When Brian Frueh and his wife, Lynda, traveled to Ocean City this summer for a week of vacation they brought their taste for craft beer with them.
And so on a recent Friday afternoon the couple was lunching at Island Oasis, a small restaurant on Route 611 just west of Ocean City. Choosing from 12 beers on tap, Frueh sampled a Pale Ale from Evolution, a new craft brewery in Delmar, Del., just north of Salisbury. After lunch he enjoyed a glass of Peg Leg Stout, made in Baltimore by Clipper City Brewing.
For Frueh, the afternoon rendezvous with craft beers was a welcome part of his vacation. A member of the mug club at Red Brick Station brew pub in White Marsh, Frueh said he likes to sample new brews even as he works on his tan.
Locally made beers do not flow as freely at beach bars as they do in Baltimore-area pubs, but the craft beer scene on the shore is improving. Two new small breweries, Evolution and 16 Mile Brewing Co. in Georgetown, Del., have fired up their brew kettles in the past four months. They join Delaware's Dogfish Head, one of the nation's best-known craft brewers, and an operation that started as a brew pub in Rehoboth, then subsequently built a large brewery in Milton, Del.
In addition to providing a fresh supply of brews for beachgoers, these breweries also offer an attraction that few beer enthusiasts can resist: a chance to tour a brewery and sample the goods. On a couple of summery days in July when the sun was hot and the ocean waves were crashing, I hopped over to the shore to tour three breweries.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
My first stop was Dogfish. Milton is one those picturesque small towns with flags flying on large front porches, flowers blooming in front yards, and speed limits designed to snag type-A drivers. Meandering though the narrow streets I came upon Cannery Village, the industrial park that Dogfish dominates.
Times have been good for craft beers and Dogfish is outgrowing the space it moved into seven years ago. An expansion is already under way to add office space and up brewing capacity to 150,000 barrels. Also in the plans are new bathrooms for visitors, replacing the portable toilets that sit on the perimeter of the brewery.
Brewery tours start at 2 p.m. two o'clock, and while they are free, registration on the brewery's Web site is required.
"The tours fill up," said Sam Calagione, Dogfish's exuberant founder. Articulate and inventive, Calagione has become one of the poster boys of the American craft beer movement. He was a central player in "Beer Wars" a recent documentary film about the American beer scene and figured prominently in a November New Yorker magazine article on craft brewing.
Calagione, the top officer in the company, wore jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt as he greeted me in the brewery's gift shop.
"We get 600 to 800 people a week on tours," said Calagione, who does not usually lead the tours. The brewery is one of the top tourism sites in Delaware, he said, adding that about half of the visitors come from out of state.
The tours, he said, are part of the marketing program. "We don't advertise," said Calagione. "We rely on word of mouth."
The tour consisted of a swing around the plant where I saw lots of tanks, hoses and machines. Dogfish labels itself as a place that brews "off-centered ales for off-centered people," so some of the machinery was out of the ordinary. For instance, there were the towering barrel tanks made of Palo Santo wood from Paraguay. The idea of aging beer in this wood came from John Gasparine, a Baltimore flooring company owner who traveled in South America. A fan of Dogfish beer, Gasparine sent a message to Calagione suggesting that it might be a good idea to trying aging one of his beers in this exotic aromatic wood. Palo Santo Marron, unfiltered brown ale, packing a whopping 12 percent alcohol by volume (most mainstream American beers are 5 percent) is now part of the Dogfish line.
We stopped for a minute at the "yeast nursery," a room where computer-assisted machines dispense the exact amount and type of yeast needed for each of the brewery's beers. Dogfish beers are known for their large dose of hops. Years ago the brews were hopped by placing the hops on a vibrating electric football game placed above beer kettles. Then came a device called Sir Hops A Lot. Now the hop dispenser is called Sofa King Hoppy.
Humor aside, Calagione showed off a quality-control lab, one of four labs that test the beer. He also showed me the spartan-looking tasting room, where a panel of super-tasters, graduates of a 40-hour FlavorActiv training program, regularly check the beers.
At the end of the tour, visitors are offered samples of four Dogfish brews. They are encouraged to roam the gift shop, buying Dogfish Head hats, shirts, visors and more. My favorite item was a $2 container of lip balm, made with Festiva Peche, one of the brewery's seasonal beers. Beer-flavored lip balm would, I figured, be just the thing to take to the beach.
16 Mile Brewing Co.
After the bustle of Dogfish, visiting 16 Mile Brewing Co. provided quite a contrast. The small brewery occupies a one-story building on Bedford Avenue, or Delaware Route 9, in a quasi-residential area of Georgetown. It is a two-man operation run by Chad Campbell and Brett McCrea, graduates of Sussex Central Senior High School and Washington College in Chestertown. Avid home brewers, they decided to change careers. McCrea worked as a U.S. intelligence analyst in Washington. Campbell was a banker and a Realtor.
They invested in a 15-barrel operation, set up an air-driven bottling line, and brewed their first batch in June. The day I was there in late July, they did not have a sign on their brewery, but they did have a distributor for their beer - Standard, who had promised to place kegs and vessels of their Amber Sun Ale in Delaware taverns and liquor stores.
Instead of glass bottles, 16 Mile is selling its Amber Sun Ale in 22-ounce aluminum vessels shaped like large so-called "bomber" bottles. "They are lighter than glass," McCrea said of the metal containers. He added that these lightweight metal beer containers can be carried to swimming pools, boats and other venues that prohibit glass bottles. They would, I thought, be easy to carry to the beach.
They offered me a sample, an attractive amber brew, pulled cold from the stainless-steel holding tank. It was smooth and well rounded, 6 percent alcohol by volume. McCrea described it as "session beer" that emphasized British malts.
McCrea and Campbell said they want to offer tastings and sell the beer to brewery visitors. The day I was there the "tasting area" consisted of a folding table in the front of the brewery. Visitors are welcome, the two-man team said, but they should call before coming.
Evolution Craft Brewing Co.
The glass doors of the Evolution Craft Brewing Co. were propped open when I pulled in off Bi-State Boulevard in Delmar. Brewer Geoff DiBisschoff had just completed a hop boil, and steam had roiled out of the brewery and cascaded into the adjacent tasting room.
For half an hour or so, the tasting room smelled like a brewery, with the air thick with the aroma of malt and hops. It was Friday afternoon, and a steady stream of customers walked in to have jug-shaped glass vessels called "growlers" filled with fresh beer drawn from the tasting room taps. A brand-new, full growler cost $12. Refills were $7. A few visitors to the standing-only tasting area plunked down $5 to sample small glasses of four different "Evo" beers.
Tommy Knorr, the curly-haired founder of Evolution, stood to the side of the tasting room smiling and greeting customers. Knorr said he went to high school at McDonogh in Owings Mills and got the home-brewing bug when he was in college at the University of Utah. Knorr owns several restaurants in the Salisbury area, including The Roost in White Haven, and Sobo in Salisbury. His brother John is an executive with Phillips restaurants. The line of "Evo" beers, Knorr said, is designed to match food.
"Rather than hop monsters," he said, "we want well-balanced beers that aren't going to bash you."
"Our Pale Ale goes well with crab and fish dishes. Our ESB [Extra Special Bitter] goes with steak. Our Lucky Porter with smoky dishes such as ribs."
I took a few sips at the Evolution tasting room. They were well-made, mild-mannered beers.
Later that night at Sobo restauran, I had a hamburger cooked in Evolution Lucky 7 Porter, and a glass of the rich, smoky porter as well. It was so good it was hard to believe I was near the beach.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the co-owner of 16 Mile Brewing Co. His name is Chad Campbell. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.