Baltimore brews

Updated with photos!

Our long residence on the West Coast gave us the impression that there is no decent beer east of the Rockies until you cross the Canadian border or reach Europe. This bias could have been argued until the mid-1990s. I remember business trips to the East Coast where the only alternatives to the thin pseudo-lagers from the brewing giants were Sam Adams brews or Guinness, both fine but predictable beers.

Within the past five years, my journeys have exposed me to a number of unique beers brewed outside of Beervana and far from the West Coast. As with the craft pioneers in Oregon and Washington, East Coast microbreweries sprang from individuals who were part of homebrew clubs, had soaked their taste buds in Europe, or had apprenticed themselves to the skills of distant master brewers.

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Baltimore, to our pleasant surprise, has an excellent beer scene, and several other attractions.

We visited Baltimore for three days to attend a friend's wedding and to conduct some sight-seeing. Aside from the wedding, we had no plans. We thought of visiting D.C., which deserves two weeks instead of a long weekend, and hoped to sample locavorean restaurants in Baltimore or D.C. The capitol city quickly disappeared from our plans as we realized how much time would be lost on the Baltimore-Washington expressway and how little we would see. All that I know about Baltimore comes from John Waters' movies, an incomplete if visionary perspective.

Gold Ale is good ale

After a long coast-to-coast flight and dinner with the happy couple, we returned to Mount Washington Village, a quiet corner of North Baltimore where we were staying. The long flight and Chinese food had left us with heavy bellies, so we ambled around the village. An Italian restaurant listed wines by the glass and one local beer. Beer is good for digestion, in moderation of course, and we opted for a pint of Clipper City Gold. The beer and the walk back to our hotel would settle our stomachs and lead to a good rest.

Clipper City Gold is from Clipper City Brewery, Baltimore's largest craft brewery. Clipper City has a history in Baltimore's first brewpub, and they are terribly fond of bad puns, at least on their website.

The Gold is a fine example of the style known as American Gold. This style is native to the United States, and paramount examples are lighter in color and body than pale ales. Clipper City's version was crisp and quaffable. The body was heavier than I associate with gold ales, and the flavor was savory, but the beer wasn't too heavy. The beer popped in the mouth and wasn't too sweet. The hop combination made the beer zippy and pleasant.

Clipper City brews other styles of beer, but we tried only the Gold Ale. Over the weekend, we had the Gold on tap and in bottles, and were pleased to discover that it bottled well.

Sunday was our day of sight-seeing. We trekked across Baltimore's Inner Harbor, which is an excellent pedestrian area. There are food malls, restaurants and retail outlets, but there also are maritime attractions and the harbor itself to engage your attention. The U.S.S. Constellation is anchored in East Harbor and is open for tours. As we walked east, there was the option to visit Baltimore's aquarium, several other ships, and Seven Foot Knoll, a screw-pile lighthouse that once guided ships into Chesapeake Bay.

Fells Point was to be our launching point for a water taxi ride across the Harbor for a visit to historic Fort McHenry. The Fort holds the star-shaped for that was the center of the defense against the British naval attack in 1814, and is surrounded by grassy fields, trees, and the waters of the Harbor and Patapsca River. In the distance is the Francis Scott Key Bridge, beyond which Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner. The visit to the Fort promised a nice boat ride, a hearty walk around the grounds, and a chance to see early American history.

First, we wanted a beer to quench our thirst after a long walk.

A pocketful of rye

The Waterfront Hotel and bar was built in 1771, five years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The interior has dark wood beams and, appropriately, feels like British pubs from the same era. They had The Wharf Rat Oliver Ironman Pale Ale on draft. I was supposed to order half pints but forgot, so we carried our pints from the crowded bar to the second floor dining room.

Ironman Pale Ale is a decent pale ale, but not memorable. The beer had a slight citrus taste, but weaker hopping than found in West Coast pale ales and a mild malt presence. I wondered aloud whether strong Pale Ales are unique to the West Coast.

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On our return from Fort McHenry, we transferred at Fells Point and took another water taxi to East Harbor. Our plan was to head north to Brewers Art, but the Butter Bitch was enticed by the Capitol City Brewing sign. We had half an hour until our destination opened, and we were hot from our walk and from the sun reflecting off the harbor water. My nose was red already, and not because of the beer drunk four hours earlier.

Capitol City is located on the second story of a small mall that is packed with shops and restaurants. The patio and bar overlook the water, making it a great place to have lunch. They had several of their beers on tap, but we tasted only two. Again, the plan was to order half pints, and again full pints were ordered, this time by the Butter Bitch. We tried the Raven Rye Pale Ale and the Prohibition Porter.

