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Burley Oak founder reflects on five years of craft beer and helping make Berlin cool

Q&A: Burley Oak founder looks back at five years of craft beer and bolstering Berlin's reputation.

Here’s a secret some craft-beer enthusiasts already know: Some of the best beer in Maryland is brewed in the small Eastern Shore town of Berlin, population less than 5,000.

It’s Burley Oak Brewing Company, founded by Essex native Bryan Brushmiller, who moved to Berlin when he was 17. What began in 2009 as a homebrewing hobby for a recently laid-off Brushmiller has blossomed into a forward-thinking craft-beer company with 16 employees and a number of fans across the Mid-Atlantic region.

In the process, Burley Oak has played a significant role in driving out-of-towners to Berlin and bolstered the town’s reputation as a hip destination. (Two years ago, readers of Budget Travel magazine voted Berlin "Coolest Small Town in America.")

On Friday, Burley Oak will hold a five-year anniversary party from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. at its taproom. Limited rare beers will be available for purchase, along with live music and food from Rosenfeld’s Food Truck and Swell at Urban Nectar. The party will also introduce visitors to Burley Oak’s recently finished Funk Factory, a 3,000-square-foot storage building that will allow the company to really experiment, Brushmiller said.

That’s the spirit of Burley Oak: Experimentation. There’s no flagship beer they constantly crank out; instead, they’re brewing a new beer once a week. Locally, they were years ahead of the current sour-beer trend, and the additional space of the Funk Factory will allow Burley Oak even more avenues of exploration. They even make their own cold-brew coffee and handcrafted sodas for the teetotalers.

For Brushmiller, Friday’s celebration is a community-focused respite, a time to reflect on how far the company has come. It’s even more notable since he did it without outside investors, which is still the case.

“It’s pretty cool. No one gets to tell me what to brew,” Brushmiller said, laughing.

Reached by phone this morning, Brushmiller, 39, took a break from preparing for the party to discuss what’s changed, what hasn’t and what’s to come for Burley Oak. This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

How much has the company grown since 2011?

We’ve grown a lot, but we really haven’t really grown that much, if that makes sense. We’re up to 16 employees now, but we’re still probably the smallest production brewery in Maryland. We’re definitely one of the smallest around, and we’re definitely the smallest for being open for five years.

To give you an idea, there’s breweries that have been open for two years that are doing close to 10,000 barrels of beer [per year] — a barrel of beer being 31 gallons of actual liquid production. We’re still sitting around 2,000 barrels.

A lot of it has to do with, if you want all of the beer we do, you have to come to the brewery to get it. And that’s really just a dedication to making sure our product is always fresh. We can control a lot more when it’s served early in-house or through self-distribution. Whatever we have left over, we send to our distributors in Baltimore, D.C. That’s how our beer is out there.

We’re still small. We’re still handcrafted. We’re still making beer with a wooden paddle every morning. We’ve really just grown to really invest a lot of our money into making quality beer, and not really try to make more beer.

Does that mean the money goes toward premium ingredients?

Premium ingredients, better equipment. Just a focus on more beers. We really don’t have a production beer we do twice a day. We’re still doing a different beer once a week. It’s just really a focus on making sure all employees are compensated well, and everyone’s happy at work. Everybody receives full health care benefits. Everybody receives a retirement plan, even bartenders. We were making sure everybody had full healthcare before Obama told us to. 

How far is Burley Oak’s reach at this point?

For self-distribution, it’s just these three counties — Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset, which takes a lot. We do reach to D.C., Baltimore, all of Maryland. We have a small amount going to Delaware because Delaware is only 15 minutes from us. We’re only concentrating on just our own state and a really concise circle. Again, it’s just so beer isn’t traveling so far and it just stays fresh. Beer is perishable product. There’s a reason why people like local beer – it’s because it’s fresher. 

What will the Funk Factory allow Burley Oak to do?

