Baltimore’s iconic beer, National Bohemian, is being sold on draft for the first time in more than 15 years. (Baltimore Beer Week/Alexander D. Mitchell IV)
Baltimore’s history is awash in beer. Just 19 years after the Maryland city’s founding in 1729, beer making became Baltimore’s first manufacturing industry. In 1892, inventor William Painter patented the “crown cork”, or bottle cap, which tightly sealed flavour and carbonation into bottled beer. And in the 1930s, Charm City’s own American Can Company successfully canned the first beer, purging the horrible metallic taste of previous efforts.
But Prohibition dealt a devastating blow to local brewers, and the city’s beer production has since seen its share of ups and downs. In the 1970s and ‘80s, industry-wide consolidation forced local breweries to close or skip town. Baltimore’s iconic beer National Bohemian -- or, as locals affectionately call the cheap, watery lager, Natty Boh -- moved out and its taps around the city ran dry. For decades old timers lamented the days when there was a brewery in every neighbourhood.
But beer is flowing back into the city, thanks to a combination of young beer enthusiasts, cheap real estate and the persistence of local brewers. Natty Boh is being sold on draft for the first time in more than 15 years, and a Marylander is working to bring its slightly more upscale brother National Premium back to life this year. (For Natty Boh, nostalgia, not taste, seems to be the main attraction.) More importantly, drinkers are demanding locally sourced beers with more flavour and personality, finally giving Baltimore’s craft brews some momentum. Baltimore Beer Week (19 to 28 October), a celebration of craft culture in the region, is entering its fourth year. This summer, local microbrewers will band together to open the first large-scale brewery within city limits in more than 30 years. And there are more inventive breweries and brewpubs in the works.
“The beauty of the renaissance here in Baltimore is that everyone is doing something different to keep it fresh, keep people excited about beer,” said historian Maureen O’Prey, author of the book Brewing in Baltimore.
Ask beer aficionados where to grab a drink in the city and many will list a handful of establishments that have paved the way for Baltimore’s growing beer scene, inspiring residents and visitors to try new brews and even create their own.
This beer geek’s paradise sits in the heart of the historic Fells Point neighbourhood along the city’s Inner Harbor. There are 102 rotating drafts, five hand-pumped cask ales and a collection of more than 1,000 bottled beers in stock. No new beer is released from a Baltimore brewery unless it is released at Max’s first, O’Prey said. Get acquainted with the bar’s large draft and bottle selection of rare Stillwater Artisanal Ales, made by self-described “gypsy brewer” Brian Strumke, a Baltimore native who wanders the globe renting out breweries’ excess capacity to create his own limited edition batches. A good place to start is Strumke’s Cellar Door, a farmhouse-style wheat ale brewed with white sage. (Strumke is set to open his own bar, Of Love & Regret, this year.) Suburban brewery DuClaw’s Soul Jacker, a chocolaty blend with a 9.5% alcohol content, is also often on draft. Or grab a bottle of the Raven, a German lager that Baltimore-Washington Beer Works named for the city’s favourite son, Edgar Allan Poe.
During Tuesday beer socials with cellarmaster Casey Hard, guest experts are on hand to give lectures, and rare and obscure brews are available for tasting. Ever had a cold one from Iceland?
The Brewer’s Art
Baltimore’s most popular local beer is Resurrection, which is brewed in the basement of this Mount Vernon townhouse-turned-brewpub. The dark, sweet and slightly spicy Abbey-style dubbel ale has a 7% alcohol content, a strength that never fails to hit newbies by surprise. Co-founder Volker Stewart opened Brewer’s in 1996, but the house Belgian-style beers are innovating with each season. As its draft list proclaims, “We reserve the right to make a new beer at any time!!” For instance, the Zodiac Ale is brewed to a different recipe during every zodiac sign (or sometimes twice a sign), introducing additions like sarsaparilla root for Aquarius and honeysuckle for Leo.