Brewer Justin Bonner acknowledges that he used to be more of a wine geek.
But he said he stopped short of buying a vineyard on the Eastern Shore when he realized it just how tough it would be to grow quality grapes in Maryland.
Nonetheless, the former defense contractor wanted to produce an affordable drink that that he could share with the public.
He noticed that more Marylanders were drinking craft beers but suspected that the supply wasn't meeting demand. So he and his business partner Kasey Turner spent $2 million to open Jailbreak Brewing Co., Howard County's first brewery, in March. He hired former Dogfish Head brewmaster Ryan Harvey to produce beers that come in basil, jalapeno and cilantro flavors to appeal to foodies.
Jailbreak is one of several new breweries in the state eager to take advantage of looser state regulations and quench the public's thirst for craft brews.
Two Baltimore entrepreneurs expect to open Key Brewing Co. in a Dundalk warehouse within three months. In Frederick County, a home brewer has been growing hops on his family's farm so he can start selling growlers under the Mad Science Brewing Co. label.
Another farmhouse brewery, Manor Hill Brewing, is underway in Howard County. And several other breweries have opened this year on the Eastern Shore, in Ocean City, Cambridge and Chestertown.
Some existing breweries are expanding to meet demand. Justin Dvorkin is moving his beer-making operation, Oliver Breweries, to a separate production facility in an industrial section of Clifton Park in East Baltimore by the end of October so he can double production. The brewery is currently located at Pratt Street Ale House in downtown Baltimore.
"Maryland is highly underserved in the craft beer market," Bonner says.
Bart Watson, staff economist of the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo., agrees. Maryland ranks No. 37 in the number of brew pubs and microbreweries per capita, making it a "little bit behind the curve" compared with states like Oregon. Oregon has the most breweries per capita in the nation — eight times as many as Maryland.
But we're starting to fill more taps. Maryland had 34 craft breweries in 2013, compared with 25 in 2011.
Traditionally, craft beer enthusiasts were mostly millennial men, but that demographic is starting to broaden as more women and baby boomers are favoring a Dogfish Head or Brewer's Art Resurrection over a Miller or Budweiser. That has led to double-digit sales of craft beers in recent years.
"Just as the foodie movement has grown, beer nerds are growing just as much," says Mike McDonald, one of the co-founders of Key Brewing Co. "We don't see the trend breaking any time soon."
Recent changes in state law have made it more viable for beer enthusiasts to turn their passion for brewing beer into a business. Brewers can now sell directly to restaurants and bars without going through a wholesaler. They can also now sell directly to consumers. That means beer fans can buy pints and growlers at a brewery instead of just getting a few samples. And Howard County recently loosened its restrictions on brewery operations.
"You just turned your brewery into an attraction without the expense of running a restaurant," says McDonald, the head brewer at Red Brick Station at The Avenue at White Marsh.
McDonald and his partner Spike Owen will produce German-style ales and West Coast India pale ale at their $1.2 million brewery, to be located in a former Bethlehem Steel holding facility. The brewers will have a tasting room and offer weekend tours in the 20,000-square-foot space.
Initially the two were looking at refurbishing the former Pabst Brewing Co. building in South Baltimore, but decided that the industrial area would make it easier to hold tours and have delivery trucks maneuver in and out of the building without disrupting neighbors.
Another beer-friendly law that went into effect two years ago allows beer production on farms. That prompted longtime home-brewer Brian Roberts to launch Mad Science Brewing Co. beer label at Thanksgiving Farms in Adamstown, seven miles south of Frederick. Roberts is growing the hops and some fruits and vegetables used in the beer at Thanksgiving Farms. But he has a contract with brewing facility Barley & Hops Grill & Microbrewery to manufacture the beer, mostly American- and English-style India pale ales, porters and stouts.
Customers will be able to buy shares in the brewery, much like a community-supported agriculture program. At $310, one share will allow beer fans to fill their two-liter growlers 20 times per season. Roberts says he will offer tours, tastings and other events at the farm.
And at Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia, the owners have secured the permits to build a brewery — called Manor Hill Brewing — that will supply beer to the pub and to other restaurants. It will be located in Ellicott City on a family farm.
"Since Victoria Gastro Pub has been known as a beer bar, it made sense for us to consider converting [the wood shop] into a brewery," says co-owner Tori Marriner. "Craft beer is in right now."
Also taking advantage of the new Howard County regulations are Matthew and Susan Levine. They're opening Black-Eyed Susan Brewing Co. in Columbia this fall.
The Levines leased 22,000 square feet of space just off Snowden River Parkway. About a quarter of the space will be used to hold a tasting room with 20 taps, including seasonal and year-round beers. They will offer a wheat beer, an India pale ale, a coffee stout and an organic beer.
The couple is spending about $2.5 million to open the brewery, with their own money and a Small Business Administration loan. Initially they'll distribute to liquor stores and restaurants in Howard County and then throughout Maryland, Virginia and beyond.