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Travel Bay & Beach

Brewers aim to add Eastern Shore to craft-beer map

Just because you're on vacation at the shore doesn't mean every drink has to come with a tiny beach umbrella. Pitch the slushy or cosmopolitan, and think more along the lines of craft.

Craft beer, that is.

For a long time, beer drinkers lacked choices beyond "light or dark?" But the increasingly popular craft beer movement has expanded in imbibers' minds the possibilities for beer. Independent microbreweries have existed for years, but America's growing appreciation of small-batch, handcrafted products — and their never-quenched love of beer — seem to signal that this trend is not going away.

And going to the beach doesn't mean you need to miss out on the action.

In recent years, beer fans on the Eastern Shore have established new companies to create never-before-tasted products in their own backyards. The popular Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales in Delaware is only one option.

Here's a sampling of some breweries in and around Ocean City:

Backshore Brewing Company
913 Atlantic Ave., Ocean City, 443-373-1224, facebook.com/backshore

Danny Robinson grew up in New York, but he knew from an early age he had to live in Ocean City. Each year, he and his family would pack up the station wagon to visit his aunt and uncle, who owned a small hotel on the boardwalk.

His family also taught him the power of a fine product. On trips to Europe to see relatives as a child, Robinson would smuggle olive oil and cheese on the airplane ride home.

"I saw the value of homemade, handcrafted items," Robinson said. "It was always ingrained into me: 'Yeah, you can get this stuff anywhere, but the stuff that's homegrown and homemade ... there's huge value in that.' "

In May 2013, Robinson combined his two loves when he turned a former ice cream shop next to his boardwalk bar, Hammerheads on the Beach, into the Backshore Brewery. (It was formerly known as Shorebilly Brewing Company until an existing company forced Robinson to change it.) Now patrons can take a seat, order a beer and watch brewmaster Adam Davis at work.

While Backshore makes six types of beer, the flagship is its Boardwalk Blonde Ale. Robinson calls it a "gateway beer," a light brew for consumers used to the usual domestic light lagers. The drinkability of the Boardwalk Blonde Ale makes it familiar but distinct enough to lead consumers to Backshore's more adventurous beers, such as the Downtown Sugar Brown Ale.

Backshore will begin distributing kegs to local bars for the first time this year. But the ultimate goal, Robinson said, is to show off his love of Ocean City in the final product. All Backshore employees left jobs and loved ones behind, he said, to live at the beach, and it's that same intoxicating allure that drives the company.

"None of us regret [relocating]," he said. "Not everybody can do that, but if you can do it for five minutes while you're drinking one of our beers and feel like you're a part of it, then that's what we love."

Fin City Brewing Company
12913 Ocean Gateway, Ocean City, 410-213-1771, fincitybrewing.com

Standing inside the loft of Hooper's Crab House, Fin City Brewing Company co-owner Michael Glavich is surrounded by beer-production equipment. Although Fin City is entering only its third year of production, Glavich and the company have plenty celebrate. Fin City has distribution throughout the state and BeerAdvocate magazine ("the Bible of craft beers," he said) recently gave Fin City its first national review (and a positive one at that).

But for Glavich, the driving force behind Fin City is much simpler.

"Our thing is crafting well-balanced beers because we come from a restaurant background, and we want stuff that's satiable and balanced, that won't overpower food and won't overpower you on alcohol percentage," Glavich said. "We want you to sit out and enjoy a few as you eat crabs and enjoy your time on the water."

While Fin City produces five types of beer regularly, Glavich said it is best known for Captain Jack's Pumpkin Ale, which is only made in the fall. But White Marlin Pale Ale, a Fin City flagship beer, continues to gain popularity.

"It's catching on. It's getting picked up by a lot of dock bars across the state," he said. "It's a really easy-drinking, light, citrus-y beer. It really does well in the summer."

Although the company is young, Fin City is technically the oldest craft brewery in Ocean City. Glavich has watched the industry expand quickly in the area — a development he says can only be a good thing, so long as the beers remain a high quality.

"If we can create a little mecca where people can come to — because we have a strong community of great brewers and great beers — then we can be a destination point for the craft scene," Glavich said.

