Kathy Wielech Patterson, a lifelong Baltimorean and avid eater, blogs at Minxeats.com. She’s a coauthor of the restaurant guide Food Lovers’ Guide to Baltimore and the cookbook Baltimore Chef’s Table , both written with her husband, Neal.
Mr. Boh, the mustachioed one-eyed mascot of National Bohemian beer, is everywhere in Charm City. He’s emblazoned on T-shirts and sports memorabilia and was featured prominently in an ad campaign by Smyth, a well-regarded Baltimore jeweler. His smiling countenance adorns the skyline of the East Baltimore neighborhood of Canton, high atop the old National Brewing Company building. Despite all this, and the fact that Baltimoreans still consume it with some gusto, Baltimore’s beloved Natty Boh is no longer made in town.
Despite once being the site of National Brewery, Gunther Brewing, and later, Carling, Baltimore was never really a hotbed of suds production. That all changed with the birth of the craft-beer industry. Mobtown — the whole state of Maryland, actually — is now loaded with notable small and not-so-small breweries. In Baltimore, Heavy Seas, Brewer’s Art and Union Craft are big favorites.
Heavy Seas started out life as Sisson’s, a beer bar that became Maryland’s first brewpub in 1989. After a few years, owner Hugh Sisson decided he was more into the brew than the bar, so he left to start Clipper City Brewing Company. The tiny company grew, absorbing another local microbrewery, Oxford, and adding a third line called Heavy Seas. Eventually, Heavy Seas became the face of the company. Now it has seven full-time brews, plus seasonal selections and special beers like Blackbeard’s Breakfast, a porter brewed with Chesapeake Bay Roasting Company’s Dark Sumatra coffee. Loose Cannon, the flagship beer, is a lovely triple-hopped IPA that works well with most foods. While restaurants and liquor stores all over the area carry Heavy Seas beers, one of the best places to enjoy its products is at one of the Heavy Seas Ale House restaurants (there’s one in Baltimore and one in Arlington, Virginia). Their burgers are especially fine, and most menu items — including house-made pastas — have a suggested beer pairing.
Stillwater Artisanal Ales isn’t a brewery, per se. The company’s founder, Brian Strumke, is a gypsy brewer, meaning his beers are produced by breweries all over the globe. Because he’s not tied down to bricks and mortar, Strumke tends to think pretty far outside the bottle. He’s flavored his brews with everything from white sage to violets, hyssop and jasmine. Stillwater ales are like works of art, not following any particular guidelines. Somehow, they all work, and some are mind-blowing. One can find many Stillwater ales in shops and restaurants here and there, but the best place is at Strumke’s own bar/restaurant, Of Love & Regret. There, one can sample any or all of 20-plus drafts, the majority of which are Stillwater creations.
The Brewer’s Art is a brewpub set in a posh old townhouse in Baltimore’s Midtown Belvedere neighborhood, a few blocks north of downtown. Named Esquire magazine’s Best Bar in America in 2009, the bar definitely takes its art seriously. Favorites like Resurrection and Beazly (formerly known as Ozzy, until one Mr. Osbourne responded unfavorably, and only after the beer was available for a decade or so) can be found in restaurants and liquor stores around the Mid-Atlantic.
Flying Dog Brewery, in Frederick, is the largest and probably the best known of Maryland’s breweries. Its products are available in 27 states, including California, Illinois and Colorado, which is Flying Dog’s original home state. Despite starting life outside of Maryland, the brewery has definitely assimilated well here. Last summer, Flying Dog partnered with the Old Line State’s own McCormick to make a beer flavored with everyone’s favorite seafood seasoning, Old Bay. There was such a local demand for the resulting Dead Rise, that plans to distribute the beer outside of Maryland were scrapped. While the spicy treat went well both with and without steamed crabs, one of the best things about it was that a portion of the proceeds went to True Blue, a program that promotes sustainable harvesting of blue crabs in Maryland and also benefits the Chesapeake’s watermen. Recently, Flying Dog put out the very Baltimore-centric Holiday collection, featuring four flavors that pair well with, of all things, cookies. Otterbein Bakery cookies, to be exact.
Union Craft Brewing is one of the newest kids on the block. It started with Duckpin Pale Ale in 2012 and now has about two dozen brews under its belt, including a barleywine, an oatmeal stout and several collaborations with other local breweries, including Stillwater, Brewer’s Art and Flying Dog. The brewery is located in the Woodberry neighborhood of Baltimore City, near Spike Gjerde’s Woodberry Kitchen and a stone’s throw from his Artifact Coffee. This trendy location draws folks from all over to the taproom for Thursday and Friday happy hour. A new cask is tapped every week, and snacks are available at the bar or from one of Baltimore’s best food trucks, camped out in the parking lot. This is also a good time to get growlers filled or to pick up a six-pack of the Blackwing Schwarzbier.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as beer is concerned. Maryland is also home to Evolution, DuClaw, Full Tilt, Monocacy, Raven, Scorpion, Jailbreak, Assawoman Bay Brewing, Denizens, Baying Hound and Ruhlman, among others. Additionally, after a several-decades-long drought, Maryland boasts a couple of brand-new liquor distilleries.
The state of Maryland was once known for its production of rye whiskey. This was tobacco country, and farmers planted rye in the winter as a way to renourish the depleted soil. It made sense to use part of the rye crop to make whiskey. Labels like Wight’s Sherbrook, Mount Vernon, Ryebrook and Pikesville Maryland Rye were found in bars across the country. Eventually rye-based cocktails fell out of fashion, and the distillers disappeared (as did a number of tobacco growers).
Pikesville, named after an area in Baltimore County, is still Maryland’s most popular rye brand. Today, however, it’s known as Pikesville Supreme Rye, as it’s been made in Kentucky since the 1980s. So the state known for rye hadn’t produced the stuff for — well, for some folks — a lifetime. Until now. Lyon Distilling Company, in St. Michael’s on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has come out with Maryland Free State Rye, the state’s first rye in four decades.
Lyon isn’t the first new distillery in Maryland. That distinction goes to Blackwater Distilling in Stevensville, also on the Eastern Shore, just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. They’re also working on their own rye whiskey. The first batch of Mr. Haddaway’s Maryland Rye won’t be ready for a while, though. In the meantime, we’re enjoying the Sloop Betty Vodka, which comes in both traditional and honey flavors. Blackwater also has a brand-new rum product, Picaroon, which makes its debut this year. Distilled from raw cane syrup and a tropical sugarcane yeast, Picaroon has a sweet vanilla and cream flavor. A gold rum will be next in the pipeline. Lyon’s got rums, too: white, seasonal and barrel-aged, all of which are sold both at the distillery and at a handful of Maryland and D.C. stores, bars and restaurants.
Baltimore City boasts a new distillery as well, called Louthan. They’re making corn whiskey using Maryland-grown corn, some of which comes from a city farm garden down the street from the distillery. Down toward D.C., Twin Valley Distillers, in Rockville, is producing bourbon, vodka, rums and corn whiskey. They’re using grain from local farmers, which, when spent, goes back to them as animal feed.
It’s almost hard to believe that Maryland ranked fifth in U.S. alcohol production before Prohibition, but four distilleries (with a handful more in progress) is a pretty good start, we think. When you add in the number of breweries that have opened in Maryland, the booze boom over the last 10 years or so has been staggering (see what I did there?). Hopefully it won’t slow down anytime soon.
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