Brewer Justin Bonner admits he was once more of a wine geek.
But he stopped short of buying a vineyard on the Eastern Shore when he realized 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 more Marylanders were drinking craft beers but suspected that the supply wasn’t meeting demand. So he and his 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 will soon be joined by at least two other Howard County breweries. In the fall, Matthew and Susan Levine are opening Black-Eyed Susan Brewing Co. in Columbia. And the owners of Victoria Gastro Pub are opening the county’s first farmhouse brewery, Manor Hill Brewing Co., in Ellicott City in about a year.
New state and county laws that went into effect last year made it possible for beer-minded entrepreneurs like Bonner to break out the brews. Though the county is home to several brewpubs — restaurants like Ellicott Mills Brewing Co. that also produce beer — there were no standalone breweries in the county until now. Brewpubs must derive at least 51 percent of their business from food sales and serve most of their beer on-site, whereas a brewery derives most of its sales off-site and does not have a kitchen.
The state now allows breweries to sell pints and growlers of beer to take home. Before, breweries could only sell four sample beers that had to be consumed on-site. Howard County also modified its zoning regulations to allow breweries to operate in industrial areas, unleashing pent-up demand for craft brews.
“Maryland is highly underserved in the craft beer market,” Bonner says.
Spencer Powlison, staff economist of the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo., agrees. Maryland ranks No. 37 in the number of brewpubs and microbreweries per capita, making it a “little bit behind the curve” compared with industry leaders like Oregon. Oregon has the most breweries in the nation — eight times as many as Maryland.
But we’re starting to quench residents’ thirst for craft brews; in 2013, Maryland had 34 craft breweries, 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 favor Dogfish Head or Brewer’s Art Resurrection over Miller and Budweiser. Beer-centric restaurants like The Ale House and Frisco Tap House & Brewery in Columbia are full to the brim most nights.
“Everyone is starting to crave craft beer,” says Matthew Levine, a budding Howard County brewer.
The Levines have leased 22,000 square feet of space just off Snowden River Parkway. About a quarter of the space will hold a tasting room with 20 taps, including seasonal and year-round beers. He’ll offer a wheat beer, an IPA, a coffee stout and an organic beer.
Levine says he wants Black-Eyed Susan to be known as a community brewery.
“That’s why we chose a place in the heart of Howard County,” he explains.
The couple is spending about $2.5 million to open the brewery, with their own money and an SBA loan. For the first couple of months, they plan to distribute to liquor stores and restaurants in Howard County, and then they’ll expand throughout Maryland, Virginia and beyond.
Hops over grapes
“Craft beer is in right now,” says Tori Marriner, co-owner of Victoria Gastro Pub.
When the Marriners opened Victoria Gastro Pub seven years ago, they offered both beer dinners and wine dinners. After a while they noticed the beer-and-food pairing dinners were selling out with many on the wait list while wine dinners were slow to fill up. Now they offer only the beer dinners once a month, with five courses and a featured brewery.
Marriner, her sister Rachael Mull, and her parents, Randy and Mary Marriner, have secured the permits to build their brewery in a former woodshop on their farm just south of Turf Valley.
“Since Victoria Gastro Pub has been known as a beer bar, it made sense for us to consider converting that building into a brewery since we don’t have animals,” says Marriner.
They won’t offer tours or tastings onsite since the farm is also their home.
“The goal is to focus on producing good-quality beer and distribute it to Victoria Gastro Pub,” Marriner says. Eventually, she hopes to serve the beer at other restaurants.