Tall Tales Brewing Company
6929 Heron Grove Court, Parsonsburg, 410-543-2739, talltalesbrew.com

After he graduated from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, Jimmy Sharp and his wife visited Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery. The Wicomico County native was a "Bud Light" type of guy until he tried Dogfish's 120 Minute IPA that day.

"It just blew my mind. I had no idea beer could be that way," Sharp said. "On the way home, she stopped by the local homebrew store and bought me a homebrewing kit and said, 'Now you're going to make that.' "

Eight years later, Sharp is the head brewer at Tall Tales, a craft beer company that began in 2011 in this small town off U.S. 50 in the middle of the Shore. Hired in March, Sharp made his mission clear on a dry-erase board on his first day.

"It said, 'Things to Do,' and I just [wrote], 'Make great beer,' " Sharp said. "That's as simple as it is. I want it to be consistent."

Tall Tales brews eight types of beer year-round. Two local favorites are the Red Headed Step Child Irish red ale — a dark but surprisingly light beer that has a little more malt than a Killian's Irish Red — and Some Beach Island Ale, a "citrus-y" blonde ale that is a summer hit.

Natalie Matthews, Tall Tales general manager, said she has especially noticed the rise of craft beer's popularity among women who come to the brewery (which is also restaurant).

"We have middle-aged ladies come in that are like, 'No, I just like wine,' " Matthews said. "I get them tasting the beer, and now it's just a big thing. They'll tell me how instead of visiting wineries, they're visiting breweries as well."

Growth, ultimately, drives Sharp and the Tall Tales team. He does not see the craft beer movement as a fad but as a sustainable market that will continue to expand and find new fans.

"There's something for everyone, truly," Sharp said. "There is a beer being made that you will like; you just have to find it."

Burley Oak Brewing Company
10016 Old Ocean City Blvd., Berlin, 443-513-4647, burleyoak.com

A week before Christmas 2009, Bryan Brushmiller lost his job in construction. As he searched for new employment, the Salisbury University alum concentrated on a hobby — beer brewing. His skills improved, and soon enough, Brushmiller took a second mortgage on his house to create Burley Oak Brewing Company in 2011. With the plunge taken, his hobby was now his career.

Since then, Burley Oak, without investors, has become one of the most trusted craft beer names in the area. (Talking to other brewers, it was clear many admire the brand: "Burley Oak has some of the best beers in the country, hands down," said Backshore's Danny Robinson.) Brushmiller attributes the success to high standards.

"Every time we make a decision on what to brew or what to make, it's definitely not based on how much it's going to cost," Brushmiller said. "It's based on being distinctive and making sure it's of the highest quality."

Burley Oak has produced more than 70 different types of beer, Brushmiller said, because "we have ADD." Their beer list is wide-ranging, from Tart Attack (a sour red ale with cherry notes) to Midnight Oil (a strong rye milk stout).

Brushmiller is particularly proud of the tavern, a hangout for local residents that's located in the front of the brewery. Revenue from the bar not only pays employees' salaries but is also used to buy more grains, hops and barrels.

"It's truly a situation of the community supporting us, and we're able to put 'Berlin, Maryland' on all of our products and send it all over Maryland," said Brushmiller, who bikes to work. "It's a great feeling for me."

The goal at Burley Oak is to push the industry in new directions with unique products. Brushmiller knows consumers are used to the cheaper domestic beers, and it is his job to persuade them to gamble on something new.

"If you're going to take the risk and try one of our beers that you've never had before, we want to make sure that $6 or $7 or whatever amount of money you spent on that pint at the bar was worth it," Brushmiller said. "We want you to say, 'I'm glad I took that risk.'"

Brewing soon

The next brewer on the block is Ocean City Brewing Company (5509 Coastal Highway, Ocean City, ocbrewingcompany.com). Owner Joshua Shores said he hopes to begin brewing by June 1. The flagship beers are OC Light and OC Lager, two options he hopes will "compete with the big boys — the Miller Lites and the Budweisers." Ocean City Brewing will produce the types of ales, porters and stouts other craft brewers are known for, so customers will have their choice of 12 to 16 types of beer at any given time at the brewery. Shores' goal is simple: Make Ocean City synonymous with craft beer. "I was born and raised here," Shores said, "so I wanted to build something here."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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