Independent Brewing Co. aims to become a community hub

For Harford Magazine
The making of Bel Air's first brewery: how years of planning will create a community hub.

It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Harford County, and after a bike ride or stroll on the Ma & Pa Trail, you get thirsty. Thanks to Phillip Rhudy, soon there will be something you can do to quench that thirst.

The Fallston resident’s new brewery and taproom, Independent Brewing Company, is opening in a former auto shop near the trail.

Rhudy and his business partner, Harry O’Neill, along with a small team of investors, have created a space that’s a showcase for their beer — plus food trucks and live acoustic music — making Independent likely to become one of the area’s go-to spots for a laid-back afternoon or evening.

Independent has about two dozen taps and brews “a little bit of everything,” says Rhudy. “The idea is not to limit ourselves.”

Though Independent will offer something for every beer lover, personally, Rhudy enjoys experimenting with IPAs, and his favorite style of beer is Belgian farmhouse ale.

“I really like the nuances of the yeast and the wheat,” he says. “It’s a very creative style with a lot of flexibility.”

That ability to be creative is much of what fuels his interest in the brewing process. “That’s the fun of what I do,” he says. “I look at chefs, having the ability to go to the market and cook based on what’s fresh that day. That’s how I look at brewing. I want to utilize the ingredients that are available.”

To do that, Rhudy is structuring Independent as a “farm-to-glass” brewery, using locally grown ingredients whenever possible. Independent has partnered with Hawks Meadow Farm in Whiteford, which has planted 12 acres of malting barley. Independent uses the barley to make beer, then returns the unused portion of the plant, the “brewer’s grains,” to the farm, which uses them to feed livestock.

“It’s a circle,” says Brenda Maresh of Hawks Meadow. “It all stays within the county and is helpful to the environment. The brewer’s grains are excellent sources of microorganisms for the livestock.”

Rhudy is also encouraging local farmers to grow hops. “We want to do as much farm-to-glass as we can,” he says. “We’re an agricultural community in Harford County, so this is important for me and tied into making [Independent] a part of the community.”

For Rhudy, the path to opening Independent began years ago, in the late 1980s, when he started making beer at home. He says brewing tapped into his affinity for science, and he loved the community that developed around the hobby.

Rhudy was more experimental than the average home brewer, he says, eschewing kits and extracts for all-grain brewing in large quantities.

“I was learning a lot about the ingredients and what they contributed to the flavor profile,” he says. “I brewed nonstop and was able to hone my understanding of the ingredients, their complexities and how they play together.”

For a previous job in sales, which Rhudy started in 2007, he traveled all over the country; during those trips, he made a point of visiting locally owned breweries and brewpubs.

“I would seek out breweries, sample their wares, check out their aesthetics,” he says.

After a year or two of casual visits, Rhudy started doing research in earnest; as he toured other breweries, he made notes about what he liked best and what he might incorporate into a brewery of his own.

From those visits, Rhudy learned that he should invest in new equipment rather than piece together a secondhand brewing system, even though it would mean higher initial costs. He also took away an appreciation for rustic-industrial interior design and the notion that a brewery could be a central gathering place.

“I spent a lot of time on the West Coast, where the craft beer industry was ahead of us,” he says. “I got to see how the brewery was part of a community. People rode their bikes there, participated in events. Breweries had ties to the community with fundraising. I really liked that vibe.”

Rhudy’s next steps included joining several brewing associations and completing brewing courses at the internationally acclaimed Siebel Institute’s World Brewing Academy. During his trips, he started spending time with brewery owners, asking questions and observing how their businesses work.

During those years, craft brewing was an industry poised for explosion. According to the Brewers Association, craft brewing was a $19.6 billion industry in the U.S. in 2014. Last year, 3,418 craft breweries produced more than 22.2 million barrels of beer, up from 1,521 breweries producing 8.5 million barrels of beer in 2008.

With 40 craft breweries operating in 2014, Maryland is solidly in the middle of the pack; California has the most breweries, with 431. Since Rhudy became interested in opening a craft brewery, state laws have changed significantly; his plans have evolved with each new law.

“In March of 2013, there was legislation proposed in the General Assembly that would change the craft beer industry [in Maryland] so the model I saw on the West Coast could work here,” he says. This included legislation that made it legal for “Class 5 breweries” to sell their beer directly to consumers for on-site consumption and allowed for sales of beer in growlers.

With that new flexibility in the legal landscape, Rhudy shifted into high gear, looking for a location for his brewery — and for investors. He met his business partner, Harry O’Neill, through a volunteer coaching gig.

O’Neill, a Forest Hill resident, is the founder and president of Beacon Environmental Services, a soil gas surveying and monitoring company located in Forest Hill. Though the two businesses are very different, Rhudy says O’Neill’s general business acumen has made him a great partner; Rhudy knows beer, and O’Neill knows business.

“He’s a very smart businessman,” says Rhudy. “He brings a lot of what I don’t have to the table.”

Like Rhudy, O’Neill sees community involvement as a key piece of the new brewery.

“I think it’s a great business for the renewal of that area of Main Street,” he says. “We have some great places already, but this is another one. And it’s near the Ma & Pa Trail and near businesses like The Mill. We plan to partner with them on events.”

During the planning process, the Independent Brewing team faced some challenges. Though Rhudy knew he would need to apply for multiple licenses, that the space needed to be rezoned, and that construction could be time-consuming, the process took longer and was more complicated than he originally anticipated.

“Everyone has been very supportive of this project,” he says. “But the setbacks were unexpected costs. The biggest challenges were in the building part of the business.”

Early in the process, Rhudy ran into issues related to water usage, as the brewery will use more water than the auto body shop formerly located in the building. Navigating county and state limitations and regulations added unexpected delays and expenses to the project.

“It’s been a challenge,” Rhudy says. But his commitment to the concept hasn’t wavered. “The sky’s the limit for what we can do. The idea is that people can come in, hang out and spend the day. People can ride their bikes or walk and with the outside patio, we can have dogs. It’s really cool.”

Another benefit of the space is that it’s in an area where food trucks can operate, says Rhudy. Though an early plan for Independent included a full kitchen, the final iteration relies largely on food trucks for snacks to complement the beer.

That the area is ripe for revitalization was a side benefit, one recognized by the town. “It’s good for the community,” says Patricia Heidenreich, director of the Economic Development Department of Bel Air. “They’re revitalizing an area of Bel Air and Main Street that has been somewhat dormant for a few years.” Heidenreich hopes other local businesspeople will follow Rhudy’s example, setting up shop near the brewery.

As an avid bicycler, Rhudy liked the idea of choosing a location where people could easily walk or bike; the spot he found, near the Ma & Pa Trail, helps realize that vision. He also liked that the building had the sort of “quirky, rustic-industrial vibe” he’d admired in some West Coast breweries.

With a cool metal-and-wood interior and welcoming outdoor space where people can hang out, drink a few good beers, grab food and even listen to live acoustic music, Independent Brewing draws from the best of the West Coast spots Phil Rhudy visited during his travels. He has set the stage. But it’s the community — the people of Harford County who will come out for the beer, food and music — that he’ll need to really bring Rhudy’s vision to life. 

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