Last month, just two establishments in Maryland were honored as “Top Places to Have a Beer in the World” by the crowd-sourced RateBeer.com annual survey. Max’s Taphouse in Baltimore and State Line Liquors in Elkton made the cut, which makes sense, as both are hallowed Free State beer grounds for aficionados. I caught up with the owners of both businesses by phone while they were coincidentally on separate and simultaneous vacations in Florida earlier this month. The traits these businesses share, such as family and dedication to the craft scene, are the underpinnings of their success.
"I'm so proud of my staff when those accolades come out," said Ron Furman, owner of Max's, from Ponte Vedra, Florida. "I'm like a father talking about his kid hitting a home run." This isn't the only honor Max's Taphouse has received recently—Rate Beer currently lists it as the #23 bar in the world and it's one of only two Maryland bars in Draft Magazine's January 2015 Top 100. Now in its 29th year of operation, Max's has served as a mecca for local beer lovers to sample the newest releases from breweries all over the world. Furman has every right to compare himself to a proud dad, as he has a corps of employees who have been with the Taphouse for an average of more than 10 years. That's a lifetime in the hospitality industry.
"I could never have done this by myself. The knowledge of and love for the beers my staff serves has always been the secret," Furman said. For example, general manager Casey Hard, in his 16 years at Max's, has helped to build the bar from a 500-bottle collection to more than 2,000 titles, added five beer engines to pump cask brew, and amped up the number of different beers on tap to 102. Hard is also the organizer behind the Belgian Beer Fest, which had its 11th installment last weekend. He "took a chance 11 years ago" and now, Hard said, "it's the biggest and best Belgian Beer Festival in the United States."
State Line Liquors
Granting an award for a great place in the world to have a beer to a liquor store only sounds weird if you've never been to State Line Liquors. It's less of liquor store and more of a 17,000-square-foot theme park. The Murray family of Elkton has had a controlling interest in the store since 1935, and in addition to an amazing array of nonmalt beverages—think 50 different brands of mead for sale—they sell more than 3,000 different beers and serve 25 draft brews. State Line Liquors was also recently recognized as the #3 Bottle Shop in the U.S. by RateBeer.com.
Co-owner/beer guru Robert Murray started working at the family business during high school when the store had only one cold case for imports and one door for crafts. "I loved beer and I needed my place in the store, a niche, so I told my family that craft is where the customers are headed. I'm glad I guessed right," he said on the phone while on vacation in Key West. The longtime employees at Max's may make it feel like a family there, but many of the staff at State Line are actually blood relatives, with at least two generations of the Murray family continually working there over its 80 years.
With customers from all over the Mid-Atlantic, including this writer, Murray's familial closeness extends to his customers as well. "When I go down to Max's, I have customers coming up to me all the time from Baltimore and D.C. I know them and they know us," Murray said. All the praise for Murray does put the pressure on for the future. "Wow. Now I've got to be really good," he joked.