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Touring Barley Road: Microbreweries of the Eastern Shore

Jul 22, 2015 09:00AM ● By Becca Newell

Eastbound Along Route 50 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is Craft Brewing’s Stairway to Heaven

By Becca Newell // Photography by Jess Newell

There are few pairings better than summertime and beer. Lounging by the pool, sitting on the beach, sailing across the Chesapeake Bay—the sunshine streaming down and an ice cold, frothy beverage in hand. It’s pure perfection.

And while everyone has their go-to brew for those sweet summer days, the variety of hop-infused pale ales, refreshing lagers, and other boutique beers are increasing exponentially on what seems like a daily basis. Well, for the adventurous drinker at least.

Within the last decade or so, beer has seen a significant shift towards more independent microbrews. So much in fact that craft beer broke the 10 percent share of all beer sales in 2014, according to the Brewers Association.

 Although it might seem like an unlikely locale, the rural and serene Eastern Shore of Maryland has become a hotspot for many microbreweries—beginning in the mid-1990s with Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware and now boasting more than 30 such establishments.

With summer in full swing, we decided to hit the road (with a designated driver in tow!) to check out nearby microbreweries. How else are we going to know which brewskis to have on hand at our Labor Day soiree?

Sticking strictly to those breweries on the Eastern Shore—with the exception of Ocean City—we took tours, chatted with the brewers, learned about the logistics of the business, and, of course, sampled some flights, all in the name of research!

Embarking from Easton, we kicked off our tour of what we pegged the “Collector’s Club”—in the gotta-drink-‘em-all, Pokemon-style sense—with a stop at the Mid Shore’s longest continually operating brewery, Eastern Shore Brewing Company in St. Michaels.

The barn-like structure sits along the historic town’s main street in the Old Mill District. Recently redesigned and decorated, it’s a simple, yet welcoming place—a tasting room in the truest sense with wood-paneled walls decorated with a couple mounted stag heads and the brewery’s logo. A modest bar sits opposite the main entrance, a comfy couch or two on one side, and rows of wooden, high-tops along the other.

It’s obvious the place is a favorite among locals, several of whom casually stand around the bar, chatting with the owner Adrian “Ace” Moritz, who eagerly whisks us away on a tour. Mortiz tells us he and his wife, Lori, were avid home brewers during college.

“We looked over our shoulder after a couple of years and realized we had $6,000 worth of brewing equipment, so we said ‘let’s do this,’” he recalls with a grin.

St. Michaels Brewing Company offers two year-round brews (often referred to as mainlines in the beer-brewing world) and two six-month seasonals, like the recently released Mexican lager, El Pepe.

“El Pepe is a rarity for a brewery because it takes so long to brew,” he says, handing us a tasting glass with a sample of the crisp, somewhat sweet, medium-bodied brew. “We’re bringing in another fermenter or two before the end of year, so we can experiment more.”

How to run a business and brew beer on a much larger scale weren’t the only things the Mortizes had to learn when they opened in 2008. They soon realized they needed to become well versed in Maryland liquor laws since legislation at the time only allowed for the consumption of tasting flights—five, four-ounce pours—on site. The pair worked closely with state senators and delegates to establish legislation to fix that, permitting the sale of pints and growlers. All of us happily raised our glasses in celebration of that victory!

Though we all craved a pint of El Pepe (the tasting sample just wasn’t enough!), we wanted to try a few more ESB creations before leaving. Other favorites among the group were the lovely Winter Warmer—an imperial red with a caramel-malt aroma, a sweet, nutty/smoky taste, and a smooth, creamy mouthfeel—and the Knot So Pale Ale—another amber ale with a fruity aroma, perfectly balanced floral notes, and a subtle bitter-smooth finish.