This building is dedicated to our wild yeasts and mixed fermentation and wood-aging program. We can focus the main brewery on the regular beers that we’re doing. We’ve been experimenting with wild yeast, mixed fermentation and barrel aging since we opened, but we never really had a space to really, really focus on it. We’ll be bottling all of these beers that we brew over there, and they’ll all have a Funk Factory label on it, which is a stamp to show that the sours are all wood-aged sours and they’re all based on wild-yeast collection. The “funk” part comes from the funky wild yeast, and those beers can turn into sour beers, mixed fermentation beers, hoppy beers. 

I think of you all being ahead of the recent sour trend. What direction is the beer industry headed next?

You’re going to see breweries definitely continuing to focus on craft. We’ve been experimenting with sour beers for five years now. Now we’re getting to the point where it’s like, “Oh wow, if we make these, people will actually buy them.”

Five years ago, we were getting that pucker-face like, “Oh my god, this is the worst beer I’ve ever tasted.” Now people are coming down and being like, “Wow, you only have four sour beers on tap?” The education part of other breweries doing things, and then the consumer understanding it and being educated about those beers — that’s the exiting part, because small breweries like Burley Oak can continue to do experimental things that we love to do.

Have your goals for the company changed over time?

No, not really. We’ve always just set out to make quality beer that’s distinctive and use the brewery as a vehicle to push our technical brewing prowess, really. It’s funny, because I’ve always said that we don’t want to get big and we really haven’t.

What can fans look forward to in the near future and in the distant, too?

In the near future, you’ll definitely see more sour beers because the market is starting to really ask for it, so now we get to do the stuff that we love. We love using bacteria. We love using wild yeast, mixed fermentation. As we’re able to source better hops and unique hops and be on the edge of finding new hops, you’ll definitely see us continuing to put out hop-forward beers. 

More in the distant, we basically just hope to meet demand for our cans in retail stores, because we definitely get a lot of salty calls that say, “We want 20 cases this week,” and we have to say, “Well, we can give you one.” So hopefully we can meet that demand, but we have to do that in a real organic fashion. We try to grow very organically, where we’re not taking on investment money. We’re not taking out loans and going into debt to try and grow. As we make more money, we can buy more cooler canning lines and more fermenters and things like that. 

You’re credited with helping make Berlin a cool town that people outside of Maryland know. Your love and the company’s love for Berlin is no secret. How do you describe the relationship between the two?

It’s been very symbiotic. We’ve helped the town grow through beer tourism, but the town has taken that responsibility that we’ve kind of handed them, and they’ve grown in their own ways. So now, they’re continuing to be progressive because they see, “Oh wow, people know about us so let’s do more fun stuff.” As I grow, the town grows, and as the town grows, I get to grow.

We’re still very small-business friendly and a non-franchised town with artisans and craftsmen, whether it’s the girl making her own jewelry downtown or it’s the farmer that we give all of our spent grain to opening a farm-supply store that actually sells beef and there’s a butcher. So we’re doing it in a very responsible way, where we’re not opening, you know, Cracker Barrels in the middle of town. We’re opening a store where you can buy fresh beef from, where the farmer is selling it to you.

Are you still riding your bike to work?

Oh yeah, every day. Rode my bike this morning. A cup of coffee and a bike ride is a good way to start the day.

What does tomorrow's celebration mean to you, personally?

Even though we didn’t get a lot bigger, we were still able to hire and provide jobs for a ton of people — and good jobs that have employees buying houses, getting married and having babies. That’s huge for me, to be able to provide that opportunity for my co-workers. It’s definitely a reaffirmation that this crazy business model of OK, we’re going to make the most quality, distinct products that we can, but we’re not going to make a lot of it and we’re not going to try and do it for money. We’re going to do it for the passion, and hopefully, people will follow us. It’s a reaffirmation that that can work.

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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If you go

Burley Oak’s five-year anniversary party takes place 11-2 a.m. Friday, 10016 Old Ocean City Boulevard, Berlin. Attending the party is free, but Funk Factory tour tickets ($20) must be purchased at burleyapparel.com. Parking is available at the Burley Oak parking lot and the Berlin Falls public parking lot. For more information, go to burleyoak.com.

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