What's the most popular and requested draft beer in Baltimore?
Well, if you just count tap handles, it's probably Bud Light. But if you open a bar in town, you might have the big industrial brewers falling over themselves trying to "buy" their way into your place (they'll install your draft system as long as you serve their products, for example).
But is there a beer with a waiting list--a beer where someone has to die or get bumped off before you get their beer? According to Sam Sessa's Midnight Sun post, most certainly: Brewers Art Resurrection. Go read the post; he got it mostly right (but didn't go into the bottling-at-Sly-Fox-in-Pennsylvania situation).
This dilemma highlights the growing problem that confronts a great many brewpubs nationwide, but is exacerbated in urban areas and Baltimore in particular. At one point, Baltimore had five brewpubs in the city limits; now it's down to two brewpubs and three "brewpub outlets" where the beer is brewed outside the city--and only if we still consider the Ram's Head Live complex near the Power Plant still a brewery outlet, in spite of many guest beers. Both the remaining brewpubs, and one of the now-gone ones (Sisson's), have/had brewing systems literally crammed into back corners and basement space, and frankly, it completely dumbfounds me that ANY brewer would be willing to work long-term in those claustrophobic, cramped confines. My Bacchus, unions were formed and arose to power to combat such working conditions, dammit! Steve Jones of Oliver's/Pratt Street has jokingly called himself the "hunchback," and anyone who has ever been down in the brewpub's basement--a typical old-Baltimore-downtown basement--would be flabbergasted. Brewers Art's set-up is slightly less claustrophobic, but equally cramped and "inhumane" by many labor standards.
Oliver's is lucky enough that Bill Oliver bought long-term and has lots of excess capacity in its conditioning vessels (thus allowing Jones and assistant Justin D'Amadio the opportunity to work more and expand their market to D.C. and beyond--Olivers is rapidly becoming the "default" reserve cask beer at a lot of places now). Brewers Art doesn't have that luxury--it's either tank space or a kitchen. Take your pick. The brewery at the former Sisson's, last operated under the current owner Ryleigh's, was removed and sold to Mountain State Brewing's Brian Arnett, because, as I was told by the management, they ran the numbers and found that there was more money to be made from additional seating space than there was from the brewery; a similar fate for the same reason befell the brewery at the original DuClaw in Bel Air, and I suspect the only reason they haven't ripped out the brewery at the Annapolis Ram's Head Tavern is the sheer disruption the scrapping would cause.
Thanks to that stupid, fantasy-based, and even unethical real estate boom of the late 1990s and beyond, the square footage involved in running a brewpub in an urban area is anywhere from expensive to ludicrous. Nobody in their right minds, unless they inherit the property or have a "sweetheart" deal with a property owner or the city, would open a brewpub in an inner city in America today, what with property and business taxes, license fees, and the sheer cost of the necessary real estate. Bill Oliver, the former owner of what is now the Pratt Street Ale House, was heavily rumored, before selling the place last year, to have been seeking out a solution similar to what DuClaw carried out: putting the actual brewing operations outside the city and operating the pubs as "tied houses." (Thirsty Dog/Dog Pub similarly set up shop out in the old Clay Pipe facility in the "industrial" side of Westminster, with an eye towards their expansion to other locations, but they had been serving Old Dominion beers as their "own" brands before OD pulled out of Maryland, forcing their hand at an innovative solution, one that has scored them one GABF medal so far....)
Should we have mercy on these poor souls? Would we be all right if, just to make up fantasies, Brewers Art shut down for two weeks, disassembled their brewing equipment, and set up a new brewery with three times the capacity and a bottling line in, oh, I don't know, a business park in Owings Mills or Glen Burnie? And PSAH/Olivers relocated to a back corner of an abandoned industrial building in Highlandtown or a pier in Canton, brewing up beers in a nice Pugsley system sourced from Shipyard or Wild Goose?
Hey--it would mean we'd get a bit more Resurrection, Cerebus, or Le Canard, right?
Incidentally, since Sam let the cat out of the bag in his post, so to speak, I'll point out that there are still a scant few tickets left for their annual holiday beer tasting on Dec. 12th, noon to 4 p.m. 20% of the gross is donated to a chosen local charity; about a dozen of the region's breweries will be on hand with their holiday beers, and Brewers Art sets out a buffet of their excellent food to accompany it all--and that's usually the first "keg to kick." Tickets, advance only, are $40 plus a processing fee; go here for tickets, and don't call the brewpub.
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