Adam Benesch

Adam Benesch is the co-founder of Union Craft Brewing Company. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun / February 21, 2014)

Adam Benesch, a co-founder of Union Craft Brewing in Hampden, would like to take his Duckpin Pale Ale to a farmers' market and let consumers taste and buy it.

John Knorr, co-owner of Evolution Craft Brewing in Salisbury, just wants to brew more beer.

Both want the General Assembly to pass legislation that would help Maryland's burgeoning microbrewery industry continue to grow.

Bills that would open farmers' markets and county fairs to tastings and sales by the state's beer producers and raise the limit on how many barrels brewpubs can produce top the 2014 wish list of the Brewers Association of Maryland. A House subcommittee is expected to consider the production limit bill Monday night.

"We're here because we're a growing industry — both here in Maryland and across the country," J. T. Smith, the association's executive director, told a Senate committee.

The legislation faces stiff opposition from the state's powerful liquor lobby, which sees both bills as a threat to the venerable three-tier liquor distribution structure. That system has kept Maryland's producers, wholesalers and retailers mostly separate since the end of Prohibition — with a few exceptions the distributors aren't thrilled about.

"It has been undermined progressively," Jay Schwartz, lobbyist for the Maryland State Licensed Beverage Association, told the committee.

Maryland's craft beer industry has grown steadily since Hugh Sisson opened the state's first brewpub on Cross Street in 1989 — enabled by a 1988 law that Schwartz called "the first crack in the dike."

The number of breweries in the state has ballooned from about a dozen a decade ago to nearly 30 today, as sales of and demand for local craft beer boomed, according to the association.

Growth has been particularly explosive over the last five years, with the industry expanding at a 35 percent rate annually, Smith said. The industry now employs 375 people in brewery operations statewide.

One of the fastest-growing producers has been Evolution, which in 2012 moved its brewery from Delaware to Salisbury, where Knorr and his brother Tom operate five restaurants. Knorr said the brewery has grown at a 50 percent rate each year since it opened in 2009 and now occupies 30,000 square feet in the Eastern Shore city's downtown.

Evolution's problem, Knorr said, is that it is growing so fast that by late 2015 or early 2016 it will bump up against the legally imposed maximum production level of 22,500 barrels for a producer with a brewpub license. The Knorrs, backed by the brewers association, want lawmakers to raise that limit — adopted by the legislature in 1997 — to 60,000 barrels.

"We don't want to see this cap slow us down," Knorr said.

He said his company needs the bill passed this year because obtaining financing to expand the operation and ordering new fermentation tanks could take about 18 months.

The bill would affect all 18 beer producers in the state with brewpub licenses, including the Brewers Art and Oliver Breweries in Baltimore. Smith said Evolution, whose flagship beer is Lot No. 3 India Pale Ale, is the only Maryland brewpub now close to hitting that limit.

Smith said brewpubs in surrounding states are not affected by similar limits on their growth. He and Knorr noted that some of the best-known and widely distributed craft breweries, including Delaware's Dogfish Head, started out as brewpubs.

Knorr said his brewery is limited to selling 4,000 barrels a year through one of its restaurants — a cap he is not seeking to raise. The rest, he said, is marketed through wholesalers, including sales to his chain's four other restaurants.

That's why the opposition of the state's beer wholesalers' association puzzles him.

"We just want to sell more beer to our distributors, but our distributors are against us — or their lobby," Knorr said.

But Nicholas G. Manis, lobbyist for the Maryland Beer Wholesalers Association, said that if the Knorrs want to expand, they should sell their restaurants and convert their brewpub permit into a full-fledged brewery license.

"At some point, you have to decide if you want to be a brewer or a restaurant," Manis said.

Some senators on the panel expressed misgivings about raising the cap but Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, scoffed at the wholesalers' reasoning.

"I don't know why we should put chains around them and say you can't grow," he said.

Pinksy is the lead sponsor of the other bill the brewers association considers vital — letting Maryland breweries sample and sell their wares at farmers' markets in the same way the state's wineries have been able to do since similar legislation passed for them last year.

Benesch, who founded the Union Craft brewery with two partners in an old mill building in June 2012, said the brewery employs 11 people now and hopes to reach 20 by the end of the year.

Duckpin Pale Ale is the best known of the 18 beers his company makes, Benesch said. He'd like to show them off in such places as the Saturday farmers' market in Waverly and the Sunday downtown market, as well as others throughout the state.

"It's a way of outreach for us to introduce our beer and our brand to people who wouldn't otherwise wouldn't visit us at the brewery or go out to bars and restaurants," Benesch said.Liquor distributors also oppose this bill.

Jack Milani, owner of Monaghan's Pub in Woodlawn, a legislative director of the licensed beverage association, said the bill would let brewers sell their products at too many events. Pinksy offered to amend the bill to cap the number a brewery can attend.

Smith said he's worried that "special interests" could block the higher cap for brewpubs but thinks there's a good chance for a deal on the other measure.

"I think with the farmers' market bill, there's plenty of room for negotiation and compromise," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com