Midnight Sun Wesley Case covers the city's after-hours scene

Harford County beer: A tour of four breweries shaping the scene

Everyone likes a feel-good story, especially when it involves locals creating businesses in their figurative backyards, adding jobs and activity to an area that often could use them. And beer, of course — beer helps.

For the past couple of years, that’s been a major story in Harford County: Craft beer has taken hold, giving residents new places to socialize while expanding their knowledge of the many styles of beer that have captivated the country at-large. But Phillip Rhudy, founder of Bel Air’s Independent Brewing Company, is quick to point out an essential truth.

“The quality of the beer is the most important thing,” Rhudy said. “Nothing matters if the beer isn’t awesome.”

Fortunately for the area’s beer fans, Harford County’s breweries are setting an overall high standard with producers unafraid to pack bold flavors into the glass. As I learned on a couple of recent visits, these brewers are confident in their talents, while striving to push the county’s appetite forward via more varieties and experimentation. Our takeaway? The future is boozy and bright.

Independent Brewing Company

418 N. Main St., Bel Air. 410-836-8313, independentbrew.com

Rhudy still remembers the doubters. A brewery in downtown Bel Air without a kitchen? Some couldn’t see it lasting, and they let the Fallston resident know.

“I had a lot of people that didn’t think we were ever going to get open,” Rhudy said. “They thought it was a farce.”

Open since fall 2015, Rhudy’s Independent Brewing Company hasn’t just survived, but thrived with its sociable taproom, dog-friendly patio and a nearly constantly rotating draft list of more than 20 beers made on the premises. The lack of a kitchen has turned into an asset, as Independent fans keep close eyes on which local food truck will provide the necessary sustenance.

On a recent sun-filled afternoon, Independent looked a lot like it has whenever I visit: filled with friends and families, drinking beers like Calibration, the flagship India pale ale, out of custom glassware that reads “Handcrafted in Bel Air.”

My flight of brews (four mini-pours for $10) showed the range of Independent’s talents, from the accessible Blue Eyed Blonde to Bond St. Brown, with delicious coffee notes, and the peach-infused Impeachment sour wheat beer. Allen “Bud” Howe of Long Green sipped on the New England-style IPA known as Nasty Woman. He visits twice per week, but prefers more mellow weekdays compared to weekends.

“Saturdays, this place is wall-to-wall people — and dogs, and kids,” Howe said with a smile.

Rhudy said he’s most proud of becoming an integral part of the Harford County community -- whether it’s being a gathering hub or hosting weekly events for runners and cyclists. He believes the area has more room for craft breweries, and Rhudy is happy to have helped establish a high standard.

“It doesn’t matter what musician you have or what food truck you have out back,” he said. “The beer’s got to be good.”

AleCraft Brewery

319 S. Main St. Suite 100, Bel Air. 410-420-5102, alecraftbrewery.com

Less than a mile down Main Street from Independent is AleCraft Brewery, the brainchild of Eryn and Brad Streett.

From Salisbury University graduates to home brewers, they got married and dipped their toes into the craft-beer scene in a less conventional manner — by opening a beer supply shop. As they supplied fellow home brewers with hops and grains, it became common sense to open a microbrewery, Eryn Streett said.

“We had the question [from customers] a lot, ‘What do your kits taste like?’ Friends and family who tried our home brew would ask, ‘When are you going to be able to sell this?’ ” said Brad Streett, as Max, his German shepherd, relaxed nearby.

After outgrowing two locations for the supply shop, the Streetts — with fellow brewer Ken Roberson — moved into their current location last summer, sharing a building with a stationery store. Now, visitors can stop by the supply shop and then grab a beer in the taproom in a single visit, which is what I did on a recent trip.

As indie-rock music played in the background, a friendly bartender helped me pick four beers for my flight ($8). The Bel Ale Pale Ale, one of Eryn’s favorites, was a well-balanced brew inspired by Sierra Nevada’s pale ale — a familiar flavor that serves as a entryway into AleCraft’s selection, she said. My favorite was the boldest: the Recalcitrant, an 8.7 percent ABV double IPA with a slight hazy look, a nod to the New England-style that’s all the craft-beer rage right now.

The Streetts have plans to make their location more of a hangout destination by adding a patio this summer. It’s another investment into their business, and in a larger sense, Harford County’s brewing scene. They welcome the idea of more breweries opening in the area, because they become “community center breweries,” Brad said.

