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Baltimore shop creates custom-designed tap handles

Walk into a typical corner bar, and at the tapline, you'll see a row of metal handles in primary colors for the bartenders to dispense the beers.

But at a select handful, you'll find masterfully rendered wooden handles in the shapes of a honey dipper, a lighthouse, a towering stack of nuts and an embossed edition of "The Raven" topped by a small hand-painted bust of Edgar Allan Poe.

This is just one sign that you've found the craft beer.

You've also found the work of Supik & Co., a wood-turning shop on the edge of Highandtown. In the world of tap handles, Mark Supik's shop has emerged as the preferred provider of custom-designed tap handles for the regional brewers, microbrewers and start-ups that compose the craft-beer movement.

"Tap handles never meant much before the craft-beer movement," Supik said. "Now we get new companies coming to us for handles before they've started to brew."

Supik & Co. turns out tap handles for the Brewer's Art, Raven beer, DuClaw and Stillwater Artisanal Ales, among other Maryland breweries. But their growing client list extends from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Sacramento, Calif. And its tap handles aren't just for beer anymore. Supik has made customized handles for taps dispensing wine, coffee and even sake.

A graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Supik didn't open his shop to produce tap handles. That came later. The shop's first focus area was on custom-manufactured architectural finishes like newel posts, finials, columns and balusters. And it still is. Supik & Co. is a specialist in lathe-work, a vanishing art even among small commercial shops.

It was 1991 when Baltimore Brewing Co. founder Theo De Groen asked Supik to produce tap handles that fit the handmade quality of the German-style beers produced at his Jonestown brewery. Supik produced a line of simple and elegant handles that look like craft.

DeGroen's Marzen, Dunkles and Weizen are no longer brewed, but you can still see the original tap handles, along with the honey dipper, lighthouse, Raven volumes, and hundreds of other tap handles in a room at Supik & Co., which is home to what may be the world's first and only beer tap museum.

On Oct. 27 the pristinely organized display, which occupies a narrow corridor within the warehouse, will be open to the public as part of the fourth annual Baltimore Beer Week, which kicks off Oct. 19. The afternoon at Mark Supik & Co. includes a homebrew demonstration and tasting, but beer taps are the big attraction.

Among them are sentimental favorites like the DeGroen handles, which evoke the early days of Baltimore's craft beer movement, and a vintage National Premium handle that a customer donated to Supik's collection.

"They go crazy when they see them," said Nancy Supik, who runs the shop's business end.

The tap handle, also known as tap marker or beer pull, has a simple functional purpose. It's the thing your bartender pulls to open the beer faucet it's attached to. And the handle also identifies the beer being tapped for the customer.

But a tap handle is also free marketing space. Small and medium-sized brewers can't buy Super Bowl ads or stable a team of horses, but they can effectively promote their brand with a consistent visual marketing campaign, which begins with a logo, includes myriad promotional items and ends right in front of the customer, on the handle that dispenses his beer.

Supik collaborates with brewers on the design, and sometimes he has to talk them out of impractical follies like handles that light up when they're tilted or designs that are simply too expensive to produce in quantity.

His own preference is for the simple and elegant. A favorite among his works is the handle he produced for a California winery. And elaborate designs don't always sit well with the tavern workers who have to use them.

Michael Johnson, who co-owns the Judge's Bench in Ellicott City with his wife, Jane, is a fan of some hand-crafted tap handles. but acknowledges that some of the ceramic ones have their drawbacks.

"They're lovely but they're not practical," Johnson said. "They get chipped up and nasty-looking, and then they break."

A well-designed tap handle, on the other hand, can not only help a small brewer stand out in a craft-brew crowd, but it can also send the customer a subtle message about quality. If a logo looks like it belongs on a blimp, chances are the beer is mass-produced. But if the logo looks like the work of an artist or a rogue graphic design, the beer is likely produced by a smaller brewery.

Handles fight for attention on the tapline, and they fight to get on the tapline, too. A cool handle, according to Ginger Herget of Frederick P. Winner Distributors, can help her company's salesmen persuade a tavern owner to give a beer a shot.

"I've had customers return beer that we can't get a tap handle for," Herget said, "and some accounts won't hook it up without the handle."

Not everyone is a fan, though. Columbia's Victoria Gastro Pub has earned a reputation for supporting Maryland's craft breweries, but you won't see their handles on its tapline. All of its walnut handles are of the same design.

"I want to brand me. I don't want to brand everybody else," said owner Randy Marriner.

Supik & Co. have worked with home-brewers, but the small quantities involved haven't always made the work practical. Now, the shop is launching a line of customizable tap handles for the home-brewer, for whom the tap handle symbolizes a job well done.

The cherry wood handles will be available for inspection at the Baltimore Beer Week event. As will the the handle in the shape of a giant tooth, which Supik made for a dentist's retirement party.

Baltimore Beer Week

The fourth annual Baltimore Beer Week begins on Friday with an Opening Tap Celebration at Power Plant Live and runs through Oct. 28. The 10-day festival includes nearly 350 events, including beer tastings, beer dinners, home-brew seminars, pub crawls and special events. For information and a complete listing of Baltimore Beer Week events, go to baltimorebeerweek.com.

The event at Supik & Co., which includes a home-brewing demonstration and tour of the Beer Tap Museum, starts at 11 a.m. on Oct. 27, 1 N. Haven St. Admission is free. Call 410-732-8414 or go to marksupikco.com.


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