Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Growing up in Maryland, you learned to associate the term "Baltimore beer" with one beverage - National Bohemian, a stale, watery lager whose customers could be taunted by Busch Light drinkers for their lack of taste. And even as the craft beer scene blossomed in other large cities in the 1990s and 2000s, it seemed a distant vision to this mass-market brew town.
But in recent years, new breweries have come to the Clipper City and have added greatly to its pedigree, offering both updated takes on classic styles and some original twists and ingredients that few others have dared to try. And after several trips to the city since late 2014 to visit family, I can recommend that even if visiting the city isn't in your vacation plans, getting a hold of some of its newest craft offerings when you're anywhere in the vicinity should be.
Coloradans likely are most familiar with two Baltimore breweries - Stillwater Artisanal, which distributes here, and Flying Dog, which left Colorado about a decade ago to relocate to Maryland in a move that shocked many in the Centennial State. Those beer makers' familiarity to locals makes it unnecessary to dwell on them at length, other than to say that Stillwater's Of Love & Regret - a saison made with chamomile, dandelion, heather and lavender - is one of the more unique takes on the farmhouse style in America and that Flying Dog's experiments with East Coast ingredients, especially in its Dead Rise Old-Bay-seasoned summer ale, offer it a wholly different personality.
More curious are some of Baltimore's local-only purveyors helping to define its scene.
The Brewer's Art, for example, mirrors Stillwater's focus on experimental Belgians (and recently collaborated with it on a Biere de Garde entitled Debutante), even if its variety of bold efforts isn't as grand. Still, its Green Peppercorn Tripel offers a wonderfully dry backbone to its sweet character, and its Birdhouse Pale Ale is a spot-on rendition of the classic American style.
Jailbreak Brewing works unusual ingredients to different effects. Its Welcome to Scoville jalapeno IPA offers intriguing flavors of pepper and cilantro without an unnecessary burst of heat, even as its B. Limey Key Lime Pale Ale overdoes the sugary sweetness and blots out the hop character. Still, its Punisher Double IPA is one of the better hop bombs coming out of Maryland.
Then there is Union Craft Brewing, a beer maker that doesn't stuff seafood and picnic ingredients down your throat so much as it holds up traditional styles in a new light. Its Duckpin Pale Ale, made with Pacific Northwest and Southern Hemisphere hops, is light-bodied but bold-flavored. And while its Anthem Golden Ale lacks in backbone, its Balt Altbier is a well-deserved Great American Beer Festival gold-medal winner for its style, crisp and smooth.
There are other worthy offerings. DuClaw Brewing stretches its wings to offer everything from a strawberry milk stout to an excellently balanced chocolate peanut butter porter. Clipper City Brewing doles out a variety of hopped creations and an excellent marzen. And RaR Brewing, located across the Chesapeake Bay, has one of the state's subtle gems in its earthy, coffee-hinted Bucktown Brown.
Baltimore won't soon be mistaken for Denver, San Diego or Portland as a beer town. But it's come a long way from the beer wasteland it used to be, and it will be worth watching the scene as it grows.