From Eastern Shore Brewing Company, we headed east on U.S. Route 50 to ReAle Revival in Cambridge. “RAR,” as it’s more fondly known—a name the owners say might replace its longer, official title—is nestled along Poplar Street in downtown Cambridge. Two large, roll-up windows that are rarely closed in summer stand out between a brick exterior, giving this former pool hall a raw, factory-esque feel that matches its interior of exposed brick walls and corrugated sheet metal along the bar—not to mention the stickers, graffiti tags, photographs, and original artwork dotted about the walls.

RAR owner Chris Browhan opened the brewery with his business partner J.T. Merryweather in August 2013, although the first pours of RAR brew didn’t occur until seven months later. The two friends—born and raised in Cambridge—were avid home brewers until a night of consuming several of their palate-pleasing concoctions convinced them it was time for a business plan.

“We pitched it to an old college roommate of my father’s and he offered to invest within 30 minutes,” Browhan says, as a bevy of tasting samples fill up our table.

We sip, savor, and discuss our preferences. Mine Layer—a refreshing, medium-bodied Saison with grassy, fruity, and tart notes and a relatively dry finish—and Bucktown Brown—a medium-bodied American brown ale with a sweet, roasted coffee aroma and similar taste, but with additional nutty undernotes—end up at the top of our list.

In addition to live entertainment and other activities (Shuffleboard League, anyone?), RAR serves basic pub grub—a nice compliment to their brews. We decided to wash down our suds with an order of Drunken Tots. It’s a huge serving, fit for the four of us, of golden-brown tater tots, generously topped with melted mozzarella, sour cream, bacon bits, and scallions.
After nearly a year and four months of brewing, RAR is creeping up on producing 6,000 barrels of beer a year—a feat its founders thought would take three years to reach. And they’re not stopping anytime soon. With four mainlines, they refer to as “House Brews,” and four specialty beers, it’s clear RAR is doing something right.

Later this month, the brewery will add a cannery to its operation, starting with two of its most popular mainlines, Nanticoke Nectar and Bottom Feeder. By summer, the cans will be on the shelves in Maryland, Washington D.C., and the Delaware beaches, and, by winter, Browhawn expects all of RAR’s mainlines to be available via six-pack.

With so many microbreweries fighting for shelf and tap space, Browhan says it’s important to stay innovative and creative when it comes to new brews. Each week, the bartender releases a new infusion—a RAR mainline flavored with a variety of ingredients.

We take a peek at that day’s infusion, proudly displayed on the bar: Nanticoke Nectar with peanuts, orange peel, Werther’s Originals, and a cinnamon stick. The aptly named Peanut Butter Brittle is as crisp and sweet as you would imagine—a medium-bodied, amber-orange hued IPA infusion with a noticeable kick of cinnamon spice and smooth caramel, and a dry, hoppy finish.

Browhan says he’d love to produce more small-scale batch brews, but it’s just not feasible with production demand being so high. For now, Mine Layer, Bucktown Brown, and whatever beer infusion is offered that day are certainly worth the trip.

We hop in the car for the hour-long drive to Salisbury to hit up Evolution Craft Brewing Company. As we pull into the parking lot, it’s apparent this place is the most established and expansive of the Collector’s Club.
Casually referred to as “Evo” by its regulars, the company has been bottling and distributing its microbrews since 2009, serving Maryland, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and, most recently, Northern Virginia. Prior to opening at its current location in a sprawling industrial building along the railroad tracks on East Vine Street, the brewery was housed in a small grocery store in Delmar, Delaware, according to Denny Mogan, the manager at Evolution Public House.

“[The new location] is the perfect fit for us because it’s subdivided into cold storage and, more specifically, it has its own well. We’ve got really great water and an abundance of it,” he says, explaining that the building was originally home to an ice plant. “Beer is, like, 90 percent water. So the quality of water you’re using can really help determine the quality of the beer you’re making.”

Starting with four mainlines—Primal Pale Ale, Exile ESB (now known as Exile Red Ale), Lot No. 3 IPA, and Lucky 7 Porter—Evo now brews five mainlines, in addition to a host of seasonals, barrel aged beers, and other specialty one-offs. We each pick a sample to drink while stepping into the brewery to learn the basics of beer-making.