“It’s definitely something that people want,” Eryn said. “They want options. They want more than just Applebee’s on every corner. It’s nice that we’re getting the quality in this area that people want.”

Falling Branch Brewery

825 Highland Road, Street. 443-939-4605, fallingbranchbeer.com

It’s hard to overstate the rural beauty of Falling Branch Brewery. Even on a rainy, too-cold-for-spring afternoon, the farm brewery offered a striking image of both history and a bright future.

There’s the gorgeous, just under 3,000-square-feet barn that predates the Civil War and serves as the taproom when it’s cold. (On this day, there was a private birthday party with all the Disney characters you could imagine.) And in the back is the beer garden, where community tables and the bar overlook sprawling farmland. From April to November, visitors bring blankets and chairs to relax, as children visit the petting zoo and others play cornhole.

And to think, founder Alex Galbreath once wondered if anyone would show up when he opened the doors with his family in May 2016.

“When we started, we had no idea people would make the trip all the way out to the middle of nowhere,” Galbreath said. “But we’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

Some come for the scenery, but they all return because of the quality of beer. I was impressed by what Falling Branch considers its specialties: Belgian-style and American ales. The standout was called Frost, a bold farmhouse ale whose spicy hops add a surprising and addictive dimension.

Head brewer Grant Pfeiffer said most of Falling Branch’s customers are intrigued locals most familiar with the big-name macro beermakers. He’s usually converting them, one pour at a time.

“I’ve had people who’ve drank Miller, Bud and Coors their entire lives, and they keep buying this stuff,” Pfeiffer said. “We can entry-level you into anything.”

Like other area brewery owners I spoke with, the Falling Branch team believes the region, and Maryland as a whole, could grow much more if legislation lifted what they see as unnecessary restrictions on production and serving. Whether that occurs or not depends on decisions out of their hands, but Galbreath said he sees the demand for craft beer only increasing here.

“I see more and more consumers switching to local quality beers from the macros and making trips out to their local breweries,” Galbreath said. “It brings people from out of town to our remote Harford County area to do brewery tours. It could be good for everyone.”

Slate Farm Brewery

2128 Whiteford Road, Whiteford. 443-528-7443, slatefarmbrewery.com

My final stop on the breweries tour is also Harford County’s newest addition.

Located less than a five-minute drive from Falling Branch, Slate Farm Brewery opened in mid-March. Brewer Sam Brown, along with his brother Kiel Brown and mother, Denise Cangialosi, purchased the farm from a family friend less than two years ago expressly to open a brewery. Now, patrons are tasting his beers, made with hops and fruits grown on location.

Sam Brown began as a home brewer, after his love for craft beer was sparked by Dale’s Pale Ale a decade ago. These days, he’s taking a dual approach to his own products: Make beers with wide appeal -- and, well, don’t. One of the reasons he got into the business is the creativity.

“I’m going to have beers that people don’t like, but I’m going to have other beers that people love,” Brown said.

In that spirit, a friend and I decided to try two flights of each beer offered (10 in all for just under $29).

On a rainy day, we found solace in Slate Farm’s heated greenhouse, where a handful of other customers were seated around circular tables, chatting and laughing. After finding some seats, we sipped, shared and quickly realized Brown wasn’t kidding: The beers were a wide variety, from Mom’s Strawberry Cream Ale and the coffee porter known as Alberto to the crisp East Coast Kolsch. We particularly liked the imperial stout called Dictator, the strongest beer on tap (8.5 percent ABV), though deceptively so thanks to a smooth toffee finish.

As is common in the area, Brown feels a personal satisfaction when people enjoy his beers.

“All these beers, I care for. I’m brewing all day long whenever I brew,” Brown said.

As a new company, Slate Farm is mostly selling its beers on-site, though Brown said they’re starting to sell kegs to local liquor stores for growler fills. Like the other brewers I spoke to, Brown was quick to praise what the other breweries in Harford County are doing, and he’s more than happy to contribute.

They’re taking different approaches, but in a larger sense, “we’re all doing the same thing,” Brown said, and that’s raising the profile of Harford County and its emerging beer scene.

“It’s kind of neat, going through the same hurdles,” Brown said. “To an extent, we’re all trying to grow the same business.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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