As taps run dry, Mug Club says cheers to brewery

February 02, 2005|By ROB KASPER

AT THE TABLES in DeGroen's Grill on Albemarle Street, the place where the Baltimore Brewing Co. dwells, the members of the Mug Club sit at the dear old copper bar they know so well and raise their glasses high, draining the brewery's last kegs.

After 15 years of brewing German-style beers that made men weep for joy, that helped transform scholarly librarians into high-fiving football fans, that encouraged city building inspectors to rub shoulders with professors, doctors and museum docents, the Baltimore Brewing Co. is brewing no more.

Owner Theo DeGroen confirmed last week that the brewery has stopped making beer and that the only beer left on the premises is what is already kegged. Last week, the tally on the chalkboard behind the bar showed 100 kegs and counting. By most estimates, the brewery will be tapped out sometime this month.

DeGroen was back in Baltimore recently after having completed a five-year stint with the Parkbrau Brewery in Pirmasens, Germany. He said he hopes to reach an agreement with another area brewer to bottle his DeGroen's brand of beers. But no deal had been finalized.

Plans for the building, which sits on a short block of Albemarle Street just north of Little Italy and the Flag House Museum, are uncertain, he said. He added that, ironically, his seven-year effort to buy Brewer's Park, a piece of city-owned land abutting his property, now appears to be going forward.

He listed several reasons for closing the brewery and its bar and restaurant, known as DeGroen's Grill. Among them were production problems experienced when he was in Germany and a subsequent falling out with the company that distributed his beer to liquor stores and restaurants.

Finally, he said, new construction projects at the nearby black history museum and the townhouses being built where the razed Flag House Courts public housing high-rises once stood have severely hurt his business, making customer parking difficult and limiting the ability of trucks to haul material to and from the brewery. "Right now, it costs less to close than to stay open," he said.

While business had been declining, news that the brewery was closing was hard to swallow for members of the Baltimore Brewing Co. Mug Club, the 200 or so devotees of the establishment who kept their individual, numbered 1-liter steins stored on the premises.

In interviews and e-mail messages, some Mug Club members reflected on the appeal of their doomed beer hall, recalled the camaraderie of their heady experiences and wondered what the future held for this band of beer drinkers.

"The BBC and the Mug Club is a classic `third place' -- neither home nor work -- where a true cross section of Baltimore could socialize while enjoying great beer," said Brad Humphreys, who along with his wife, Jane, were Mug Club members for 12 years before joining the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Where else in town could you find a UMBC faculty member, a lifelong west-side resident who works at a downtown printing company and a ponytailed biker from Arbutus debating anything from the U.S. Constitution to Mahler's symphonies?" Humphreys asked in an e-mail.

Randy Richardson, a docent at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum, said he would miss the regular Tuesday afternoon get-togethers he had with museum colleagues at the brewery.

"What a pleasure to walk into an establishment, have the bartender recognize you and fetch your mug from memory. An even greater pleasure awaited, upon the first quaff of their most excellent pils."

Sam Kirckhoff described his first visit to the brewery as falling "into this giant beer bubble of friends including the great brewer himself, Theo DeGroen."

But other Mug Clubbers offered harsher assessments of DeGroen.

"For the last two years I have been waiting for this day. I knew it was going to happen. How can you run a business from Germany?" wrote Mug Club member Michael Natale.

"Generally, I think that most people think that Theo blew a great opportunity. He made great beer but seems to have been a lousy businessman. ... His moving to Germany and managing from a distance didn't help," wrote Thomas Hasler, a Mug Club member and former Evening Sun reporter.

Other Mug Club members, however, defended DeGroen, pointing out he had once hired off-duty policemen to protect patrons who parked near the brewery and to prevent their cars from being broken into.

While Mug Club membership once topped 200, lately just 30 to 40 members have been showing up for the traditional Friday evening happy hours and the Sunday afternoon football-watching sessions. Now many are taking their mugs home.

On a recent snowy Sunday afternoon, only a handful of Mug Clubbers were in attendance. Paul Doxzon, a Baltimore-area native and graduate of Southwestern High School who inspects construction projects for the city, was among them.

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