“Beer is four main ingredients: water, hops, malted barley, and yeast,” says brewer Mike Piorunski, as we stand in a large, open room, among a slew of stainless steel fermenters, cooling tanks, and other brewing equipment.

We learn, in short, that beer is made by milling malted barley and pouring it into a “mash mixer,” where it sits with water for 40 minutes before being heated up by steam to at least 140 degrees. The mixture—referred to as mash—is then pumped into a vessel with rakes, similar to a coffee roaster, that help to spread it out, allowing the sweet “ wort” liquor to seep through. Over a two-hour period, the wort is transferred by pump into a kettle where the liquid is then boiled.

“This is where we add the hops, so we can balance the sweetness of the wort,” the brewer says.

During the 17th century, beer wasn’t made with hops, Piorunski explains. Instead, bitter herbs like heather, rosemary, and milk thistle, were used. But the Catholic Church didn’t approve, believing the herbs were having a psychotropic affect on people.

“It was probably the alcohol that was messing people up, not the herbs,” he says, with a laugh.

In Holland, however, the Catholic Church convinced the Dutch to make beer with hops. The Dutch introduced that method to the British, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“And obviously hops are now a hallmark of beer flavor,” Piorunski states, before continuing his explanation of the brewing process.

The boiling liquid is then passed through a heat exchanger to cool down the wort, which is then transferred into a tank, where yeast and oxygen are added.

“The yeast uses up all the oxygen and then fermentation begins ... As the yeast metabolizes the sugar, it creates all these different flavor compounds called esters” the brewer says, noting their importance in a beer’s aroma and taste. "Fermentation takes about a week. During that time the yeast are reducing the amount of fermentable sugars in the wort and producing lots of carbon dioxide.”

After fermentation, the yeast is harvested from the tanks for use in either future brews or collected by a local dairy farmer, who uses it in his cattle feed. The beer is then filtered and transferred to a 40-barrel tank where it is carbonated with carbon dioxide. 

“Once fermentation’s complete, the beer will have about one volume of CO2. For packaged beer, consumers expect between 2.5 and 2.75 volumes of CO2, so we have to add it back to the beer,” he says.

Unlike almost all of the other breweries on our tour, Evo houses a full-service restaurant, called Public House, which sits adjacent to the brewery, along with a smaller tasting room and a large events room that, during our visit, was packed with aspiring artists painting sunsets for “Paint Nite.”

The owners, two brothers who run several other restaurants in the Salisbury area, decided to establish Evo with the mission of taking the culinary and craft beer fusion to the next level, Mogan says.

“Evo capitalizes on the guys’ ties to restaurants and food and how craft beer can pair with food to, hopefully, elevate both,” he says.

We finish our tour and head to the restaurant side for a few more tastings and a little food. With such a vast selection of brews, it’s safe to say even the most diehard “Big Beer” consumer will find something to enjoy.

The unanimous “winners” in our book were Lot No. 3 IPA—an amber-colored ale with a sweet, piney aroma; crisp, somewhat citrusy and earthy undernotes; and a clean finish—and the American Blonde Ale seasonal Sprung—with its light-medium body; pale amber coloring; an herbal, almost spicy, yet slightly sweet aroma; notes of honey, orange, and herbal spice; and a slight tartness in aftertaste.

If you’re planning on visiting Evo, go during lunch or dinner so you can take in the food, too. As Mogan indicated, it’s noticeable the effort put into the fusion between the drinks and the grub. You won’t be disappointed—particularly if you choose the Evo Dip Sampler and Pretzels. The onion dip is to die for!

