Two friends, Spike Owen and Mike McDonald, co-found Key Brewing Co. in Dundalk. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
After turning the half-century mark, Spike Owen could have indulged in a shiny toy he didn't need.
"I'm 51, he's 48," said Owen, nodding to his friend, Mike McDonald. "This is our midlife crisis. Instead of going out and buying a Corvette, we did this."
"This" is Key Brewing Co., the Dundalk craft beer company Owen and McDonald — two Baltimore transplants who met as Federal Hill neighbors years ago — founded in 2014. After delays, production began in earnest in October. (Two other partners, Ray Schissler and Mark McCaslin, are also involved, but Owen and McDonald are the faces of the company.)
Self-described as "infants" in the craft brewing world, the company is quickly moving forward in its 20,000-square-foot facility, with five styles of beer and a taproom that will open by early September. While the beer is only available at local bars now, Key will also start canning this weekend.
Given their proximity to Fort McHenry, they chose Key as a nod to Francis Scott Key, but also for its simplicity.
"We wanted something to celebrate Maryland without getting too crazy," said Owen, an Alabama native. "The stuff we do isn't esoteric, so we wanted something to fit our style of brewing."
While some craft beer companies look to make a splash by launching with unorthodox flavor combinations, head brewer McDonald said Key's goal was to establish a collection of easily drinkable beers.
"We felt that there wasn't really enough craft beer out there that was approachable for the masses at the time," said McDonald, who grew up in New Jersey. "When I sit down and have a beer, I want to have more than one. So those 10 percent IPAs or those crazy Belgian beers, that's not our thing."
McDonald has had time to think this all through. In the 1980s, he discovered his love of lager in a beer garden with his dad in Germany's Mittenwald during a family trip. Soon after, he began homebrewing.
"When I got back, I told myself, 'It can't be that hard. It's only four ingredients,'" McDonald said.
"It's pretty hard!" McDonald said, with a hearty laugh.
He honed his skills at breweries in New England until he was hired in 1998 as brewmaster at White Marsh's Red Brick Station, where he stayed until starting Key. With more than two decades of brewing experience, McDonald was ready for a new challenge.
In 2011, over drinks with Owen (who had years of hospitality experience with the restaurant group behind Tex-Mex chain Austin Grill), the two hatched a plan for their own brewery.
It took time to launch. In 2012, they purchased a 40-barrel brewhouse and five 40-barrel fermenters, but faced a problem: They didn't have a space big enough to store the sizable equipment.
They bided their time, knowing the craft beer boom was only beginning, and eventually found their home in a remote area on Grays Road. Some say it's technically Edgemere, the owners said, but Key's branding touts Dundalk as its home. Regardless, they're happy here.
"Dundalk is a very proud place, and I think we're helping bring some pride back to Dundalk — not that we're doing it all because we're here," Owen said. "I think the more businesses that come, the more light that gets shined on Dundalk as a pretty cool place to be."
The plan is to introduce local drinkers to their products one pint or can at a time. The line includes Chesapeake Common Lager, Rye Porter, Helles Lager, 10 Lb. Test IPA and Key's flagship beer, On Point Ale. Key beers are currently on tap at bars like MaGerk's Pub in Federal Hill and Mama's on the Half Shell in Canton, among others. The Chesapeake Common and Helles will be available in cans at local liquor stores starting next week.
On my visit last week, the smooth Rye Porter seemed prime for the upcoming fall season, while the eye-catchingly golden Helles Lager — inspired by McDonald's trip to Germany decades ago — instantly transported me to Munich.
"Every time I drink it, I think of sitting in that beer garden with my dad," McDonald said.
On Point, a take on a West Coast-style amber, has a refreshing full body, but won't weigh you down. These beers should satisfy both craft-beer fans and regular macrobrew drinkers looking to widen their palates incrementally.
In the coming months, the plan is to offer regular weekend tours inside the facility and its approximately 2,000-square-foot taproom. These are the next natural steps in a brewery's progression, but Key's owners have greater ambitions, too.
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"Our big picture is to make sure that we take all of our years of experience and put it to good use," Owen said. "I'd like to be all around the world. We don't set any limits."
After 23 years of brewing almost strictly English-style ales for other jobs, McDonald is excited to experiment with new flavors now that Key has its base established. He's driven by a one-word mantra he discovered in college. Flipping through a dictionary as he waited for his girlfriend to finish studying, McDonald saw it: "Supernaculum," a dated slang term they define on business cards as "a beer of outstanding quality; that one would wish to drink to the last drop."
He kept the word in his back pocket, always waiting for the perfect moment to apply his discovery. McDonald hoped to one day use it for his company, not someone else's. In Key, he finally found a place for it. (It's printed on their business cards.)