The freshest brews of summer are locally made lagers and ales

GO MICRO

August 22, 1993|By Rob Kasper

One of the few kind things that can be said about August in Maryland is that it is excellent beer-drinking weather.

This summer a growing number of Maryland brewers have been turning out small batches of full-flavored, locally made beers. This is good news for area quaffers. While many wines get better with age, most beers don't. Like a good baker, a small brewer uses fresh ingredients to make his product, sells it quickly while its flavors are at their peak, then goes to work on the next batch. With beer, the closer you are to the brewery the more likely it is that your beer will taste better and your life will seem good, if only during happy hour.

There is a certain panache associated with drinking locally brewed beers. But mostly, folks drink it because the local suds taste better than the stuff brewed far away a long time ago.

In Maryland there are six micro-breweries and brew pubs, that is, breweries with restaurants attached. Those with restaurants are Sisson's in South Baltimore; Oliver Breweries Ltd. in the Wharf Rat restaurant near Camden Yards; and the Baltimore Brewing Co. near Little Italy. The micro-breweries are Oxford Brewing Co. Ltd. in Linthicum; Wild Goose in Cambridge; and the Frederick Brewing Co. (under construction but still making beer) in Frederick.

Statistically, small-batch breweries in Maryland and other states account for little more a drop in the national bucket of suds. Nationwide about 260 micro-breweries hold one-third of 1 percent of the entire U.S. beer market, according to the Institute for Brewing Studies in Denver, Colo.

But the drop in bucket is getting bigger. While the sales of the nation's top breweries -- Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, Stroh and G. Heileman, have been flat over the past few years, those of small-batch brewers have been expanding.

"The growth rate for craft beers has been about 40 to 45 percent," said Kevin Brannon, general manager for the Frederick Brewing Co., the latest entry in the state's small-batch beer business.

Moreover, in addition to offering diners a list of the wines in its cellar, an increasing number of restaurants are presenting to customers a list of beers on tap. In a few cases, the beer has been brewed at the restaurant, but more often than not, the house beer comes from a nearby regional brewery.

For example, the house beer at Obrycki's Crab House in East Baltimore comes from Oxford Brewing; the ales brewed by Wild Goose in Cambridge can be found flowing from taps in restaurants all around Maryland, such as the Worcester Street ,, Brewing Company in Ocean City. De Groen's lager from Baltimore Brewing Co. is pumped at area restaurants and pubs from Racer's Cafe in Parkville, with its six beers on draft, to the Last Saloon in Columbia's Oakland Mills Village Center, with its 50 beers on tap.

Mr. Brannon, the Frederick brewer, said that despite the heady thrill associated with brewing your own beer, makers still have to please the grim-faced bankers. Making money by brewing beer, he said, "seems to take twice as long and cost twice as much as you originally figured," he said.

This sentiment was seconded by Craig Stuart-Paul, who, back in 1988, opened the British Brewing Company in a Glen Burnie industrial park. It was the first in a wave of small-batch breweries that have appeared in Maryland. When Mr. Stuart-Paul's first barrels of Oxford Class were served in Baltimore and Washington pubs, they were hailed by local beer drinkers as better than Bass Ale, a well-regarded British import. Later, his attempt to bottle the ale fizzled, as did an attempt to move to a bigger brewery. Workers left. Pubs dropped the beer. Eventually the company was reorganized as Oxford Brewing Ltd. and its Oxford Class now is served at some 66 pubs and restaurant in the state.

Mr. Stuart-Paul said the experience taught him a few things about the local beer market. Making money by making beer is, he said, "a long-term proposition. It takes years." He also discovered that Baltimore beer drinkers "are a good loyal crowd," who stuck with him even when his brewery was struggling. Washington beer drinkers, he said, were fickle, moving from beer to beer.

THE BROTHERHOOD OF BREWERS

Instead of behaving like cut-throat competitors, the state's brewers often treat each other as fellow members of a guild. This makes for some hard-to-follow business relationships. For example, over on the Eastern Shore, Wild Goose Brewery of Cambridge has agreed to bottle Oliver's Ale for the Baltimore brewery. This summer, while the Frederick Brewing Company is building its brewery, its Blue Ridge Ale is being made at the Oxford brewery in Linthicum. This fall, when the Frederick brewery is open, Oxford plans to once again bottle its Oxford Class ale, but this time using the Frederick Brewing Company bottling line.

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