Carroll County microbrewery celebrates two-year anniversary

It started with a home beer-brewing kit — a gift to contractor Henry Ruhlman from his sons, Matt, Daniel and Michael.

Dad was notoriously difficult to shop for, and since he was always interested in the culinary conception of things like bread and popcorn, the present seemed to fit.

Six years later, that small batch endeavor has turned into a serious business venture for the Ruhlman clan.

The Ruhlman Brewery, located on Creeping Creek Farm in Hampstead, celebrates its two-year anniversary this month.

The site also features a concert area that hosts music every Saturday night, a catch-and-release fishing pond and a 19-hole disc golf course where patrons can enjoy their latest liquid purchase while playing.

It is becoming more of a destination for those driving through the rolling hills of northern Carroll County who have stumbled upon the brewery and more than 1,600 hop plants ready for production once ripe.

The business is growing by the day, as more residents find out about the collection of libations available.

"Being here on my father's farm, I didn't think I'd ever have a brewery," Henry Ruhlman said. "Everybody was very supportive of me."

Henry Ruhlman, who still works full-time at his contracting company, H E Ruhlman Construction Inc., admits he originally didn't know anything about growing hops, or even the differences between types of brews in general.

Working on his father's farm, Henry Ruhlman's job was to tend to the hogs. During the summer, the slop in the pen would ferment in the sun, creating the scent of stale light beer that often turned his stomach.

"My father, when I was growing up, never really drank hardly any beer at all," said his son, Matt, a West Middle School math teacher. "I went to college, and learned about beer. I found out that there are lots of different flavors of beer out there. When I came home, I let my dad try some."

Matt's beer collection and interest in the variety of styles began to rub off on his father. Before long, the smell that once made his father nauseous soon became part of his every day hobby.

"The beer has just been an extension of his other creative talents with food," Matt Ruhlman said, "and it's worked out well."

Today, 12 different beers are sold under the Our Ales umbrella. The company currently sells to eight liquor stores in Carroll County, and 12 bars and restaurants in Washington, D.C. They also sell out of a retail store located on the property.

While his dad sticks to brewing and troubleshooting, Matt's duties include research and development, as well as spreading the word about Carroll County's newest brewer.

The name Our Ales is derived from their pride in the local ingredients they use to brew their beers. "We use our water and our hops," Matt Ruhlman said, "so they are Our Ales."

The company bottles everything from stouts to a lager, as well as a variety of ales and even an India pale ale on occasion. A recent crack at a mint chocolate stout using fresh mint from the garden has also been successful.

The Ruhlmans claim that experimenting with different flavor profiles and combinations has been one of the best parts of the job.

"It's amazing the amount of math and science that goes into brewing," Matt Ruhlman said. "It's truly a science."

The company joins Westminster establishments Johansson's Dining House and Dog Brewing Co. as the only licensed brewers in the county.

Name recognition has proven to be a constant challenge.

"The toughest part that I didn't realize was trying to get it out into the market," Henry Ruhlman said. "I figured people would want to jump on having something local in their store."

Many establishments in the county have shied away from carrying the product as Henry Ruhlman was told there was just not enough shelf space available take a chance on something their customers may not buy into.

Last year, Westminster's Buffalo Wild Wings location invited Ruhlman to a tasting with the prospect of taking on his product. While those representing the restaurant enjoyed the beer, they couldn't take the risk of carrying it full time.

Ruhlman did his research before entering the business. From what other brewers told him, it takes a few years before any money starts coming back in. "I'm not one to give up easy," he added.

Johansson's brewer Jay Lampart, still a pastry chef by day, knows just how difficult it is to get into the industry, especially in Carroll County.

"I had stars in my eyes when I first started," said Lampart, who is in his ninth year with Johansson's. "Even when you do make it, and you break through that initial capital barrier, I don't think it's much. It's becoming increasingly difficult to set yourself apart in this market."

Lampart said those challenges even reach to Johansson's, which has been in the food business since 1994, brewing its own beer almost since the beginning.

Still, Hampstead and Manchester-area stores have started to show interest in the beer — partly because they were familiar with the family and also thanks to many area customers who have clamored for it.

The progress in distribution and production has been a potential indicator of success to come. In 2013, the brewery produced 150 barrels, which equates to about 4,650 gallons of the stuff. This year, the company is on track to double that number.

"More and more people are finding out about us, and that's how I judge how we're doing," Henry Ruhlman said. "We have about a 50 percent increase in our repeat customers."

The Ruhlmans expected the slow start in this business. It's all part of their five-year plan.

According to that plan, the company should finally climb out of the red by the end of 2014, making what was once just an activity that family members did together in their spare time into an actual lucrative enterprise.

"I always dreamed of having a brewery. I always dreamed of having a disc golf course," Matt Ruhlman said. "I never believed I'd have either.

"By the way things happen, sometimes you just go ahead and things work out for you."

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