Rich Mak, of Parkton, had recently sold his cellular telephone company and was looking for the next step when his home-brewing club, Brewtherville Labs, met at a Bel Air brewery one night in April 2017. The place was packed on a Tuesday night, and he thought of the York Road corridor, with its much larger population.
“Why is there no brewery over there?” Mak recalled thinking. “I came home that night and I don’t think I slept that whole night.” The next morning he told his wife, Sarah Mak, about his plan, and almost exactly one year later, in April 2018, the couple opened B.C. Brewery in Hunt Valley.
The brewery and taproom, which serves an ever-changing slate of small-batch craft beers out of self-serve taps, is the first of its kind in Hunt Valley and the second in northern Baltimore County, according to Maryland Brewers Association spokesman Jim Baukmann.
The brewery is also the first in Maryland to implement a self-pour taproom, Baukmann said. If the crowd on a Friday afternoon is any indication, locals have taken a liking to it.
“It’s got a good vibe,” said B.C. Brewery regular Justin Knott, of Sparks. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience here … it’s a happy place.”
When you walk into B.C. Brewery, the first thing you notice is the tap wall. On each end of a long bar are 24 computerized taps, serving brews with names like “Johnny Mustache,” “Herding Cats” and “In Yo Face!” Designated drivers can pour nitro-brewed Zeke’s coffee or Wild Kombucha.
The industrial space at 10950 Gilroy Road was larger than the couple had planned, Sarah Mak said, but after a friend introduced them to a landlord they decided it was the right fit. The brewery is in a largely industrial corridor but is next to the light rail and Interstate-83.
Long tables made of prefabricated butcher’s block and black pipes, handmade by Rich Mak and volunteers from Brewtherville Labs, provide enough seating for every customer that walks through the door — staff says the large industrial space is often bustling, but never too crowded. A zig-zagging pallet wall was also constructed by volunteers, Sarah Mak said. In the back, the large metal tanks in which the beer is brewed are open and visible from the customer area.
Customers enter and show identification and provide a credit card to purchase an RFID pouring card. Customers then insert that card into a slot above the tap and pour as much or as little as they like. Beer is priced by the ounce, ranging from 47 cents to 67 cents per ounce.
“At first people are intimidated, but they love the concept,” Sarah Mak said. Part of the appeal of the system, she said, was the option for customers to taste multiple beers before committing to a whole glass.
One group of three women who were visiting B.C. Brewery for the first time on a Friday night said the self-pour system was “overwhelming,” but someone quickly came to their assistance and explained it.
"Apparently, we were getting glassy-eyed,” said Amanda Merrey, of Sparks, who tried a beer called Squirrel Bait.
“It gives you a chance to figure out what beer you like,” Mak said, adding that before opening the brewery, she was not a beer drinker. “It turns out I was drinking the wrong beer,” she said. Now she knows: She likes porters and stouts.
“The ability to try it in small quantities makes it more accessible to people, women especially,” Mak said.
Making beer accessible was something Rich Mak said was important to the couple as they launched their business. Mak, who picked up home-brewing as a hobby, said while he liked craft beer, he did not always like the cultural expectations that came with it.
“Breweries have kind of become these kind of funny, hipster places,” Mak said. “It’s like if you don’t have a beard and sleeve tattoos you don’t have any business in craft beer. You have to look like you’re a member of ZZ Top to be part of the craft beer industry.”
When he discovered self-pour technology online, the clean-shaven Mak (who is clean-shaven) said it seemed like the perfect way to take the pressure off. At B.C. Brewery, there is a full-service bar where you can ask a bartender for recommendations, but you don’t have to. You can spend $4 and taste eight beers and “you didn’t have to talk to a surly bartender that’s like, ‘How many tastes are going to ask for?’” Mak said.
“We aren't snooty craft beer snobs, we are people who love beer and want to share it with as many people as possible,” B.C. Brewery writes on its website.
Bauckmann, at the Maryland Brewers Association, said the organization is watching closely to see how customers are reacting to the self-pour system. The appeal, he said, is that pouring a beer is like “playing a video game … you’re in charge of your whole experience.”
“I think the technology is an innovation that the brewing industry is excited about,” Bauckmann said, adding, “I don’t know how many would move away from the traditional experience of facing the customer every time they brew a beer.”
Sarah Mak said while some had questioned whether the self-pour system would deprive a brewery of the opportunity to interact with customers, the brewery has not found that to be the case. Staff is always around to answer questions about beers, she said, and a bartender is available for those who do not want to pour themselves.
Customers also said the self-serve system provided more opportunity to strike up a conversation as people compare experiences and ask for advice. Regular Roy Joseph, of Phoenix, said it creates “beer camaraderie.”
After a customer pours 32 ounces, Mak said, the system forces them to check in with staff and reactivate their card, giving staff an opportunity to “assess the situation.” That allows them to strike up a conversation, or to refuse to continue selling to an overly intoxicated person, something Bauckmann said is rare in the taste-driven craft brew industry.
Rich Mak said B.C. Brewery is not catering to the customer who orders a large pitcher of Miller Lite. The brewery is family friendly, allowing dogs and children until 9 p.m. It offers indoor cornhole and darts. And the rotating taps allow brewers Jim Wagner and Beth Vita to be creative; Sara Thomas, taproom manager at B.C. Brewery, said the brewery launched its 100th beer in the last month.
The food, which includes pork tacos and wings and Mac and cheese cooked up in smokers and a food truck just outside the door to the brewery, is also a big part of the experience, the owners said. Thomas, the taproom manager, said the food truck cooks up a whole hog each week from Whistle Pig Hollow in Reisterstown. The brewery often sends spent grain from the brewing process to be fed to the pigs, she said.
“We initially thought beer would be the focus, but now the food is a huge part of the business,” Thomas said. “We didn’t think it would be as big a pull as it is.”
Bauckmann said breweries are successful, even in out-of-the-way places, because they offer more than just beer, but a whole experience. In B.C. Brewery, he said, customers don’t just taste the beer, they are a part of the process.
At B.C. Brewery, Bauckmann said, “you see it right there – you smell all the wonderful smells, you hear the noises. It’s more immersive than other places.”