A brewer branches out Beer: Theo DeGroen hops into bottled distribution of some of his brews previously available only on tap.

November 13, 1997|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

When Theo DeGroen opened the Baltimore Brewing Co. in 1989 there were a mere 171 microbreweries in the United States, and sometimes he seemed to be producing as much red ink as beer.

But as Americans awakened to the flavorful possibilities of the anti-Buds, DeGroen built a loyal and profitable following for his German-style lagers, even though he sold them strictly from kegs and "growlers," hulking jugs that hold nearly a six-pack's worth of suds.

So, one could forgive DeGroen if he were a bit smug these days as he watches the teeming masses of newcomers among today's 1,351 microbrewers, with some struggling just to find retail shelf space for their six-packs. Instead he has opted to join the teeming masses, as a newcomer to bottling. Risking both profitability and, to some extent, flavor, his brewery this month began bottling three of its beers in six-packs and cases, which have just begun showing up in local stores.

"I think we're doing the right thing, but up front there is only the cost and the debts and the mountain of work that there is to be done," DeGroen said, explaining his trepidation as he relaxed at his brewery's Bavarian-style beer hall.

He figures he's spent $600,000 to get the bottling operation up and running, with much of the expense going toward the renovation of some empty, adjacent rowhouses on Albemarle Street so he could expand the brewery.

DeGroen initially will offer his Pils, Marzen and Dunkles beers in -- bottles. But even if the six-packs are a hit with his clientele, he said, "bottles are a little bit of a loss leader unless you sell an incredible amount." The hope is that they'll win new fans for his product at the tap, in about 200 bars and restaurants around town.

The beers will run the risk of disappointing some fans, who have come to appreciate DeGroen beers not only for their flavor and their faithfulness to German brewing techniques, but also for their velvety texture.

"Right now we have unfiltered beers, and it adds greatly to the body and the mouthfeel of the beer," DeGroen said. The bottled beers will be filtered, to give them a longer shelf life and make them less vulnerable to mishandling by retailers, who might not always be as diligent as they should about refrigeration.

"Every time you filter beer you're definitely going to take some of that [mouthfeel] out, there's no question about it," he said. "It's a shame, but if we want to do the bottles, we have no option, because it's either that or running the risk that we'll have a lot of bad beer out there, and that does even greater damage."

This is why, for a while at least, he won't be bottling any of his top-fermented lagers -- the wheaty Hefeweizen and Weizenbock, for instance, or the rich north-German Altfest.

"They are all very heavy and yeast-laden, and they would really become a different beer if we would do that [filtration]," he said.

Perhaps later he'll try bottling them unfiltered, "But then you get back to the whole thing -- is it going to be kept cold, or how is that going to work out? I first want to do what I know I can do well. Then we'll take it from there."

The top-fermented beers will still be sold at the brewery and in growlers, however, and the bottling operation will still produce some seasonal beers, such as the Doppelbock available around the end of November.

DeGroen decided to try bottling after the Maryland General Assembly passed a law earlier this year allowing brew-pubs such as his to increase their annual brewing capacity from 10,000 to 22,500 barrels, at 31 gallons (134.7 cases) per barrel.

Now he's brewing about 6,000 barrels a year, and the bottling will likely add as many as 2,000 barrels the first year. If the bottles sell well, DeGroen figures he might someday brew as much as 16,000 barrels in a year.

Whatever happens, it isn't likely to be as bad as those first few years of operation. Back in 1989, a typical East Coast drinker's idea of a small brewery was a regional operation for a big brewer, such as mega-brewer G. Heileman's National Bohemian. Truly small brewers like DeGroen had trouble attracting a following, and small crowds seemed especially meager inside his cavernous brick beer hall.

"It was pretty horrendous," he said. "I was pretty close to just giving it up then."

In 1992 he was still losing money, but sales were edging up, and the idea of the microbrew had begun to catch the nation's fancy. "Then in '93 it was still not a profit situation, but I saw that there was an increase in sales, the debts were getting smaller."

He finally turned a profit in 1994-95, and his early start, rough as it was, allowed his brewery and a handful of other early Maryland entries -- chiefly Clipper City (an offshoot of the Sisson's brew-pub), Oxford Class and Wild Goose -- to build a following before the worst of the microbrew population explosion.

In those days, DeGroen said, "For a while you could go in [to a store] every Saturday and buy a new six-pack for two years straight and never have the same beer."

Now, he said, "If you go to some liquor stores you don't see the total craziness anymore. According to the people who are supposed to know about this, they think that the phase of trying out all kinds of things is going down a little bit. People are starting to settle back into things that they like. Our wholesaler, he actually cleaned house and threw a lot of these small brands out."

Fortunately for DeGroen, he's built a sizable enough following to insure that probably won't happen to his beer.

And that, he hopes, will leave more room on the shelf for his bottles.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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