From Evo, we trek a little closer toward Ocean City to visit Tall Tales Brewing Company in Parsonsburg. Like the beers themselves, the buildings in which each brewery is located is unique in its own way, and Tall Tales is no exception.
A beautiful building with tan siding and a copper-roof awning above the main entrance, the exterior is reminiscent of a modern business office. The front door opens to a small foyer with a ceiling-to-floor waterfall along the wall, emblazoned with a metal “Tall Tales Brewing” sign in the center. The building houses a modest-sized brewpub and an expansive outdoor patio, ideal for summer evenings.

We later learn the brewery was the former home of a landscaping company, which makes sense given the gorgeous brick patio, featuring ample seating, a covered bar, fire pits, and even a sand volleyball court.

Every Friday throughout spring and summer, Tall Tales has a 10-gallon brewing system that is rolled outside, so beer can be made aside live music.

“We let people come up and if they want to bring ingredients they think will work, we let them throw it in the beer and, three weeks later, the beer’s on tap,” says Jimmy Sharp, who was planning to start his own brewery before being offered the head brewmaster position at Tall Tales. “When I came here, I wanted to make it as educational as I could because that’s what got me into this.”

Similar to some of the other breweries on our tour, Tall Tales recently expanded its brewery to 5,800 square feet. Before the expansion, the 800-square-foot production room was struggling to meet demand. And despite eight mainline beers—five of which are bottled and distributed to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and, in the near future, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia—he still finds time to experiment and have fun.

“You hear a lot of the brewers at these bigger places say they wish they still worked on a system this size because we have a lot more freedom to do things. There’s such a demand for a certain beer, they have to produce that over and over again,” he says, explaining that once a month, his team will create a one-off concoction. “It’ll be a completely random beer that we come up with.”

We finish up our chat and sit at one of the high-top tables in the bar for a few samples and a quick bite. Each beer at Tall Tales has a quirky, folklore-inspired name, like Bonnie & Clyde, Sasquatch, Abominable IPA, and the brewery’s most popular beverage, Red-Headed Step Child.

“It’s not even close to my favorite, but you can’t argue with the numbers” Sharp says with a laugh. “I think it’s popular because it’s rare and the name’s catchy—people like that.”

Our consensus? Despite a caramel coloring, the red ale has more of a biscuity, nutty aroma and a similar taste. It’s medium-bodied, yet delicate and smooth. Our favorite, however, is the Sasquatch. The full-bodied imperial stout has a velvety consistency, with hints of coffee and chocolate giving a strong roasted flavor and a delightfully warm finish. It also pairs well with the cheese and charcuterie board we decided to share.

Our final stop is in Berlin for Burley Oak Brewing, which opened its doors in August 2011. Like Eastern Shore Brewing Company, Burley Oak is a production brewery. There’s no food service (although its founder Bryan Brushmiller invites customers to bring or order in fare), nor are there alcoholic beverages besides Burley’s own brews available for consumption.
There’s a large, but cozy wooden bar in the center of the room; space on one side for live music and other entertainment (like Bring Your Own Vinyl Night, where attendees are encouraged to bring their favorite LPs for spin on the house’s sound system), a wall of Burley Oak clothing and other memorabilia for sale on the opposite end; and a shuffleboard table tucked into another corner. The interior decor has a rustic feel to it, with exposed wooden rafters and wood paneling, and a sizable window behind the bar, offering patrons a glimpse of the brewery’s gleaming copper tanks.

Brushmiller tells us that the building was originally a cooperage built in the 1800s.

“It’s kind of cool that we’re now putting beer in barrels,” he says. “We currently have close to 100 barrels of maturing beer.”

Burley produces a large range of beers, exploring almost all styles from Belgiums to craft lagers to sour beers—a concept Brushmiller has encouraged from the start.

“I think it satisfies my ADD. Plus, we’re all just like ‘What kind of beer do we want to drink?’” he says, laughing. “We really don’t have any flagships. We just make good, quality beer and have fun with it.”

We sample a handful or so of that week’s beers on tap and conclude that Afternoon Delight—a session IPA with a fruity aroma, citrusy taste, and a crisp, delicate mouthfeel—and ’Merica on Nitro—a nitrogenized brown ale with a silky consistency, creamy carbonation, and robust/earthy undernotes—are the tastiest.

