Eleven days, nearly 300 events, more than 50 venues. Baltimore Beer Week, now in its third year, has certainly grown.
Hugh Sisson, the founder of Heavy Seas Beer, is the lead sponsor of this year's Beer Week, as he's been for the past two years. He got involved early on because he saw the 11-day event as a platform to promote the city's burgeoning craft beer scene. In that role, he's had a front-row seat to its evolution since 2009.
What's different this year from years past?
I think there's more focus. Although there's a lot of events, [the organizers] are trying to create a little more quality and not necessarily as much quantity. We're hoping attendance at each event is more robust. Part of the problem of something like this is that you're competing with yourself. If you've got 15 quality breweries doing great things at the same time, you're stealing each others' thunder. There's been some thought toward improving on that, and my gut tells me they've done a better job with it.
Why did you get involved in the first place? What's the value for Heavy Seas and for beer drinkers?
The primary reason that we wanted that lead role is because the whole point of this thing is to further the beer culture in Baltimore. We've had more to do with that [than] any other person in the city for the last 20 years, so it was just appropriate for us to put our money where our mouth is in terms of sponsorship dollars. But I don't want this to be the Heavy Seas show, and it's not. It's really all about promoting beer culture, getting people to try different things and to have different experiences. Trying to move [craft beer] to a more sophisticated place than just sitting around and having a bunch of cold ones.
One of the things you guys are doing this year are collaborations — you've invited Max's Taphouse and The Judge's Bench to create their own custom casks. How did these collaborations come about?
Custom casks are a program we're developing on a larger basis. We've had 40 people from our Ohio distributorship and some key retailers in Ohio two weeks ago making casks. We've had guys from our Georgia retailers too. The whole cask thing has become a real focus for us. Any time we can get people to try that, then they're experiencing that whole subset of beer directly and that's is really exciting. Plus, they're getting a real kick out of making changes in the dry hops or things along those lines to change the flavor profile. The appeal of cask-conditioned ales is that it's real ale. It's finishing in the container so it's got a character to it that you're not going to get to get in a regular keg or a regular bottled product. One of the things that's been so excited about the last 10 years in the beer industry is that people are moving to a lot more artisanal, authentic, hand-crafted products.
You're doing a bunch of food pairing events this year, which you've done since the outset of what was then called Clipper City Brewing. You're having a lunch at Big Jim's Deli on Friday and a dinner at Alewife on Monday. What's the most commonly asked question still at these events?
People are definitely more conscious about beer lunches and dinners. If there's a question I hear more often than others, it's a difficult question, because they want me to tell them simple rules for pairing food and beer. And, there are no simple rules. You have to know the flavors and then you play with them. There are some great ideas on paper that don't work at all. My most astute observation is the old Nike thing: Just do it.
Oktoberfest is arguably the week's signature event, and you guys always pull out some surprises. What are you doing this year?
We're going to be tapping four different casks throughout the course of the show, and there are going to be some interesting beers in there. That's the biggest thing we're doing in terms of beer geek significance. They're not things you're going to see at normal [events]. I don't want to spoil the whole thing, but there are going to be some special dry hops added to a number of the beers so that you'll have things that have nuances that you wouldn't normally see.
If you go
What: Baltimore Beer Week
When: Thursday-Oct. 16.
Where: Various locations in Central Maryland.