FREDERICK -- Nestled in an industrial park near Interstate 270, the honey-brown big-box factory is easily overlooked. It's a huge space for an independent microbrewery, but small when compared to an Anheuser-Busch plant.
Though the Wild Goose Brewery has tried to market itself with Saturday tours, manager Ryan Fox said, "You'd be shocked how many people have lived in Frederick all their lives and have no idea there's a brewery in town."
That may be changing as the former Frederick Brewing Co. plant adds products and beefs up its output. The 45,000-square-foot brewery - one of the Mid-Atlantic's largest - was bought out last year by a Denver-based company that now uses it to make beer familiar to aficionados, such as Flying Dog Pale Ale, Old Scratch Amber Lager and Wild Goose Oatmeal Stout.
The brewery produces nearly 60,000 barrels a year. But manufacturing at the 5-acre plant could expand, as Flying Dog LLC plans to eventually haul in more tanks to double annual capacity to the 120,000 barrels the space allows. Among the products being produced are several "contract" brews, such as Clay Pipe Brewing Co.'s Backfin Pale Ale, which was brewed in Westminster before production moved to Frederick last year.
More ubiquitous beers, such as Sam Adams and Pete's Wicked Ale, are often contract-brewed off-site from their headquarters. Rolling Rock beer, sold to Anheuser-Busch last year, is no longer made in its longtime hometown, Latrobe, Pa.
Niche beers that are no longer brewed at their original sites have consolidated at larger breweries, such as the Wild Goose facility, now an important source for beverage distributors up and down the East Coast.
It is part of the evolution of the business, said Paul Gatza, director of the national Brewers Association.
"A lot of the real small guys get up to their ceiling and often contracting elsewhere in the area is just a stop-gap," Gatza said. "If the brand continues to grow they could go back to look at building an expanded facility."
Denver-based Flying Dog should make about two-thirds of its beer - 28,000 barrels - in Frederick this year, Fox said. One barrel holds 31 gallons.
About 60 percent of Flying Dog's sales are on this side of the Mississippi River, Fox said.
Inside the plant, Clay Pipe's owner Gregg Norris proudly gestured toward his baby, chilling in twin stainless-steel tanks in the vast fermentation hall. Yeast had consumed the liquid's sugar, excreting alcohol to yield a conditioning batch.
The 100 barrels of beer the two tanks contained were 4 percent of what Norris's Clay Pipe Brewing Co. will produce this year. After outgrowing his Carroll County plant, it was natural for Norris to shift production to Frederick. He already sent his ales there for bottling.
"They get to use their excess capacity, and I get my beer made just the way I want it," Norris said of the partnership. "It's made batch to batch."
Norris drops by the Wild Goose plant several times a week, quality checking at every stage of the monthlong process, from brewing to bottling. He looked more golfer than beer meister on a recent day, sporting a Backfin polo shirt, cap and trim goatee.
Walking up to the plant, one can't miss its sweet, grainy perfumes - the smell of beer cooking. The ground malted barley and wheat mixes with water to form mash, creating a starchy solution. That liquid is boiled in vats and extracted, as pellets of hops are added, for bitterness and tang. The hot "wort" fluid is then cooled and readied for fermentation.
The malt has been roasted, with the darkest blends yielding the strongest brews, just like coffee beans. Most beer, particularly the cheap stuff, consists primarily of pale malted barley.
Clay Pipe's two primary beers, Backfin and Hop-Ocalypse India Pale Ale, are amber- and copper-colored beers made with more reddish, roasted caramel malts, Norris said.
Norris explained that "chocolate stouts" are made with dark roasted, black malt grain.
In having his beer contract brewed at the Wild Goose plant, Norris has now experienced all beer production environments: mass commercial to home-brewed.
Norris is a native New Englander who took a research job at the St. Louis headquarters of Anheuser-Busch after graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a food science degree. He worked at company plants in Los Angeles and New Hampshire.
Then the microbrew craze grabbed him. After designing smaller plants, Norris was hired to do high-tech brewery modernizations for Tuchenhagen North America, a German company that had offices in Columbia until 2001. He moved to Eldersburg during that time and never left.
Living in Carroll County, Norris is glad to see the region embracing locally produced beer. The second Maryland Microbrewery Festival comes to the Union Mills Homestead north of Westminster today. Organizers hope it will become an annual event.
"Maybe we'll even have our own Union Mills beer someday," said Jane Sewell, executive director of the historic homestead.
Carroll County also has its own home-brewers league. The group will give beer-making demonstrations at the festival, using barley freshly ground in the homestead's gristmill.
Clay Pipe will be among nine local breweries there.
Those attending the festival will be able to sample Norris' British-style pale ales, including the piney-citrus, aggressively hopped Hop-ocalypse.
Though Clay Pipe beers are only available in Maryland and Virginia, Norris hopes to expand into new markets. Perhaps the coastal Carolinas, or up toward New Jersey and New York.
But it's difficult to compete with larger microbreweries flooding the market with a wider variety of flavors.
"There's a limit to how much you can sell," Norris said. "You can only be so popular with the number of products on the shelves."
The Maryland Microbrewery Festival is scheduled from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. today at Union Mills Homestead, 3311 Littlestown Pike, Westminster. For tickets, call 410-848-2288.