Ask Jason Gotcher, Manor Hill Brewing's director of operations, the best part about where he works, and a smile appears, as though he wants to answer with another question: "Really?"
His actual reply should not surprise any visitors to the Ellicott City property.
"The obvious is, it's beautiful and we love it out here," Gotcher said.
While most area breweries and distilleries are housed in cavernous warehouses, Manor Hill Brewing is located at the end of an unassuming road that reveals an idyllic 54-acre farm. Suburban amenities like a grocery store and mall are a short drive away, but standing next to the tall fields of wheat, corn and other crops makes the outside world feel much farther. Here, the small Manor Hill Brewing team produces earthy, hop-forward beers Gotcher hopes will challenge drinkers' expectations.
"There's a common misconception that hoppy beers have to be extraordinarily bitter. We want to dissuade the public from that," Gotcher said.
Owned by the Marriner family, who live next to the brewery, Manor Hill Brewing officially became Howard County's first farm brewery (by definition, their beers can feature hops and other ingredients that are home-grown) in 2014. Already owners of the craft-beer bar Victoria Gastro Pub, the Marriners saw an opportunity — once changes to county legislation and zoning laws became official the year before — to brew the rustic, farmhouse-style beers they enjoyed. They launched production in May 2015.
"It was kind of the perfect scenario to do something like this," Gotcher said.
With five year-round beers and a rotating cast of limited and experimental brews, Manor Hill is known largely for its varieties of unfiltered India Pale Ales. While plenty of beer drinkers associate IPAs with hoppy bitterness, Manor Hill products like the piney, juicy Taylor's Row IPA and the fruit-forward Citra Splendor imperial IPA explore the nuances of the style.
"You can get notes of fresh grass, some papaya, melon, citrus fruit, all sorts of different combinations of flavors that we want to explore in every single IPA that we do," Gotcher said. "We're going to be all over the spectrum here."
Like other Maryland breweries, Manor Hill sources the majority of its hops from outside vendors, but its farm grows Cascade, Nugget, Chinook and Centennial hops that are sprinkled into nearly all of their IPAs, "just so we have some sort of local tie with everything we make," Gotcher said. The different varieties of the aromatic flowers help produce a wide array of flavors.
"We could dedicate this whole 54-acre farm to hops and still not be able to grow enough hops in order to use them in all of our beers," he said. "That said, we wanted to use hops that worked the best with the climate that we have available to us."
After taking a casual tour around the facility, which annually produces approximately 4,000 barrels of beer under the tutelage of head brewer Kurt Krol, it was time to take a seat at the bar inside the wood-paneled taproom, a former barn now with 14 taps and barrels filled with aging beers.
Gotcher first poured one of the flagships, the Manor Hill IPA, a smooth, golden ale that packed a deceiving 6.8 percent alcohol-by-volume punch in an accessible package. It's the type of easy-drinking beer that sneaks up on an imbiber after a few, if you're not careful.
Then came the 5.3 percent ABV Pilsner, made with corn grown on the farm. Manor Hill's take on the classic German beer, the traditional pilsner tasted crisp and familiar. Both displayed the type of lacing — the foamy remnants around a glass left as a beer is consumed — that indicate quality craft beer.
After a sample of the new sour cherry-flavored Inertia Creeps — a limited-release kettle sour made in collaboration with Baltimore's Oliver Brewing Company — there was no doubt of Manor Hill's precise, and more importantly, tasty execution. It's no wonder their two-hour weekend tours — which require online reservation and can only accommodate 50 by law — are popular.
Not everyone, though, has been supportive. Last year, neighbors on Manor Lane expressed concerns over the street's increased traffic since the brewery's opening, but the county ultimately found Manor Hill was in compliance of its permitting. Gotcher said the brewery is doing the best it can "to make sure neighbors are comfortable with what we have going on here."
"We're just trying to abide by the law which we were given and zoning regulations," he said. "As respectful as we can be to the neighbors is what we're going to be."
Hoping that controversy is in the past, Gotcher and Manor Hill are focused on beer, and new ways to attract the local market (Manor Hill beers can be found in cans throughout the state and Washington, he said). They recently started hosting release events on the first Friday of each month, when customers can buy 16-ounce cans of special-edition products.
"Imperial stouts, mixed fermentation beers, kettle sours — whatever we want to bring out of the bag of tricks," he said.
Discussing potential for growth, Gotcher said he's seen breweries too focused on entering new markets before they're ready. Manor Hill is "100 percent open to growing this brand as far as it is willing to grow," he said, but time will tell what that entails. It's a safe bet, though, that the serene setting will remain at the heart of Manor Hill.
"With our restaurants and the brewery, we try to pull as much as we can from the environment that we have," Gotcher said. "Our brand revolves around the farm."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Andrew Michaels contributed to this article.
If you go
Manor Hill Brewing is located at 4411 Manor Lane, Ellicott City. Free two-hour tours, limited to 50, are offered Friday-Sunday. Reservations are required. The facility is accessible via wheelchair. Call 410-997-7771 or go to manorhillbrewing.com.
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