When Roy Fisher visited a friend in Asheville, N.C., in 2014, the Hamilton native was shocked by the quirky mountain town's wealth of craft breweries. For five days, he and some buddies sipped flavorful beers in the sun among friendly strangers.
"You could just see the local support for them. No one was stepping on each other's toes. No one was criticizing their next door neighbors. It was just a sense of community," Fisher recalled recently. "It was the impetus to push this thing forward."
That "thing" is the Waverly Brewing Company, the (despite its name) Hampden brewery that opened in late November. The operation produces a rotating cast of nine beers so far, but it is small, and a trip to the brewery is usually required to actually taste the products (with two nearby exceptions: The Food Market and Colette). With a modest production setup of four fermenters and two conditioning tanks, Fisher is simply making all that he can.
"I am selling everything we make," Fisher, now a Parkville resident, said. "We've got to get more tanks before we actually put it out in [more] restaurants and bars."
Fisher, 44, can see such developments happening sooner than later, but he's been more than pleased with the brand's humble entry into the local market. And although Waverly Brewing Company's ownership team consists of Fisher and six other friends-turned-partners, he has become the face of the operation — not because he's thirsty for the spotlight, but because without Fisher, there is no beer or brand.
In 1991, the future headbrewer was a Towson University freshman living in his parents' Hamilton home. As a bookstore employee trying to help pay for school, Fisher came across Charlie Papazian's seminal how-to, "The Joy of Home Brewing." The first batch brewed on his parents' stove proved Fisher, like countless homebrewers before, was no natural.
"I remember my mom got mad that I stunk up her drapes and scented the whole house with hops," Fisher said. "I'm pretty sure it was undrinkable but we drank it anyway."
Over time and much practice, his skills improved, especially after 2000, when his son was born and Fisher had more time at home. (Translation: "I was able to brew more often," he said.) He'd brew 10 gallons for a cookout and hear rave reviews, but it was still a hobby for Fisher, who had more than 15 years of experience as a software tester.
That changed two years ago, when Waverly Brewing Company finally began in earnest when a group of friends — including Fisher and Bill Stevenson (owner of Waverly Color Company, the Hampden shop selling tattoo inks) — called an informal meeting. Naturally, Fisher was responsible for supplying the refreshments.
"They said, 'You should bring your beers,'" Fisher, who soon after quit his job, said. "I think I brought six beers, and we just sat there and drank them, and I talked about them. All of a sudden, we were looking for a spot."
(Fisher called Stevenson's business something of "a sister company," hence the Waverly name. "Is it odd? Yeah, it's a little weird being in Hampden/Woodbery and being [named] Waverly, but it rolls off the tongue OK.")
The spot, located across the street from Artifact Coffee, is worth checking out as soon as possible, as I learned on a recent weekday trip to the Hampden brewery and taproom. Before breaking down some of the beers, I must emphasize one point: the taproom is worth the visit alone. Most taprooms I've visited feel like after-thoughts to the brewery, like minimally decorated spaces more appropriate for polite souvenir browsing than hanging out with a beer.
At Waverly Brewing Company, the taproom's cool-yet-cozy design — recycled woods and materials all over the place, eclectic art and textures on the wall, a bar area with seating and a large TV for the game — felt more comfortable than some sports bars.
At "The Shed," the taproom's nickname, six to eight Waverly beers are offered on draft. (Almost all cost $5 or $6 each, with an occasional higher exception made for stronger beers.)
The American Pale Ale O'Bay provided a lemony finish that had me daydreaming of summer, while the Turnbuckle, an American Brown Ale, tasted nutty, smooth and appropriate for the current colder temperatures. For the craft-beer beginner, the Golden Sombrero Blonde Ale goes down like an easy domestic, but with enough flavor to still feel like a new experience. That slightly sweet finish? It's agave nectar.
There's more to come, according to the headbrewer. (Fisher works regularly alongside "Big" Greg McGrath, Waverly Brewing Company's other brewer.) Aside from new beer flavors, which he's always tinkering with, Fisher hopes to start canning Waverly beers in the future. He's also excited to utilize fresh produce from local farmers in new recipes. The company's first lager is on the way, too.
What isn't changing is Fisher's guiding principle — the one that crystallized after the fateful drinking tour around Asheville. For years, Fisher wanted a hangout where friends and strangers could bond over "non-hoity-toity beers." He and his partners now have one.
"We're trying to make the best beer possible, and make it accessible," Fisher said. "We just want to be a beer destination."