Special-release foods and beer abound at Baltimore events

For The Baltimore Sun
Want to try the most exclusive products on the Baltimore food and beer scenes? Head to local events.

For the crowds that flock to Druid Hill Park on Saturday for the Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival, the music isn't the only draw. Concertgoers will be the first — and possibly only — customers to try a new ice cream flavor and beer.

The Charmery, a Hampden ice cream shop, will be scooping (Blue)berry Lemon(grass), a summery flavor whose name is a nod to the music. At the same time, Union Craft Brewing, based in Woodberry, will be pouring drafts of Country Boy Wit, a Belgian-style wheat beer flavored with coriander, orange and lemon peel, named as "an homage to Ricky Skaggs, though he doesn't drink," according to festival co-founder Philip Chorney. (Skaggs is a festival headliner, and "Country Boy" was his ninth No. 1 country hit.)

The Folk & Bluegrass Festival isn't the only local event with signature fare. At Thursday's BSO Pulse concert with The Lone Bellow, fans can try Dangerously Delicious Pies' Jack and Blue, a flavor created in partnership with Jack Daniels and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In July, customers can get a signature cupcake from Cakes Plus at the Trifecta Food Truck Festival. And many will remember Heavy Seas Beer's Stoop Sitter, which premiered at Baltimore Beer Week in collaboration with other local brewers.

Creating limited-release, event-specific products is a move that's increasingly common for local food and beverage companies. It's a strategy that sparks creativity and is good for business, according to the producers, allowing them to create a buzz and test products in small batches.

"There are a couple of really good reasons why this works," said John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and editor of the Journal of Food Products Marketing. "If you were Anheuser-Busch, a small run of beer would be enough for the entire state of Maryland. So one of the advantages of a small company is ... making something special and it’s not that much more expensive to do that, and people will actually get to taste and see your brand."

Union Craft has been making beers for the Bluegrass & Folk Festival since 2013, when the brewery hosted the inaugural event. To Union Craft co-founder Jon Zerivitz and his partners, it just made sense to create a beer tailored to the event.

"We were relatively new and had the capacity to do those kinds of things," he said. "And it was a great excuse to make a new beer."

The first year's brew was so well-received that they decided to keep the tradition going. The Charmery joined the party last year.

"People love being able to get a beer for the first time at the festival," Zerivitz said. "And out of all the beers we sell [at the festival], we'll go through twice the amount of kegs" of the special beer.

Heavy Seas, based in Halethorpe, is also no stranger to limited-edition products. The company has released a variety of brews tied to specific happenings, from Fielder's Choice, created for the 20th anniversary of Cal Ripken's 2,131st consecutive game, to Stoop Sitter for Baltimore Beer Week.

Event-specific products are a smart business move, said Heavy Seas founder Hugh Sisson. "Today's consumer, especially the craft beer consumer, wants what's new and different and what they haven't had before," he said. "So pulsing the market from time to time with one-offs can be good in terms of keeping your brand relevant and fresh."

The products also become a draw for the event. When attendees can only get a product at an event, it makes that event unique, said Greg Nivens, founder of the Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival, which was held in Timonium this month.

Chorney agreed, adding that local companies' products are an important part of the uniqueness factor. "We're trying to bring our audience a really unique experience," he said. "Not just a craft festival in terms of music and presentation, but also an experience to enjoy local food vendors. To highlight [local businesses] is so important."

Alice Hu, whose company Cookie Cutter Kingdom creates custom cookie cutters, said limited-edition products "get people excited" for individual events. Hu's company created three Baltimore-centric cookie cutters — a crab, a Natty Boh face and an Oriole's "O" — for The Emporiyum, a two-day food market event in downtown Baltimore this month.

"If you see something especially for the neighborhood or city, it brings extra buzz to the event," she said.

The most successful event-specific products highlight the special aspects of the occasion in a way that's both appealing and functional.

According to Union Craft's Zerivitz, his festival beer must be "something you're going to enjoy standing outside on a warm day, listening to music." That means a brew that is light and refreshing, he said, and fairly low in alcohol. The Country Boy Wit is about 5.5 percent ABV.

For Bourbon & Bowties, a May charity fundraiser organized by The QG department store, Waterfront Kitchen chef Chris Amendola is preparing a dish that will tie into the party's focus on bourbon.

"He's making chocolate and bacon pancakes with a housemade black walnut syrup," said Abby Hensley, the Bourbon & Bowties director of event operations. "He created it because it has all his favorite things that go well with bourbon — the bacon and the chocolate."

As much as event attendees enjoy limited-release products, the people creating them might be having even more fun.

"Any time we have an opportunity to do a smaller run of a new recipe is terrific for us," said Zerivitz. The small-batch experimentation allows them to be creative and test out new beers without making a big commitment.

Logistically, creating limited-edition products is easier for some companies than others. At companies like Dangerously Delicious Pies and The Charmery, constant innovation is part of the regular business model.

"Every week, we try to create two or three new flavors," said David Alima, who owns The Charmery with his wife, Laura. "Some stick, some we love, some we don't. For us, it's in the vein of what we love to do anyway."

For others, including larger companies like Heavy Seas, the process is little more complicated.

"It's a lot easier to do in a draft-only format than it is when you get into a full-blown package," said Hugh Sisson. Packaging, like bottling and canning, requires more production steps.

When bottling, "it really depends on your scale of operation," said Sisson. "If you're teeny-tiny, creating 250 cases of a one-off, it's not that hard to manage. If you're creating four or five thousand cases of a one-off, that can become a challenge. You can easily have something that looks like a good idea on paper become an enormous pain."

Distribution becomes difficult, he said, and though distributors and retailers might be excited about the prospect of new products that could sell well, they also have to figure out logistics in terms of shelf space and educating busy sales teams.

In some cases, limited-edition products are so popular that they achieve permanent status. After tasting short-term releases, customers often ask the Union Craft team to continue selling a particular beer, said Zerivitz. "We can't always do it, but sometimes it's a jumping-off point," he said. For example, Clawhammer, the beer created for the Folk & Bluegrass Festival's first year, is still available; now it's called Anthem.

Ultimately, whether a limited-release product morphs into a long-term hit matters less to its creators than the collaborative process leading up to the release.

For Phil Chorney of the Folk & Bluegrass Festival, partnering with The Charmery and Union Craft is all about fun, creativity and celebrating the cooperative spirit that keeps Baltimore's food, music and arts scenes exciting.

"We pride ourselves on our Baltimore soul, the Baltimore connection," said Chorney. "For us, it's really about partnering with these really niche, craft, local establishments and restaurants who believe in what we're doing — keeping historic music and craft at the forefront."

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