What you've heard is true. Aside from a few more batched of the Wild Goose IPA, Flying Dog will no longer produce any Wild Goose beers. Quite honestly, our brewery is currently at capacity on Flying Dog beers alone.And with that announcement, the door finally, ignominiously, and quietly closed on a beer that changed many a life--mine included. People in the Northeast in the 1980s who had been shown that beers besides Guinness could have flavor by the likes of Samuel Adams and Pete's Wicked Ale discovered the English-tweaked flavors of both Oxford Brewing's beers from suburban Baltimore and Wild Goose's beers, helped in part by articles on the new brewery popping up in the Baltimore Sun and other newspapers.
Ironically, the shutdown occurred almost to the day as the brand reached 21 years of age--the drinking age in the United States.
Wild Goose began operation in early November 1989 in a section of an abandoned oyster cannery facility in Cambridge, Md. not far from where U.S. Route 50 makes its right-angle turn towards Ocean City. It was one of many Peter Austin systems installed by Alan Pugsley, a British native whose brewpub systems used open fermenters and were acclimated to the use of Ringwood yeast. For better or worse, Ringwood and the Peter Austin systems would be a signature of many pioneering breweries on the Eastern Seaboard, including the Baltimore area's Wharf Rat (1992) and Red Brick Station in White Marsh (1997).
Initially, production and publicity was considerably limited. If you asked locals where the brewery was in early 1990, you received quizzical looks or head-scratching. Finally, if you drove around back of the crumbling cannery, you might see some cars parked, a freshly painted door, and a plume of steam spewing from a vent pipe, and smell the soon-to-be-familiar aroma of damp malt mingling with hops and the air from the nearby Choptank River marshes. Quizzically, you might knock at the closed door, and finally be greeted by an enthusiastic employee, who would shake your hand and offer you a beer from the staff refrigerator in the front office! (This was, in addition to good public relations, an excellent way to "dispose" of "short-filled" bottles as well....) During one of my early visits and "ten-cent tours," my friend and I inquired about purchasing more beer to go with us on the rest of our Eastern Shore junket; they replied that they didn't have a license to sell the beer and pointed to the nearby liquor store back on Rt. 50..... ".......... but if you really don't mind a little sediment in your bottles, we have a few of these beers to get rid of...." and they handed over three six-packs of Samuel Middleton's Pale Ale, then being brewed for the Middleton tavern in Annapolis, all with a little sediment "problem." (Those were probably, unintentionally, my first bottle-conditioned beers.) The "free beers" would yield to a more "professional" tasting bar set-up after maps to the brewery started appearing on the bottom of six-pack holders.
Wild Goose marketed itself as "The Only Beer For Crabs," an allusion to the native crustacean of the Eastern Shore. The beer had supposedly been formulated to pair with crab. In addition to the Wild Goose Amber, they also produced a golden ale which they dubbed Thomas Point Light Golden Ale, maned for the iconic screwpile lighthouse south of Annapolis. Unfortunately, a serious perception problem soon arose: customers unaware of the lighthouse name took the "Light" to mean a low-calorie beer, which Thomas Point Light Golden certainly wasn't. The name was re-tweaked to "Thomas Point" after a year or so, and later still the beers became Wild Goose Amber and Wild Goose Golden. You had to be careful which six-pack you grabbed, if you cared that much--it seemed a lot of patrons didn't. Wild Goose also undertook to brew a number of contract brews, including bottling house brands for the Middleton Tavern and Baltimore's Wharf Rat (which, although it would soon have its own brewpub, never has had a bottling line).
In 1992, Wild Goose introduced the first of its annual Snow Goose, a traditional British-style brown ale brewed with chocolate malts and roasted barley produced as a winter seasonal. In spite of a rather simple recipe and a restrained 5.9% alcohol level, the beer was quickly loved by many beer drinkers looking perhaps for a respite from the rich spiciness of other holiday beers like Anchor's Our Special Ale. Although its alcohol and recipe in no way lent itself to aging in the manner of barleywines like Thomas Hardy's Ale, a few aficionados--this writer included--would hold aside a few bottles for future consumption, finding many of the flavors richer and more complex after a spell of bottle conditioning. Later in the 2000s would come Pumpkin Patch Ale, an pumpkin-and-spice ale that perfectly straddled and melded malt, spice, and pumpkin flavors.
In 1994, Wild Goose embarked on an expansion plan, hoping to expand to a 50-barrel brewing plant with annual production of 20,000 barrels. Sadly, this expansion was to be the undoing for the brand's independence. The Cambridge brewery was unable to increase its market share to pay for the expanded production, and fell into financial arrears. Frederick Brewing Co. a brewery founded in its namesake Maryland city in 1992, swooped in to purchase the Wild Goose brand and assets in 1997, concurrently with purchasing Baltimore's Brimstone Ale from its founder, Marc Tewey. As one former Frederick employee once told me, "Frederick went through all the motions of ripping up all the stuff out of Cambridge and moving it all to Frederick, and then never did a damned thing with them." To this day, I don't know what actually happened to the Frederick equipment. The former Cambridge brewery site on Washington Street would burn and ultimately be demolished, though at last report the foundation still remains in a commercial district, across the road and abandoned rail tracks from a Wawa convenience store and gas station.
Frederick had expanded quickly since opening in 1992, relocating to an industrial park, adding capacity and taking on debt at about the time the rapid growth rate of microbrewery sales began to slow. The brewery had the capacity to produce 170,000 barrels of beer per year at one point, but shipped just 31,500 in 1998. Facing a declining market share, Frederick took a substantial gamble on Hempen Ale--a beer brewed with marijuana seeds as an adjunct--and lost. Frederick also reformulated the recipes of Wild Goose to its house yeasts and 50-barrel JV Northwest brewing system, complete with centrifugal filtering--a change which robbed the beers of their essential Ringwood character.
In August 1999, Snyder International, a Cleveland-based group that owned the Little Kings and Crooked River brands (contract-brewed in Frederick at the time) bought the bankrupt Frederick Brewing Co. and continued production. In 2006, Flying Dog Ales of Denver, Colorado, which had been contracting a substantial amount of its national production at the Frederick facility, stepped in to purchase the Frederick facility from Snyder International. In a bold move meant in part to distance it from the troubles of the Frederick beer brands, the new owners rebranded the facility the Wild Goose Brewery, and even brought back in Jim Lutz, a former Wild Goose executive, as part of the company sales force. Lutz once told me, "When I was in Cambridge, we bought a hundred firkins to start production and distribution of real ale. When I came back on board [in 2006], we could find two of them."
Flying Dog made some noble, albeit ultimately token, attempts to keep the Wild Goose brand alive, even mounting a large logo sign on the side of the brewery and reintroducing the original yeast strains as best as possible. Market share continued to erode, however, in spite of some last valiant efforts, including a redesign of the packaging. But Flying Dog then took the bold move of shutting down its Denver facility and moving all production to Frederick. Eventually, increased production demands for Flying Dog mandated the passing of the Wild Goose brand--well, that and sheer neglect of the brand. In the past year and a half, only Snow Goose, Wild Goose Oatmeal Stout, and Wild Goose IPA made their presence known on regional shelves and taps.
The Delmarva Peninsula now has several breweries, including the robust Dogfish Head, the brewery for Fordham/Old Dominion, the new Evolution and 16 Mile breweries in Delaware, and even the Eastern Shore Brewing Co in St. Michaels to fly the flag on Maryland's side of the peninsula. But Wild Goose flew the skies first and led the way for them.
More reminiscences from Tom Cizauskas here.