Rye ales are made with a grain mixture of rye and barley, instead of just barley, lending earthy rye flavor and reddish color to the beer. The Raven Rye was really nice beer. It had a good amount of hop, probably East Kent Goldings, and impressed a strong rye flavor on the front of the tongue. This was a beer that couldn't be mistaken for anything other than a rye beer. Like the other beers we saw on the bar, the Raven Rye didn't have much head. This could be because of their pouring practices or because they use additives to minimize foaming. The bartender didn't stay put long enough for us to ask.

I have to admit that my reluctance to talk to the bartender had a lot to do with my disappointment with my Prohibition Porter. Guinness originated as a type of porter, and acts as a good guide to what porter should be like. It is unfair to judge all porters against Guinness or other fine porters, such as Black Rabbit Porter and Troll Porter, but then it is unfair to call Prohibition a porter. The beer was light, almost light enough to be classed a brown ale, and lacked the rich, malty sweetness to be expected from a porter. I'm sure that the brewers used hops in the beer, but I was too busy tasting the Butter Bitch's Raven Rye to care about the Prohibition's hoppiness.

Had we planned to stay, I would have returned the beer or ordered another one. Instead, I left half my "porter" at the bar, and we headed to a big, beery dinner.

Finding the Brewers Art

Brewers Art was damned difficult to find. We detoured from Charles Street around the Baltimore Book Fair, hoping to return later, and drove north into the University of Baltimore district. We had overshot the restaurant, so looked up thebrewers-art.JPG exact address, rather than trying to spot the sign from a car, and drove back downtown.

Brewers Art is located in a former mansion on the west side of the street at 1106 Charles Street. We chose them because they brew their own beer and because they feature pasture-raised pork, line-caught fish, and local meat - though not, as we discovered, local beef.

The small sign in the window is missed easily if you blink, sneeze, avoid a squirrel, or glance at the east side of the street. On foot, the restaurant is easy to find. The front of the establishment hosts a bar with a picture window overlooking the street. Beyond the bar is a lounge, replete with sofas, small tables and a fireplace, where patrons may relax and sip on their beers. A staircase leads down to the basement bar, which we did not explore.

Beyond the haze of the bar and the lounge is the dining room, which is sectioned into two large rooms. Dark wood runs throughout the establishment, and the dining room walls are covered with leather-bound books and hung with paintings. The most dramatic painting is in the corner where we sat, a simple, joyful rendition showing a woman in a dress dancing as she pours a wave of liquid from a bottle into a pail. The twisting liquid gave rise to speculation that the liquid might be rising from the pail to be caught by the woman.

Brewers Art specializes in Belgian-style beers, but they also make pale ale and dark beer. Their guest tap was Flying Dog Pale Ale, a thin, weak beer that had traveled over two thousand miles from Colorado. We never have been impressed by bottles of flying dog, and the draft form was equally disappointing, ending as our least favorite beer of the evening.

We each ordered a flight of beers, which featured 2-ounce pours of the four main brews, the seasonal beer known as Le Canard, which is a Copper Ale made with rock candy, and the displeasing Flying Dog.

The beers are pictured below, in the order of Ozzy, Resurrection, Le Canard, House Pale and Proletary.  Flying Dog has been placed behind the row of Brewers Art beers.

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Ozzy - as in Mr. Osborne of Black Sabbath fame - is in the style of the "devil" beers of Europe. Some examples of this style are hideously sweet, to the point that you feel your teeth rotting. Ozzy is a friendly beer that smells of bubblegum and tastes like bubblegum when it hits the tip of your tongue. The brewers were subtle in their use of rock candy, creating a pale beer with a pleasant taste and hefty alcohol content. The 7.25% ABV beer tasted a little of toothpaste, but went well with my salad of arugula, mixed berries, and goat cheese rolled in almonds.

Resurrection is an Abbey-style brown beer. The name comes from the yeasts, which died off but were resurrected to activity by the brewer. The brewery does not say how the resurrection was accomplished. This beer came highly recommended by several people at the wedding reception. Unlike most Abbey beers, which tend to be sour and form the base for lambic beers, the Resurrection had only slight sourness. There was a sherry-like finish to the beer that surprised us but that matched the beer's pretty, rosy amber color. The light hoppiness complements the malt and body of this beer. This beer was the lightest brew of the first three at 7% ABV.

Le Canard has the hoppiness and copper color of an English bitter, but the overall flavor is rounder and sweeter. The malt sugars and rock candy fill the whole mouth with the sweetness and floral beauty of the hops. At 8.5%, we could not have had many of these and still walked. Fortunately, the beer came in a 2-ounce pour.

Our first taste of the House Pale exposed the flaw in the arrangement of the beers. The server had arranged the beers starting with 3 strong, Belgian-styles, and followed with 3 beers with less sweetness and less alcohol. We had not noticed the error until we picked up the poor little 5% ABV beer. We munched on bread and butter to cleanse our palates and gave the beer a second chance. The pale did not have the hoppy snap, and the malt seemed to overpower the hops on the tongue. The hops have a strong showing in the finish as they pass over the bitter receptors at the back of the tongue. The Butter Bitch thought the House Pale was a little thin, but I disagreed.

