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Carroll craft beer brewers, hop growers say cash can be a slow crop

The lupulin glands of the hops flower flavor the beer.
The lupulin glands of the hops flower flavor the beer. (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO, Carroll County Times)

Henry Ruhlman hopes to brew and sell beer full time, but, so far, he has yet to make money doing it.

Ruhlman, the owner of Ruhlman Brewery LLC, brews beer and grows hops on a farm near Manchester that he and his siblings inherited from his father in 2010.

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Ruhlman said he one day hopes to make enough money to quit his construction business and have brewing become his primary occupation.

But Ruhlman, 60, said he is still looking to make back the hundreds of thousands of dollars he put into the business, which started production in 2012.

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"It's slow, but we're getting there," Ruhlman said.

Ruhlman is part of an explosion of craft brewing that has occurred across the country in recent years. According to the national Brewers Association, the number of craft breweries in the U.S. jumped to 2,768 in 2013, up from 1,459 in 2007.

Currently, Maryland has 38 active breweries, according J.T. Smith, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland, citing the Beer Institute, a national beer trade group based in Washington, D.C.

Carroll County has three brewers with active licenses, which are Ruhlman's brewery and also Pub Dog Brewing Co. and Johansson's Dining House and Restaurant, both in Westminster, according to a state license database.

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Local brewers say while the craft is fun, it is also takes time to make money and build a brand. They also noted that increased demand for local brew has also increased competition from other Maryland and out-of-state breweries.

Smith said craft brewing includes a lot of capital cost, and small brewers have to compete with the larger companies that have many more resources.

"It is not a get rich quick scheme and scenario," Smith said.

Smith said that costs include ingredients, the purchase of a lot of equipment and, for some, the hiring of employees who can make a quality product consistently.

"They are running a full-fledged manufacturing facility," Smith said.

Still, he said there has been large growth in terms of the sheer number of brewers getting involved, and that reflects increasing demand. He noted there are at least 13 new breweries he knows of that are in the process of starting up in Maryland.

Keeping the craft

while making money

For his brewery, Ruhlman constructed a building to brew on his farm and purchased fermenters, various tanks necessary for brewing, and a bottle capper. In total, he estimated these cost him more than $400,000.

Ruhlman said he hopes to be profitable in about five years. To do that, he estimated it he would have to sell about 300 to 400 barrels of beer each year - much more than the 200 barrels he has produced since he started.

Despite his brewery's financial situation, he said he plans to continue brewing, even if it takes him longer to make money at it than he would like.

Ruhlman will give a presentation Thursday at Baugher's Restaurant on brewing beer in the county and growing hops. He said his advice to new brewers would be to prepare to handle a slow start and to start small.

George Humbert, owner of Pub Dog Brewing Co., said that it took him a few years to start making money from his brewery as well.

Humbert, 45, said that while his brewery was in the red for a few years, his wife's salary working for a student loan company kept them afloat.

Humbert said many people think that brewers are all about fun when it comes to their craft, but he notes the same concerns that apply to other businesses apply to his.

"It's still a business," Humbert said.

Humbert said the brewery is profitable now, but it needs to be careful about growth. He said that if he or other small breweries invest in a lot of equipment or employees, they could grow too quickly for the demand for their product.

Still, Humbert notes that his brewery has grown in capacity each year since it started producing in 2006.

He said over the years there has become a lot more opportunity to make money as a craft brewer because the demand has grown in the region.

Farmers could grow hops in Carroll

Another aspect of beer production that Ruhlman is engaged in is growing hops.

Ruhlman said he thinks hops can be grown by other farmers in the county as a supplement to other crops they grow.

But others are not so sure.

Bryan Butler, agriculture agent at the University of Maryland Westminster Extension office said that because of the variable weather in the region, it may be difficult to grow quality hops, which are used to add bitterness to beer. Butler said he suspects the hops could be susceptible to various diseases, like powered mildew, in Carroll County and most of the region because of the humidity.

Ruhlman said he has done well producing cascade hops - and some other species - but noted that other hops may be more difficult to grow in the region. He said he grows all of the hops he needs for his beer on his farm; however, does order pellet hops for his India Pale Ale.

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