Sampling vintages and ingredients, comparing bouquets and bodies, the educated palates of a new breed of gourmets are fomenting a fermenting revolution -- in beer.
The decade-old U.S. microbrewery revival is mushrooming into a full-fledged boom, with an average of two microbreweries and brew pubs opening each week and hundreds of new brands crowding store shelves.
"We stack them anywhere we can. Sometimes it feels like they're breeding in the back room," said Mike Bareford, beer and wine consultant at Super Cut Rate Liquors in Catonsville, where the beer selection has tripled -- to some 300 labels -- in the past two years.
The latest microbrew to ride into town carries a familiar name. Jack Daniel's 1866 Classic Amber Lager beer went on sale last week at many Baltimore-area bars, restaurants and liquor stores.
Kentucky-based conglomerate Brown-Forman, owner of the 129-year-old Tennessee distillery that produces such venerated brands as Jack Daniel's, Early Times and Old Forester, is hoping to capitalize on the popularity of its brand name. Brewmaster John Barrett says the lager, brewed and bottled by the Cincinnati-based Hudepohl- Schoenling brewery using a recipe and ingredients provided by the Tennessee distillery, has been outselling leading imported beers about 10-to-1 in a Nashville trial run that began in late November.
"We're ready for a road trip. We think Baltimore will be a great market for us," Mr. Barrett said.
Jack Daniel's is elbowing onto a crowded field. The growth of microbreweries -- from a handful in the early 1980s to more than 500 nationally -- has sparked an explosion in the number of beer brands.
"An exact count is elusive, but our beer brand index shows more than 2,800 brands," said David Edgar, director of the Institute for Brewing Studies in Boulder, Colo. About 500 are available in the Baltimore area, local retailers say.
Local brewers are grabbing a healthy share of the market, with labels like Oliver's Ale gaining new customers daily. The success of the ale, which is brewed and bottled by Wild Goose Brewery in Cambridge, encouraged the Oliver family to open the family's first brew pub -- and second Wharf Rat restaurant -- near Camden Yards. The Olivers have run the original Wharf Rat in Fells Point since 1987.
Third-generation home-brew enthusiast Jill Oliver, who runs the Wharf Rat kitchen, said the proliferation of brands attracts new customers to specialty beers.
"Microbrewed beer is where wine was a few years ago, and look how many different wines there are," she said.
Wharf Rat head brewer Harold Faircloth, 27, said the home-brewer's grapevine is carrying rumors of five more local brew pubs in the planning stage, in addition to the three the city now has. Six years ago, Sisson's, in South Baltimore, was alone in the trade.
The Wharf Rat will boost its 3,000-barrel annual output to 5,000 barrels before summer to meet demand for its eight or nine varieties of draught ale. There are 31 gallons in a barrel of beer.
At Linthicum-based Oxford Brewing Co., there's no food or music, just a brewery gaining renown for English ales like its flagship Oxford Class Amber Ale. Owner Marianne O'Brien expects a fond reception for the first bottling of its Raspberry Wheat Ale in mid-April.
Microbreweries, usually defined as producing fewer than 15,000 barrels annually, still account for just over 1 percent of total beer sales. But their sales have increased at a rate of about 50 percent annually over the past five years, topping 2.5 million barrels in 1994, according to Mr. Edgar. Industry leader Anheuser-Busch brewed more than 87 million barrels in 1993, the last year for which sales are available.
Mr. Faircloth is among those who see the microbrewery trend as a long-overdue filling of the void left by local and regional producers who were casualties of Prohibition.
"We're not a new industry; we've just been revived," he said.
Many of the microbrewers who seeded the movement on the West Coast in the early 1980s were inspired by their experience or contact with European brews and breweries. Several early entrants, like Boston Beer Co. (brewer of Samuel Adams) and San Francisco's Anchor Steam, have grown through contract brewing -- in which a larger brewer agrees to brew and bottle according to specifications.
At the Baltimore Brewing Co., Theo de Groen has taken a different approach, brewing his award-winning lagers exclusively at his brew pub just east of downtown.
"It's an integrity issue for us," said the Duke University graduate, whose family has been brewing beer since the 13th century.
"We want to maintain quality, and we know it will help us if everywhere our beer goes, it has our name on it," said Mr. de Groen, a native of the Netherlands.
Higher profit margins -- most microbrews retail for double or triple the price of the majors -- helped the original upstarts to thrive. But some brewers, now far outstripping the 15,000-barrel threshold, have begun discounting in an effort to further boost sales.
Ed Connally, owner of Jason's Liquors in Ellicott City, said he anticipates discounts on the Samuel Adams and Pete's Wicked brands this spring, both contract-brewed for microbrewers who are now the 11th- and 22nd-largest brewers nationally.
Many microbrew enthusiasts are poking fun at the "claws and paws" brands aiming to grab a piece of the microbrew pie: Anheuser-Busch entries Elk Mountain Red Lager and Red Wolf Lager and Miller's Red Dog.
"Microbrew customers know the difference. They don't consider Red Dog a microbrew. Neither is Red Wolf or Killian's," said Mr. Bareford, of Super Cut Rate Liquors.
Meanwhile, the influx of new brands -- from Augsburger Dopplebock to Zambezi Premium Lager -- has led retailers to expand their selections. Retailers say the brand explosion began about two years ago.
"If customers don't see a brand, they ask for it," Mr. Bareford said. "There's a beer one-upmanship taking hold. They browse the beers like baseball card collectors shop a card show -- an hour at a time."