Despite a growing number of brew pubs and alehouses, Howard County is without a commercial microbrewery.
That's about to change.
"Howard County is kind of primed for this," said Kasey Turner, co-owner of Jailbreak Brewing Company, one of two microbreweries planning to open in the county in 2014.
Turner, 32, and his business partner Justin Bonner, 35, both of Crownsville, are racing against Columbia resident Matthew Levine of Black-Eyed Susan Brewing to see who will open the county's first commercial microbrewery.
"There's a whole community of folks who want to have good beer, but right now if you want a local beer you have to go to Flying Dog (in Frederick) or Clipper City (in Baltimore)," said Levine, who has signed a lease for 22,500 square feet of space off Snowden River Parkway in Columbia.
Jailbreak, which has signed a lease for a 10,000-square foot property on U.S. 1 in North Laurel, has tapped brewer Ryan Harvey from the Delaware-based Dogfish Head to run the operation, which is scheduled to open Feb. 1.
Levine, 32, who declined to identify his brewer because of his current employment, is targeting a February or March opening.
The businesses are made possible by a recent amendment to the county's zoning law that was passed by the County Council this summer. The change allows mass production of alcohol in industrial zones, which was previously prohibited.
Turner and Bonner, who began pursuing the business in April, said Jailbreak was close to purchasing space in Baltimore County prior to the zoning change, but that the Howard County government's willingness to work with them to amend the law prompted them to stay.
"Howard County bent over backward to get us here, and we were appreciative of that," Bonner said.
For Levine, a Columbia resident of eight years, it was Howard County or bust.
"This was the time to bring this to Columbia," Levine said. "We are going in Howard County to stay in Howard County."
While Howard County does not yet have a commercial microbrewery focused solely on distribution, it does have a local craft brewer in Ellicott Mills Brewing Company, which brews beer on site for its restaurant on Main Street in Ellicott City. Ellicott Mills also sells growlers of beer in addition to kegs.
The county also has a growing population of alehouses and brew pubs that include Ale House Columbia, Pub Dog and the Frisco Tap House & Brewery. And then there's Victoria's Gastro Pub off of Snowden River Parkway, which hosts a beer club and is exploring opening a farm brewery, another first for the county.
"Between the regular microbreweries and the farm brewery, we may have three breweries in Howard County before too long," said Marsha McLaughlin, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning.
And although Black-Eyed Susan and Jailbreak are in competition, it is not adversarial.
"The more craft breweries, the more awareness there is," Levine said. "Craft beer has become the new wave, and both of us are going though this together."
"We firmly believe a high tide raises all boats," said Turner. "If we can convince people to switch from Budwesier to craft brew, then they will try our beer and they will try Matt's beer."
In fact, the two ventures share a lot of similarities, starting with Levine, Turner and Bonner all having professional experience in the technology field.
All three also began as home brewers who, following separate trips to the west coast, were inspired to take their pet projects to the next level.
In March, Bonner and Turner, who had been home brewing for a few months, attended a craft brewers convention in Las Vegas that opened their eyes.
"To be honest with you, I never thought a convention of all things would change my life," Bonner said. "But I knew right away this was for me."
Both Turner and Bonner have experience running businesses and are completely self-funded, which they say makes them unique in the craft brew market.
Levine's epiphany came on a trip to Seattle last September his wife, Susan. However, the couple didn't decide to launch the family business until January, right around the time Susan found out she was pregnant with their second child. While some may say its bad timing to start a small business, which Levine said includes taking out loans in excess of $1 million, the Levines don't see it that way.
"It'll be neat to the tell the story," Levine said smiling.
Both companies also plan on building a tap room at the brewery that will serve as a tasting area for guests. Both also plan on distributing in Maryland first, and hope to get tap space at many local restaurants.
The companies do have their differences, too. Jailbreak expects to output approximately 2,500 barrels in its first year, while Levine said Black-Eyed Susan is shooting for between 4,000 and 6,000. Each will employ a unique marketing strategy.
Levine said he wants his brewery to be family-friendly. He's even explored making specialty soda for his tap room so parents don't feel that have to leave their kids behind when they visit.
"We don't want people not to come check us out just because they have kids," said Levine. "We want to make it community-friendly."
For Jailbreak, the name says it all, as Bonner and Turner hope to tap into consumer's desire to escape.
Bonner said the name was born from a late-night conversation between Turner and himself while Bonner was still the CEO of Norseman Defense Technologies based in Elkridge.
"I told Kasey, 'I feel like I'm in prison here. I need to get out,' " said Bonner, who left the company in April.
"Our slogan is 'the art of escape.' The art is our beer, and the escape is what we are trying to provide."