Herb Shaffer lifts his beer mug and admires its contents -- a dark, chocolate-brown stout topped with a good inch of creamy white mousse. He inhales to take in the full aroma. Then, after taking a long, deep swallow, he slowly places the mug on the table in front of him. After a moment of silence, he exclaims with great satisfaction in his voice: "This is real beer!"
Seated across from Shaffer, Dan Sadler prepares to take a ceremonial first sip from his mug, only his choice of beer is lighter in color -- an India Pale Ale.
Both men belong to a growing number of beer geeks -- connoisseurs of hearty, flavorful crafted suds. Shaffer and Sadler meet most Saturday afternoons at the Red Brick Station on the Avenue, home of the White Marsh Brewing Company, to sip a pint or two of quality beer while playing a challenging game of chess.
Their devotion is reflected in the success of Maryland's microbreweries, many of whom formed the Brewers Association of Maryland this year. Tomorrow, the group holds its first festival, Rocktoberfest, at Oregon Ridge Park in Hunt Valley with proceeds benefiting the association and the Maryland Lupus Foundation.
Twelve Maryland microbreweries have joined the association so far, and each will offer samples of up to four of their creations -- more than 40 in all -- along with good food and plenty of music. Novice beer drinkers and those with a more sophisticated palate will be able to sample Shaffer's favorite stout or, if they prefer, a lager, pils, porter, wheat, ale, bock and more.
Both Shaffer and Sadler enjoy the atmosphere of a microbrewery -- a restaurant, bar and brewhouse all under one roof. While sitting at their table, they can watch the brewmaster at work.
No matter what the microbrewery's style or what the brewmaster is crafting -- English ales, German lager and pils, or Belgian ales and sour cherry brews -- each is instantly recognized as a brew pub by the scent of malt lingering in the air.
"That smell is a promise of good beer, and it's quality we are looking for, not quantity," says Shaffer. He points to the beer in front of him, adding: "This is a very dry Irish stout with a lot of hearty coffee flavor. It has a smooth, velvety mouth feel. This stout, brewed right here in White Marsh, could rival any Guinness beer -- the ultimate in Irish stout. And, contrary to most beliefs, a beer with a good taste does not have to be high in alcohol actually, this stout is low in alcohol, only a little over 4 percent."
The English knew how to brew a tasty beer with a low alcohol content, Shaffer explains, because beer used to be taxed by the volume of alcohol it contained.
A brewing renaissance
BAM was founded to promote the state's microbrews as a unit and to assist the industry in its transition from infancy to its formative years, says Jamie Fineran, chairman of the Brewers Association of Maryland and sales and marketing manager for the Baltimore Brewing Company, home of DeGroen's beers.
"We hope to hold about three or four festivals throughout the year at various locations across the state," he says.
Maryland's first microbrewery, the British Brewing Company -- producers of Oxford beers -- opened in 1988. And Sisson's in Federal Hill, patterned after an old English pub, brewed its first ale in August 1989. Shortly thereafter, brewmaster Theo DeGroen opened the taps to let his German-style lagers flow at the Baltimore Brewing Company on Albemarle Street.
"At that time, there were only about 50 microbreweries in the country; today there are over 1,500," explains BAM's secretary/treasurer and craft beer pioneer Hugh Sisson, who ran Sisson's until about five years ago. In 1998, Americans drank more than 173 million gallons of microbrew beer. That's about 3 percent of the total beer market.
Sisson left the family business and opened Clipper City Brewing Company to produce handcrafted draught and bottled beer on a larger scale.
Focusing on classic beer styles and using the freshest ingredients, he brews premium ales, lagers, pils and seasonal beers at his Hollins Ferry Road regional brewery. And since absorbing the British Brewing Company in January, he also produces Maryland's first craft beer, Oxford Class Ale, and Oxford Raspberry Wheat -- made with real raspberries.
Since the grass-roots days of microbrewing 10 years ago, brewing operations in Maryland have mushroomed to 20.
It's not a brewing revolution, says Fineran. "It's really a renaissance. Baltimore has a rich brewing history -- there were about 122 breweries in the city before prohibition, as many as 60 at one time. We are trying to re-create that tradition."