City's brewpubs evaporating

October 19, 2007|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,SUN REPORTER

When Sisson's became Baltimore's first brewpub in the late 1980s, beer lovers embraced the Federal Hill bar's high-quality, finely hopped ales.

Within months, more than 90 percent of the beer it sold was brewed there. But two decades later, with a new owner and a new name, Ryleigh's Brew Pub, demand for the home brew had all but dried up, and the metal vats unceremoniously made way for an oyster bar.

Once urban mainstays, bars that brew their own beer in-house are becoming increasingly rare in cities along the East Coast. Squeezed by rising rents, bar owners have turned their bulky brewing areas into space for more customers or closed up shop altogether.

"It's a hard thing to do because it's history, but we had to pay the rent," said Tom Strawser, co-owner of what is now Ryleigh's Oyster. "Now, we're paying the rent tenfold."

In the past few years, the five brewpubs in Baltimore have dwindled to two, with one of the remaining pair seriously considering a move to the suburbs, where space is plentiful.

In Manhattan, which boasts the priciest real estate in the country, many brewpubs have closed or have moved their brewing operation off-site in past few years, leaving just one in-house brewer in the whole city.

"It's kind of depressing." said Volker Stewart, the founder of Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon, which could become the city's last brewpub if the Wharf Rat near Camden Yards follows through on its plans to move. "Seven or eight years ago, people said Baltimore is one of the great brewing towns in North America."

But those days seem to be in Baltimore's past. In addition to Ryleigh's Brew Pub removing its brewing equipment, DeGroen's Grill in Little Italy went out of business in early 2005, and last month, Capitol City Brewing Co. dismantled its brewery and closed its doors for good.

The chain said sales of its in-house beers were strong but not enough to keep the business afloat in a high-rent location such as the Inner Harbor.

Ten years ago, when it opened, the bar joined a number of other brewpubs that had sprung up around the city in the late 1980s and 1990s. Some prominently displayed their brewing equipment - the tall steel vats, piping and gauges - to attract customers.

But across the region, that equipment now is being pulled out with pulleys and chains, loaded on trucks and driven away. Capitol City's downtown branch in Washington removed its vats in favor of more table space, and it now imports suds from the branch in Arlington, Va. The Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis, home to the Fordham Brewing Co., is considering removing its equipment to make more room for concert audiences.

Though locally made beer was one of Capitol City's selling points, Joe Brower, vice president of operations for the regional chain, questioned how much the customers actually cared that the suds were brewed on-site.

"At the end of the day, it's probably a wash as compared to just buying kegs," he said.

But years back, when brewpubs began opening en masse, owners argued that beer made on the premises would taste fresher and more vibrant than national brands such as Budweiser or Coors. Beer bars might offer large selections, but brewpubs make and sell their suds under the same roof. So there were no transportation costs, which meant brewpubs could sell pints at competitive prices.

But brewing beer does take space - on average, about 900 to 1,000 square feet, said Mike McDonald, brewer for Red Brick Station in White Marsh.

"There's a lot of new developments out here where you can design your space around the brewery - or fit it in a little bit easier, rather than working with an existing building.," McDonald said. Red Brick Station is designed so that patrons can see multiple steps of the brewing process.

But the brewpubs of the suburbs are little comfort for some beer lovers who have been left parched and perplexed with fewer common meeting ground in the city.

"It's sort of like the melting of the ice caps," said Dominic Cantalupo, a 46-year-old Catonsville resident and president of the Chesapeake Bay branch of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. The society promotes beer brewed with traditional methods.

"The majority of consumers don't get it. For us beer geeks, I think it's sad."

When the beer is outsourced to a regional brewery, you can often taste the difference, said Les White, the president of the Free State Homebrew Guild.

"You lose a little bit of quality," he said. "They say their owner or brewer may be overseeing the operation, but you can never watch it as fully as you can in-house."

Even in-house, maintaining a consistently high-quality product can be tough, brewers say. That factor contributed to the closing of a number of New York City brewpubs, said Chris Sheehan, head brewer at Chelsea Brewing Co. - New York City's last brewpub.

"It's extremely important to have a quality product," Sheehan said. "If the product is of poor quality, it's hard for any brewery to succeed."

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