Friends Kasey Turner and Justin Bonner had high-powered, top-paying jobs running companies in Howard County for many years, but something was missing.
Bonner, the former CEO and managing partner of a government contracting company in Elkridge, said, "I loved my company and was making obscene money, but I wasn't happy. I felt I'd be stupid to leave all of the money, but government contracting was not on my list of 'What do to you want to be when you grow up?' "
Turner was a minority partner in a high-tech firm in Columbia, where he also made a big salary, but once it was sold to a large conglomerate, he didn't have the freedom he formerly had and said, "I felt trapped."
Bonner was a wine connoisseur and considered buying land for a winery, but decided that Maryland's soil and the amount of rain here was not the best to produce the quality of grapes he envisioned.
It was when the two friends went to a craft brewery conference in D.C. and began visiting local breweries that the light bulb went off. They "fell in love with the culture," Bonner said.
Turner added, "We saw nothing but happy folks doing their jobs in the breweries and we wanted that."
They have it now as owners and managers of the Jailbreak Brewing Co., the county's only production brewery. Located on the Howard County side of Laurel, the one-year-old brewery is tucked away in a 15,000-square-foot space in an office park on Route 1.
Jailbreak has a state-of-the-art brewing operation, which customers can see through a glass wall behind the bar in the tasting room, that's open to the public Wednesday through Saturday. They'll add Sundays when the regular football season begins.
The duo said they picked Laurel for their brewery because of its potential customer base and because they wanted to stay in Howard County, but mainly because of Laurel's water.
"The water quality is better here because it has less chlorine and we don't have to filter it as much to make our beers," Turner said.
They don't actually make the beers themselves. They tried it a couple of times and said they were not good at it, so the two initially considered sending Turner's wife to brewery school for the business. She was an industrial engineer and a good cook, a combination they thought was perfect for the culinary-based types of beers they wanted to produce. But before that happened, they met a brewmaster from a well-known brewery.
"He said he might leave his job and we asked him if he wanted to work for us and he said, 'I thought you'd never ask,' " Turner said. "This was going to be a side business for me, but I decided then to quit my job and be here full time. So, Justin and I both broke out of jail, our jobs, to do this."
Thus, the name Jailbreak.
Turner and Bonner spared no expense, $2.1 million of their own money, in designing the kind of brewery they wanted — a place that manufactures beer for retailers and restaurants and a spot where people can have a beer in a taproom or buy a growler to take home. A change in local laws last year allowed them to do this at Jailbreak.
"The county passed a law to allow brewers like us to sell pints and growlers in our taproom, but we still can't sell you a keg," Turner said. "We can sell you a case, but that's it in Maryland."
Jailbreak's eight full-time and five part-time employees spend five days each week producing draft beers. A double IPA called the Big Punisher is their No. 1 seller. According to Turner, it takes them two weeks to make a beer. He said they don't use artificial ingredients in their beers and most are vegan and certified kosher.
"Only three of our beers aren't kosher because we use milk and sugar in them. We use mainly regional, fresh ingredients. We get our apple cider from Frederick, our coffee from a roaster in Annapolis and honey from Lancaster. You'll see us chopping fruits, jalapenos and vegetables here," he said.
"The difference in a good burger is fresh ingredients," Bonner added. "A lot of breweries don't want to invest the time and expense in using fresh ingredients and use dehydrated fruits and dried ingredients, but we don't."
Keith Kline, of Columbia, who came in last week to refill his growlers, said he loves Jailbreak's culinary-inspired beers and has several favorites, including one he didn't think he'd like.
"I don't like spicy food, but their jalapeno IPA is great and doesn't burn my mouth, but is balanced," Kline said. "They do a great job in mixing the flavors so they are not overpowering. The honey apple is great and their basil beer is different, but nice."
Kline said he also comes in to enjoy the ambience of the taproom, which is usually crowded. On a weeknight last month, the taproom, which looks like a renovated warehouse, was packed with customers.
"It's very nice and so easy to forget you're in a tasting room," said Jessie Newburn, who organized a tour of the brewery's operation, which are by appointment, for a group of local bloggers.
"We put a lot of money in the taproom. Other brewers who've been around a while didn't because under the old laws, they couldn't sell their beers in it, so it would've been a waste of money," Bonner said.
Just inside the taproom's front door, Todd Kellner, of Mt. Airy, played shuffleboard and sampled one of the nine beers served at the bar while celebrating his 40th birthday.
"This [taproom] is much nicer and bigger than others I've been to. I really like the vibe and atmosphere and have you seen the cool sinks in the bathroom," he said.
Since most beer drinkers like to have a bite to eat to go along with their brew, rotating food trucks offer are parked in the parking lot. Customers can buy meals outside to bring inside.
Currently, Jailbreak beers are in 150 restaurants and liquor stores statewide. They plan to offer canned beers in September, with a canning company's operation onsite in an adjacent leased space. Although Turner and Bonner do not expect to make a profit for another six months, they said they have no regrets.
"I made millions working 30 hours a week and now I drive sometimes 1,000 miles marketing our beers in a 90-hour week and make no money, but I love it," Bonner said.
Turner added, "Our five-year goal is to be Maryland's brewery, not its largest, but the one that people come to because they're passionate about our beers."