A LOT OF guys experience "beer moments." That is what happens when you wrap your hand around a particularly delectable brew and the meaning of life becomes clear to you.
For Stephen Demczuk, the 50-year-old president of Baltimore-Washington Beer Works, the beer moment occurred 19 years ago in a pub in the German town of Mainz. At a colleague's suggestion, he had ordered a glass of Pilsner Urquell, a Czech lager. Demczuk grew up in Dundalk, graduated from Patapsco High School and the University of Maryland and had a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Oklahoma. He was used to drinking mainstream American beer.
The Czech lager took forever to get to him, but when it arrived in a regal, pilsener-style glass with its creamy head, aroma and complex flavor, it bowled him over. "It was a near-religious experience," Demczuk recalled the other day as he sat in a downtown restaurant.
It was lager love at first sip, and from then on, Demczuk's interest in beer blossomed. While continuing to work in molecular biology, he sipped European brews and became a correspondent for a now-defunct magazine, the American Brewer.
In 1992, living in Luxembourg, he helped form a company called Beer Around the World that shipped beers to connoisseurs in 15 countries. In 1996, he and a partner, Wolfgang Stark, struck a deal with a brewery in Nagold, Germany, to make a beer that would be sold both in Europe and in the Baltimore metropolitan area. They called their beer the Raven because, Demczuk said, research showed that in the minds of European beer drinkers, "Baltimore was famous for two things, Edgar Allan Poe and `The Star-Spangled Banner.' " Demczuk and his partner picked Poe and one of his better-known poems.
European beer drinkers also didn't know much about American geography, Demczuk said. "They weren't sure where Baltimore was," so he tossed a "Washington" into the title of his company that went on the beer label, calling it the Baltimore-Washington Beer Works. In 1998, after Demczuk and his family moved back to the Baltimore area, he struck a deal with Clipper City Brewing Co. in Baltimore County to make the Raven for the mid-Atlantic region.
The Raven beer has no official link to the Baltimore Ravens, the city's National Football League team. The beer's label shows the bird made famous by the poet, not the football players. Like many craft brewers, Demczuk has had spotty success in the fierce competition involved with selling beer in area sports stadiums. A few years ago, the Raven was sold on the club level of the Ravens' stadium, he said, but it is not sold in the stadium this season.
Demczuk said only about 1,500 barrels of Raven beer is brewed a year. It is still hard to find the beer around town and Demczuk said he spends much of his workday trying - along with his distributor, Baltimore Vintage House - to introduce his beer to area drinkers.
For instance, he tried unsuccessfully to get Maryland craft beers, including his, served at this year's Maryland State Fair. "Maybe next year," he said. He spent an evening serving the Raven to a gathering of the National Association of Catering Executives. He makes calls to restaurants that serve his beer on tap, such as the restaurant in the Inner Harbor Marriott on Eutaw Street and Burke's Cafe at Lombard and Light streets.
During a recent lunch, he held up a glass of the Raven and beamed like a proud father. "The Munich malt gives it that sweetness," he said. Four hops including a full-flower Saaz hop is used in the beer, he said, along with German yeast. The lager is 5.5 percent alcohol by volume. "I wanted a rich amber color, not black, with a nice aroma, something like Samuel Adams, but with a taste and body that makes it very drinkable," he said.
I agreed, Raven was a pleasant lager that went down easily. It had a pleasing aroma and great color. I liked its malty flavor, but could have used more of it. I tend to have my "beer moments" with big-bodied brews.
While Demczuk promotes the beer's flavor and its literary links - a 750-milliliter bottle sold at Christmastime comes with a fancy copy of Poe's poem - the brew, which sells for about $6 a six-pack, is often perceived as a football beer.
"It moves well around Halloween, but it sells best before a Ravens home game," said Joe Falcone, beer manager of Wells Discount Liquors on York Road.
Demczuk admits that he is in an uphill battle. He is trying to sell the Raven in Europe where there is a strong tradition of drinking the local beer, and he is also trying to sell it in the Baltimore area where there already are a number of locally made lagers on the market. Nonetheless, Demczuk believes in his beer.
Moreover, he said when he lived in Europe and hiked in the Alps, he regularly faced the choice between taking the easy or difficult route up the mountain, "I always chose the difficult path," he said.