When it comes to the Maryland beer scene, there is a lot to be excited about right now.
On Saturday, the long-awaited Sapwood Cellars brewery will be opening its doors in Columbia for it’s “Grand-ish Opening.”
If you’re familiar with the beer industry, you know the talent and pedigree of both Sapwood Cellars’ co-founders, Scott Janish and Michael Tonsmeire, are beyond reproach. If you don’t, you’ll find out at the end of this month.
Soon after (I hope), we’ll see the opening of Elder Pine Brewing and Blending in Montgomery County. You can already find some of their beers out in the wild — Wet City in Baltimore comes to mind — but still, this remains probably one of the new breweries I’m most excited about.
Nick Fertig and Dan Baumiller of Full Tilt Brewing — a Baltimore brewery that got its start thanks to their ability to contract beer through Peabody Heights and, later on, other facilities — are planning to open their very own brewery in Baltimore before the end of this year.
If we turn our attention to our own backyard, 2018 marked the first year where Annapolitans and Anne Arundel County residents have not had to travel more than 30 minutes to visit a Maryland craft brewery.
In fact, we’ve been blessed with not one, but two craft breweries we can champion and call our very own — Crooked Crab in Odenton and Chesepiooc in Crofton.
Looking across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Jesse and Brooks McNew — brothers who opened Annapolis Home Brew back in 1997 — finally opened Cult Classic Brewing in Stevensville, to much fanfare and positive reception.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel as if I’m holding my breath. While I don’t think this will all come tumbling down like a house of cards, I do feel as if we’re able to enjoy this excitement and growth only because we’re currently experiencing a respite from an ongoing fight over Maryland beer in Annapolis.
At this moment, we’re at approximately the midway point between the 2018 and 2019 sessions of the Maryland General Assembly.
In this off-season, as breweries are opening their doors and making plans, there is a General Assembly task force that has begun meeting to discuss how alcohol is regulated in the state. The first topic reviewed by the task force when it came together on Sept. 12 was the impact of excessive alcohol consumption on public health and society in Maryland.
On the surface, not only does this sound noble, the discussion of responsible regulation and consumption of alcohol is absolutely critical in terms of importance.
However, given how many different players fit under the umbrella of the Maryland alcohol industry — which includes wineries, distilleries, breweries, bars, restaurants, distributors, etc. — it’s hard to ignore the thinly veiled laser focus on the Maryland craft brewing industry by some of the members the Task Force on Alcohol Regulation, Enforcement, Safety and Public Health.
The reason being the events that occurred in the 2018 General Assembly session.
Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot went to the mattresses with the General Assembly earlier this year, following what as also a contentious 2017 General Assembly session for the Maryland craft beer industry.
After Franchot’s Reform on Tap Task Force concluded their final meeting last fall, he put forward the Reform on Tap Act (House Bill 518), which sought to modernize the laws that govern Maryland craft brewers — in many ways, bringing us up to the legislative standards of most of the rest of the country.
For example, they wanted to take an existing tax paid on beer produced in Maryland and allow nonprofits to use it for promotion, research and education projects to support Maryland beer.
The Maryland wine industry already enjoys this exact same perk through the Maryland Wine and Grape Promotion Fund, thanks to legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2015.
Unfortunately for Maryland beer, members of the Maryland House Economic Matters Committee decided they would not be afforded the same consideration as their wine brethren, and the bill was killed.
In fact, all six bills related to Maryland beer — covering everything from franchise law to increases in self-distribution rights — died in that committee.
The same committee that hosted a demoralizing day of hearings and testimony on Feb. 23 pertaining to those bills and the Reform on Tap Act. Even though the Maryland Senate hearings concluded before the sun went down, the testimony for the very same legislation lasted long into the evening. (By 7 p.m., more than 50 witnesses were still waiting to testify, myself included.)
While much of the verbal sparring volleyed back and forth between Franchot and legislators, Maryland craft brewers were also taken to task.
Numerous times throughout the day, brewers from across the state were “reminded” that the only reason they exist and are allowed to grow was because the committee allowed it. Often, those brewers were then directly forced by members of the committee to acknowledge that fact, as if they were school children who were acting out of turn and were being taught a very public lesson in front of their other classmates.
It was uncomfortable to watch. (If you’re interested, however, the video of the entire hearing is available on the Maryland General Assembly website.)
The only bill to make it out alive after Feb. 23?
House Bill 1316, co-sponsored by Del. Benjamin Kramer of Montgomery County, who sits on the House Economic Matters Committee, which sought the creation of the Task Force on Alcohol Regulation, Enforcement, Safety and Public Health.
Why am I talking about this now?
Because we need to remember that just because the session ended and we’re in the middle of a cease-fire doesn’t mean we won’t be back here next year with the General Assembly convenes, talking about the same issues. We absolutely will be.
Moreover, this task force will continue to meet, and I will continue to watch it closely, as it will probably foreshadow much of the agenda that committee — which, as they repeatedly reminded us on that day and night in February, holds the fate of Maryland brewers in their hands — will put forward next year.
So, as you go and visit your favorite local breweries or drink a beloved Maryland craft beer this upcoming weekend, remember that the time to start paying attention is now.
This is the calm before the storm.
Liz Murphy lives in Annapolis with her husband, Patrick, and their two lazy dogs, Horatio and Nugget. She runs her own Annapolis-based beer blog, Naptown Pint. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.