Also worth a mention is Burley Oak’s dry-hopped Berliner Weisse, Sorry Chicky. With a pale-straw coloring and sour but sweet aroma, Sorry Chicky offers a tart, crisp taste with a prickly carbonation and a nice finish. It wasn’t a favorite among the group, but as a fan of sour beers, I was hooked.

“Chicky [the bartender] is allergic to hops, so we made a sour beer, which doesn’t have any hops in it or very few, so she could drink it. But then we thought ‘we should dry hop this,’” Brushmiller says, laughing. “And she can’t drink it, so we called it ‘Sorry Chicky’ because that’s what we kept saying to her.”

Over the years, some brews have remained steadfast, but the chalkboard above the bar listing each beer on tap changes weekly. Burley Oak can be found on tap in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Delaware, but Brushmiller says he doesn’t plan on expanding any further because he wants the product to remain as fresh as possible.

During our visit, Burley Oak wasn’t even bottling or canning their brews, save for a few one-time specialties that could be purchased at the bar. Since then, however, they’ve added a canning line, thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign. In its first few years, the brewery produced about 800 barrels a year. In October 2014, the brewhouse doubled in size with a 15-barrel system that produced 1,200 barrels. This year, Brushmiller thinks they’ll hit 2,000.

“We decided to can beers because people wanted to take them back home after their visit. Growlers are too perishable, but cans travel well, and they’re recyclable and totally protective of the beer,” he says. “It’s a small growth, but definitely what we needed to support our brewing habits.”

There’s a certain camaraderie among all the breweries—a trait not often seen between competing businesses. But, in the craft beer world, it seems to make sense. As Evo’s Mogan noted, there’s still 90 percent of the beer-drinking market that’s attainable to craft breweries.

“If they drink a good craft beer one time, then they’re sold,” he says. “And if everybody makes good beer, it strengthens the industry as a whole.”

Tall Tales’ Sharp echoed this sentiment, telling a story to depict just how open the breweries are to helping one another. When RAR needed grain, Tall Tales sent some their way, he says. And, a few weeks later, when Tall Tales was in need of yeast, RAR returned the favor.

“To survive in this industry, you have to work with each other,” he says. “It’s still us versus the big guys.”

It’s a refreshing perspective to see respect and encouragement among business. And it seems to add to the enjoyment of working in the beer-brewing industry.

“We just like to teach people about beer,” says Burley Oak’s Brushmiller. “Broaden those horizons and bring the other 90 percent [of non-craft beer drinkers] on board.”
And the brewing bug hasn’t stopped. The Collector’s Club will soon have another microbrewery to visit in Federalsburg. Slated to open this fall, the Federal Brewing Company will have three mainlines—an IPA, stout, and lager—with a rotation of specialty, one-off beers. Additionally, the brewpub will have growlers available for purchase, so customers can take home their favorites.

“I got tired of buying my fiancée beer,” says owner Gayle Galbraith, regarding the reason behind the business. “I moved to the Eastern Shore from the Philadelphia area where neighborhood pubs and coffee houses were plentiful. When the opportunity to purchase a beautiful beaux arts bank building arose, I couldn’t resist.”

The hotbed of microbreweries seems to cool off at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. And although the reasoning behind almost all of the locations on the Shore is due to hometown pride, it seems political matters are behind the lack of breweries in Anne Arundel County. (Not surprisingly, there are a slew of breweries throughout the Baltimore and the D.C. area.)

It’s worth noting, however, that legislation recently passed to help pave the way for breweries to open in Anne Arundel County—pretty exciting news for those of us wanting to add to our craft beer collection.

But for now, we’ll happily travel throughout the Shore for a mouth-watering pour of the good stuff. And with many microbreweries now distributing throughout the state, it won’t be difficult to pick up a few of our favorites to toast summer and its bevy of delicious, local brews. Cheers!