Loyal customers of locally brewed Oxford Class Amber-Ale have had a terrible scare.
A week ago, 45 bars and restaurants with Oxford Class on tap received letters from Baltimore lawyers implying that British Brewing Co. of Linthicum, producer of Oxford Class, was about to go belly up.
The letter demanded that all payments to the brewery be made directly to Maryland National Bank, the holder of British Brewing's loan.
Customers were rattled by the news, says Craig Stuart-Paul, owner of British Brewing.
"It would be awful if they stopped [producing]," says Laura Norris, co-owner of Bertha's Dining Room on South Broadway in Fells Point. "Anyone who tastes the beer clamors for it. Our customers would be destroyed without it."
Fans of the amber ale can relax. Their favorite beer will keep flowing.
"We're not going anywhere," says Mr. Stuart-Paul, who founded the business in 1988. "We're going to continue to produce Oxford Class for years to come."
Mr. Stuart-Paul, 26, a jovial man with strawberry blond hair as thick as his British accent, says he recognized he was in financial trouble more than a year ago after a failed expansion attempt cost him almost $75,000 and produced debts he couldn't pay.
After reorganizing the business and trying to fix things himself, he finally advertised the business for sale in October.
He recently struck a deal with two new owners, who will infuse enough cash into the business to cover its debts and help expand its distribution as well.
And there's more good news.
Mr. Stuart-Paul, who will remain with the company as manager although he'll no longer be majority shareholder, plans to launch a new stout under the Oxford Class label in March.
And by April, Oxford Class again will be available in bottles at almost 200 stores in Maryland and Washington, Mr. Stuart-Paul says. The company suspended bottle production almost a year ago to trim costs, one of several moves made in an attempt to save the business, he says.
"Gone was the photocopier, gone was the fax machine," he says, sitting in his office furnished with mismatched pieces and decorated only with two shelves of beer bottles from around the world.
He laid off four of his seven employees. He moved to smaller, cheaper office space in Linthicum, off Hammonds Ferry Road.
The only thing he would not compromise on, he says, is the quality of the beer, which he says has never faltered.
All the ingredients continue to be imported from England, he says. The water, of course, is local.
Mr. Stuart-Paul, who chalks up his financial troubles to youth and ambition, says scaling back has paid off because it helped make the business attractive to buyers.
"I was always confident because of the market we've carved for ourselves that we would find some way to satisfy the bank and save the business," he says.
Area tavern owners are relieved that Oxford Class will continue to be available.
"We absolutely will continue to use it," says Wayne Fertitta, manager of the Ram's Head Tavern in Annapolis. "It's very popular with our customers because it's a local beer."
John Heyn, manager and part owner of the Last Chance Saloon in Columbia, says he has had Oxford Class on tap for the past three years.
"The only thing that's stuck around that long is one of the national beers, like Budweiser," he says, adding that most local brews at his place last about six months before patrons move on to something new.
Mr. Stuart-Paul says he has lost about 10 of 55 customers over the past year because of his financial problems and his inability to keep up with all his deliveries.
Working with a financial broker,Mr. Stuart-Paul found the new owners in the nick of time. He paid off his loans a week ago, he says, and the business now is out of trouble.
Daniel G. Finney, a spokesman for Maryland National Bank,confirms that Mr. Stuart-Paul's "problems have been substantially resolved." He says minor details still need to be worked out, but the brewery no longer is in danger of foreclosure.
Until the deal is completed, Mr. Stuart-Paul will not divulge the names of the company's two new owners nor the amount they will invest in the business. He says he had needed about $250,000 "to really get the business cracking again."
The new owners, an accountant and engineer from Northern Virginia, are "beer fanatics," excited about investing in a local brewery, Mr. Stuart-Paul says. "It's a sexy thing, making beer. It's not bridge-making."
Changes are in the offing for the organization over the next few months, says one of the new owners, who asks not to be named until the deal is completed and licenses transferred.
"It will be a new corporation with new owners," he says.
But both Mr. Stuart-Paul and the new owners say emphatically there will be no changes to the Oxford Class brew.
Mr. Stuart-Paul says he can triple his production of about 90 barrels a week by getting taller brewing vats.
British Brewing will continue to focus its sales in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, Mr. Stuart-Paul says. "That's where our following is," he says. "That's where we have our niche."