Breweries tap into a community beyond beer geeks

Brewery taprooms: Come for the beer, stay for the cool space and good times.

In the taproom at Hampden's Waverly Brewing Co., Gary and Rilla Huettner sample brews in a booth beneath a pair of antelope heads sporting Santa hats. It's the Parkville residents' third visit this year, and this time they invited their daughter and son-in-law, Kim and Chas Wisler, to experience the atmosphere.

"It's rustic. It's kind of a little bit funky. It's fun," said Rilla Huettner, 66, as other patrons entered a pie-baking competition at the brewery.

It's a vibe that attracts homebrewers like her husband, Gary, 67, but also appeals to customers beyond the beer aficionado. At Waverly, as at many Maryland breweries, the taproom has become a community hangout.

Once an afterthought, brewery taprooms now draw groups beyond those seeking good beer, including children's birthday parties and yoga classes, driving additional revenue and supporting other small businesses such as food trucks. As the state's beer industry continues to grow, brewery patrons increasingly are coming for the suds but staying for the space and camaraderie.

"We have all kinds of different people — the motorcycle crowd that comes in here, the gamers who come in here and play board games I've never even heard of," said Patrick Rainey, the taproom manager at Waverly. "You have music enthusiasts, and they'll come in and see a fusion band here."

The brewery does not have a kitchen, so it frequently hosts local food purveyors such as Luigi's Italian Deli, Lost City Diner and Snake Hill in part of its outdoor beer garden.

"We're always kind of changing, and I think that's what keeps people coming back, the different selections. We've had different food trucks. We've had a pig roast and a crab fest," Rainey said. "It's more about engaging our community, and that includes food."

Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland, said he's seen breweries transition from manufacturing facilities to community hubs during the last decade. State legislation passed in 2013 allowed breweries to obtain permits from local liquor boards to sell pints on the premises rather than just offering samples — a more lucrative opportunity for small breweries than selling beer wholesale.

"If you were to open another large packaging brewery that's industrial and not meant to be a visitor location, you'd have to make and sell a lot of beer, whereas if you're community-based, then the pressure is not so much on volume as it is on quality and that gathering space," Atticks said.

The taprooms offer samplers and sell beers by the pint. Customers also can take home gallon-sized growlers fresh from the tap or a six-pack, or buy brewery merchandise such as T-shirts and caps.

If a brewery sells a keg of its beer to a distributor, who then takes a cut and sells it to a retailer, the profit on the keg might be around $100, said Scott Kerkmans, director of the Brewing Industry Operations program at Metropolitan State University of Denver. But selling that same keg of beer via pints in a taproom could yield profits close to $800.

"The margins are so significantly better to just sell out of your tasting room. That's the method we see a lot of new breweries starting up with," said Kerkmans, a former professional brewer.

Low wholesale margins are part of what prompted an upcoming 2,000-square-foot expansion of the taproom at Jailbreak Brewing Co. in Laurel. Jailbreak has placed a heavy emphasis on its taproom since it debuted in 2014. The brewery has a food truck on-site every day it's open to the public, and it plans to add a kitchen and restaurant, CEO Justin Bonner said.

Jailbreak has established itself as a local gathering spot, hosting events that include weddings, bar mitzvahs and fundraisers. An August fundraiser to benefit Ellicott City flood victims raised more than $60,000.

"I don't think we realized the importance we'd play in our community and how people look to us to be a community leader," Bonner said. "That gave us a really good feeling of what local is all about."

The number of craft breweries in Maryland exploded in the past five years, from 25 in 2011 to more than 60 today, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. The industry generated $652 million in economic impact statewide in 2015, the organization said.

Across the country, craft beer's economic impact was $55.7 billion in 2014, and the industry created more than 424,000 "full-time equivalent jobs," the association reported.

Atticks said he doesn't see that growth slowing locally. But it's not a cheap field to enter.

Launching a modest five-barrel production system likely would cost at least $300,000, Kerkmans said. (A five-barrel system produces around 10 kegs every two weeks, he said. One barrel is the equivalent of about 55 six-packs.) A 10- or 15-barrel system would require "something closer to a million dollars," he said.

In Maryland, Atticks said he's seen business plans with startup costs as low as $150,000. On the high end, Flying Dog Brewery's planned new facility in Frederick, capable of producing 700,000 barrels a year, is expected to cost upward of $50 million.

Taprooms offer brewers a chance to separate themselves from competitors.

Monument City Brewing Co. will include a 1,200-square-foot taproom when it opens its own 12,800-square-foot facility in Highlandtown in January. It has contract-brewed at Peabody Heights Brewery in Abell since 2014. The 50-seat taproom features a half-wall intended to make visitors feel like they're drinking in the heart of a brewery, co-founder Ken Praay said.

Taprooms can help introduce and sell products, Praay said, but, for nearly all breweries, they are secondary to maintaining the quality of the beer.

"For us, the most important thing is to make the best beer that we can," Praay said.

As craft beer grows in popularity, more customers are interested in seeking out limited-run collaborations and other experimental brews, Kerkmans said. And for that, customers often head straight to the source — the brewery.

"Not that they're complaining, but [customers are] forced to find all of these new and interesting beers in taprooms rather than liquor store shelves," he said.

Savvy breweries market themselves on social media to core customers, keeping them apprised of new releases, fresh cannings and other events at the taproom.

Some local taprooms incorporate elements designed to draw nontraditional visitors such as families. Housed in a former auto shop in Bel Air, Independent Brewing Co. opened in October 2015 with a dog-friendly taproom. The space is split into a 1,200-square-foot "communal space" and a 1,100-square-foot "family area" with a toy chest, ring-toss, crayons, coloring books and more.

Owner Phillip Rhudy, a father of four, said the goal is to "keep the kids entertained for an hour while Mom and Dad meet some friends."

Independent has hosted children's birthday parties, in addition to yoga sessions and acoustic music performances.

"People all the time say they feel like they're not in Maryland, that they feel like they're in Portland or Seattle, and that was kind of the goal," Rhudy said. "I've been to some of the coolest taprooms and breweries in the country, and I took a lot of notes and put it all together in this place."

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