THINK OF Norm and Cliff without Cheers, their watering hole and guiding light. That is the parallel I drew as I heard some longtime customers of the Baltimore Brewing Company describe how they coped with the recent two-week period when they were adrift because their favorite bar was closed.
Two weeks is not a very long span, of course. But when the joint shut down Dec. 30, patrons were not sure when, or if, the beer taps would flow again.
Since it sprang to life in 1989, the Albermarle Street operation, which has a brewery on one side and a restaurant and bar on the other, has attracted a loyal following. Some casual customers simply quaff their Marzen, Doppelbock, Pils or other German-style beers in glasses served at the bar.
But others, proud habitues of the establishment, sip their suds in personal drinking vessels. These numbered, 1-liter glass mugs are stored, some 200 strong, on racks on the wall. Not only do these steins hold beer and carry status, they also serve as mailboxes. When members of the Mug Club want to communicate with other members, to invite folks to a party, or to exchange some Orioles or Ravens tickets, they simply have a bartender drop their missives in the appropriate mug resting on the racks. Mug Mail, in other words, has become a part of the Baltimore Brewing Company lifestyle.
This method of communication, this style of drinking, this very way of life seemed threatened as the regulars gathered at the bar in December for closing night. Orations were made. Jamie Sale, who holds mug No. 2, climbed on a pool table and speechified, praising the place, the interesting people he had met there, toasting the bartender and the good beer. More ominously, many members of the Mug Club began removing their steins.
"There was something of an Armageddon feel," said Dave Donovan, who that night took his mug, No. 8, to his East Baltimore home for safekeeping.
"It got a little weepy that last night," said Paul Fordiani, adding that he carried his mug, No. 49, a few blocks to his residence in Little Italy. " ... The future was not certain."
Even Paul Klaus, mug No. 7, who said he had "no doubt" that the doors would not be closed for long, admitted he took his mug home, "as a precaution."
Deprived of their normal meeting spot, Mug Club members wandered the city, sipping other suds, searching for community. "Some went to Sisson's. A few went to Brewer's Art, the Wharf Rat, Capitol City," said Sale. "We were like Jason and the Argonauts."
Klaus journeyed to the pubs of Fells Point - Duda's, Cat's Eye, John Steven. There he received a warm welcome because of his lineage. "My father, Eddie Klaus, is a master plumber; everybody knows him," he explained. But Klaus still missed his old bar, which he said, "has among the finest German-style beers in the United States."
Like many of the Mug Club members, Donovan had stashed a couple of "growlers," large glass vessels filled with draft beer, to tide him over at home. But when his growlers ran dry he, too, hit the road, carrying the empty containers around town to liquor stores.
As it turned out, it was a short dry spell at the Baltimore Brewing Company. The restaurant and bar reopened Jan. 11 under new management.
Theo DeGroen, along with his wife, Imtraud, own the Baltimore Brewing Company. In a telephone conversation from Germany where DeGroen is running a Parkbrau brewery, DeGroen said the two-week shutdown in Baltimore was necessary to accommodate a change in the restaurant management. He said the change was made when the lease with the former restaurant operator, Mobtown Management, expired. The Baltimore brewery management stayed the same.
Mobtown Management employees, who had run the restaurant for the past two years, did not leave quietly. Some sent e-mails to the local media characterizing the dismissal as sudden.
Spike Owen of Boiling Point Management, the new operator, said new chef Homero Eraso will be adding comfort food as well as German fare to the menu. Owen also said the restaurant is going to be renamed "DeGroen's Grill."
When the doors reopened, many of the patrons said they were happy to be back in their familiar haunt, sipping their preferred brew, hoisting their personal drinking vessels.
And as Sale reported, "The mugs are coming back."