For Craft Brewer, It's Happy Hour


Recently I watched a brewery being put together. A crane plucked stainless-steel tanks -- a lauter, a brew-kettle, a mash mixer -- and eased them into a boxy building off Hollins Ferry Road southwest of Baltimore. The building is the home of the Clipper City Brewing Co., Maryland's newest brewery.

Hugh Sisson, head of the brewery, and Tom Flores, the brew master, also looked on, watching with a mixture of wonder and worry.

They were impressed that after months of being little more than an idea, their brewery was at last taking shape. There weren't any six-packs of the company's Clipper City Ale and Lager rolling off a bottling line, but keg beer should be ready in December, and bottles in January.

A crane engine bellowed, a forklift whined, a hammer pounded and a welding torch flared. These were men at work, big boys building big things. There was noise and pride in the air. And some anxiety. Would everything fit? Would anything get dented? A dent inside a brewing tank gives bacteria a hiding place and a chance to do unpredictable things to a batch of beer.

Most of the pieces did fit, pretty much. However, a few days earlier when Sisson, Flores and fellow brewer Jerry Rush had finished assembling a massive grain silo, there were some parts left over. The parts should have been put on the roof of the silo, to keep it from collapsing in snowstorms. So the three brewers built a scaffolding inside the tank, climbed up and by hook, crook and some swearing, put the pieces in place.

"It is humbling," said Sisson as he stood underneath a row of 100-barrel fermenting tanks, whose tall steel legs and hulking bodies reminded me of creatures from "Star Wars."

"For months everything is on paper. And then stuff this size shows up," Sisson said, gesturing toward the towering tanks. "You think, 'Oh, my gosh!' "

Operating a midsize brewery will be another step in Sisson's brewing career. He started about 10 years ago making beer at home for himself. Next he brewed small-batch beers for patrons of Sisson's, a restaurant in South Baltimore. This brew-pub operation grew into a microbrewery, meaning it could sell a PTC limited amount of its beer outside the brewing site.

But Sisson wanted to be bigger, to put his "craft" beer in bottles and ship them around the state. He needed more room and bigger equipment. He left Sisson's, got financial backers and went hunting for a brewery site. After many months of pushing paper, getting government permits and proving, among other things, that beer is not flammable, Sisson was welcoming the stainless-steel tanks, and the building on Hollins Ferry Road was starting to look like a brewery.

Clipper City will, in Sisson's view, be a "craft brewery" in the middle of the American brewing scene. It will be bigger than the pub brewers, but smaller than the Budweiser, Coors, Miller and G. Heileman operations. The bottled beers of those brewers dominate the market.

By coincidence, Clipper City brewery is located a short tractor-trailer ride down Hollins Ferry Road from G. Heileman's Baltimore plant. In Maryland, two other craft breweries, Frederick Brewing Co. and Wild Goose Brewery in Cambridge, bottle beer in their own plant. A few other Maryland brewers have their beer bottled by other breweries.

The day I visited Clipper City, Sisson and Flores couldn't resist talking about the features of their new equipment. They told me, for example, about the fancy lauter rakes that would stir the porridgelike mash that appears early in the brewing process. When Sisson was a pub brewer he used to stir this mash with a canoe paddle, he said.

Flores told me about a percolating device called calandria that would heat up the middle of the brew kettle, enabling the brew, he said, to reach a uniform temperature. And both men almost glowed with satisfaction as they pointed out the steam jackets and individual temperature controls on various brewing vessels. All these bells and whistles would, I was told, produce a better beer. And Sisson added, partly in jest, "These are nice toys."

Brewers get antsy when new equipment arrives, said Kevin Brannon, head of Frederick Brewing Co. During a telephone interview, Brannon recalled that when Frederick opened up its brewery two years ago, his brewer, John Nordahl, was so concerned that the tanks might be damaged during installation, that Nordahl insisted on driving the forklift that helped put the vessels in place.

Brannon said the brewery, which makes a line of Blue Ridge beers, is also buying new equipment. It is expanding its operations in Frederick. When the expansion is completed, sometime in the fall of 1996, the brewery will be 10 times bigger. The goal, said Brannon, is to ship Blue Ridge beers "everywhere East of the Mississippi."

Which means that in the months ahead, as the brewers at Clipper City and Frederick play with their new "toys," beer drinkers can taste the results of their recreation.

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