 seats, and the bar will seat an additional 100 at long, Oktoberfest-style tables made from barrels.
"I saw plenty of places that were smaller, but I wanted to be a full production brewery," Shores says. "We want to be the next Dogfish Head."
Near the Delaware beaches
413 S. Bedford St., Georgetown, Del. 302-253-8816. www.16milebrewery.com.
Best for: Basic beers and some really great one-offs.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: One of the variations on the Blues' Golden Ale.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: Something from the draft-only Off the Grid series, such as Cage Fight, a pale ale loaded with tropical citrus hop flavor.
Hours: Sunday-Thursday noon to 5 p.m., Friday noon to 10 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tours are Friday and Saturday on the hour from noon to 3 p.m.
Events: Musicians perform on Friday nights.
The 16 Mile Brewery has been around since 2009, but visiting became a special experience when the spacious tasting room and tavern opened in January 2012. There are 11 beers on tap, televisions, tables inlaid with checkerboards and, incongruously, a fireplace, which was roaring away on a warm day in early May.
16 Mile's six core beers, such as the light Responders Ale and Amber Sun Ale, are often found at Delaware beach bars and liquor stores. They're fine English-influenced ales, but not particularly distinctive. Here's why you should visit the brewery, which is about a 30-minute drive from the Delaware beaches: There are always five draft-only beers, which may be originals or variations on existing brews, on the chalkboard menu. The crisp, malty Blues' Golden Ale, for instance, becomes a different (and more delicious) animal when orange, sage, basil and thyme are added; a version earlier this month was aged with lime, salt and tequila-soaked oak.
Bartenders - who sometimes are the brewers themselves - are generous with flights. Six 5-ounce pours cost $10, eight are $12 and you can sample all 11 for $16. (Individual 5-ounce pours are $2 each if you want to create a smaller flight.) When you find something you like, you can purchase a pint and watch a baseball game or, on Friday nights, listen to music. 16 Mile bottles its beers, somewhat of a rarity among Eastern Shore brewers, so six-packs and cases of the core beers are available to go, along with growlers.
255 Mullett Run St., Milford, Del. 302-491-6623. www.mispillionriverbrewing.com.
Best for: An ever-changing selection of inventive craft beer.
Beer to drink on your beach house porch: The bright, sweet Beach Bum Joe.
Beer to impress your beer-snob friends: Just about anything.
Hours: Wednesday-Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday 1 to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m. Tours are held Saturday on the hour from 1 to 4 p.m.
Events: Musicians perform Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Mispillion River, which opened in November 2013, needed only five months to make its mark on the national beer scene, claiming a silver medal at the World Beer Cup for Beach Bum Joe, a refreshing and fruity cross between a Belgian golden ale and a hoppy American pale ale. (Naturally, it placed in the American-Belgo-Style Ale category.)
Despite the award, you probably haven't heard of Mispillion River: Its beers are available only in Delaware, and only on draft. But it's worth seeking out.
Set in an anonymous business park, Mispillion doesn't look like much. The large tasting room, fitted with board games and a PA system for weekend shows, isn't that impressive. But what's coming out of the taps is downright exciting, thanks to brewer Jared Barnes and assistant brewer Ryan Maloney: A malty, heavily hopped imperial red ale called Holy Crap! has just the right amount of sweetness; a big, bold black IPA named Big Earl bursts with four kinds of citrusy and spicy hops; and a malty, deliciously on-style German Dopplebock is named Goat Island Thunder, after a nearby nature area. I brought a couple of friends along to sample the beers, and we kept passing glasses around asking, "Seriously? Have you tried this one yet?"
There's a blink-and-you-miss it element to the beer. Of the 10 beers we enjoyed in early May, I asked the bartender - assistant brewer Maloney - which ones might still be available when we came back Memorial Day weekend. He thought there might be three. (One of them, thankfully, was the Mosaic, a malty, aromatic pale ale made solely with Mosaic hops.) He said that Mispillion had made about 70 beers, though not all of them had made it to the taps.
All I call tell you to do is go in and start sampling: Four 5-ounce pours cost $10, and 10 go for $20. You're going to want to have a full glass ($5) of at least one when you're finished, and then it's time for the hard choice: Which ones do you take home?