The final beer from Brewers Art was the Proletary, a damned nice dark beer. Not quite a porter or a stout, the Proletary tasted of fresh coffee, toast, and licorice. This is a beer for people who take their coffee black, and it went well with the Butter Bitch's summer squash with bacon. Not surprisingly, this was the favorite beer of the pair from Coffeetown, U.S.A.

Other East Coast beers

We had exhausted the draft offerings, so for our main course - of food - we ordered two Pennsylvania beers. The Butter Bitch got a Lancaster Milk Stout, from Lancaster Brewing Company. This was a nice, sweet, dark, milk stout. I don't recommend milk stouts to lactards, since milk stouts are made with milk sugar - lactose - which lactards have trouble digesting. The beer had a bit of zing from the big hop profile that balanced its sweet, coffee flavor.

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I ordered a Weyerbaucher India Pale Ale, from Easton, Pennsylvania. The Weyerbaucher had a hop kick worthy of a West Coast hophead beer. The beer was very floral and had a sticky, resiny taste that could stand up to the spiciest curry. The IPA went well with my pork and proved to be interesting with my pumpkin flan. I ended the evening with a strong cup of coffee, while the Butter Bitch circled back for another pint of Proletary to have with her chocolate cake. We returned to the hotel full of good food and the good beer from Brewers Arts.

Federal Hill findings

Our last day was spent meandering around Baltimore. Our intended breakfast spot was closed, as were the museum and cafe we planned to explore. I drove us around Federal Hill as the noon hour ended and our departure time approached. We discovered that Federal Hill has a number of taverns and at least one brewpub, all of which opened after we had to leave for the airport. Our beer hopes were raised and dashed by the brewpub and taverns, including a sports bar that declared itself a raw bar. I hope they were talking about oysters. A longer beer vacation would involve this area and a thorough scouting of Baltimore's microbreweries.

We parked and walked around the neighborhood to discover that several promising restaurants also were closed. A restaurant with a French name had an entirely Italian menu, causing us not to trust our stomachs to their cooking.

"Let's get something at the airport," the Butter Bitch said half-heartedly. The 90-minute drive to Reagan Airport - it was a direct flight, unlike flights to Baltimore Airport - would turn snippy without any breakfast or lunch. We walked down the street and spotted a place billing itself as a coffeehouse and wine bar.

When I think of a coffeehouse, I think of a well-lit place with many tables and chairs and an ever-present crowd of people reading, talking, and playing chess. When I think of a wine bar, I think of an upscale location with hipsters and yuppies sipping Cabernet Sauvignon while they cut soft cheese with tiny knives. This was a 19th Century tavern, with an ornate wood bar that, someone had decided to call a coffeehouse and wine bar. It was great.

The food was food, the kind you might find in a good diner. We both ordered club sandwiches. I got mine with blackened chicken, to go with the coffee I was downing to quell my hunger. I suggested to the Butter Bitch that she order a beer.

She ordered a Smuttynose.

Isn't that a great name for a pale ale? Smuttynose.

The beer is from Smuttynose Brewing Company, and it put to rest our notion that East Coast pale ales lack strong hop profiles. The brewers who make this beer enjoy hops and aren't afraid to use them, unlike the mid-Atlantic pale ale brewers. Incidentally, this beer one a gold medal for Best American Beer at the Great British Beer Festival, no mean feat.

The mid-Atlantic brewers brew pale ales that are mildly sweet and mildly hopped. West Coast ales, and Smuttynose, are meant to fortify drinkers against the cold rains and windy winter storms; Baltimoreans must have the good sense to stay indoors.

We were pleased to discover this fine New England beer, even if it had traveled a long way. Some beers do travel well, after all.

Creatures of habit

Somehow, the couple that has never met a bookstore it didn't like managed to spend a long weekend in a city that was hosting a book fair without buying a single book. One day was spent celebrating the wedding of friends, but the rest of our time? Well, the beer was that good.

4 Responsesto “Baltimore brews”

  1. Jen T (P) says:

    Thanks for the run-through of the beers around town, especially Brewer's Art! I am chagrined I didn't suggest this stop to you myself. I will definitely have to try the Proletary (which I normally combine with their to-die-for cheeseburger) with the chocolate ganache cake.

  2. Malcolm says:

    There is fine beer East of the Rockies as you found out. My first microbrew experience was back in Minneapolis, where the Summit brewing company in St. Paul has been doing excellent brews for years. They've been followed up upon by many excellent small breweries and brewpubs.

    It makes sense; beer is universal, and especially so in the midwest, where the Germans landed and started the businesses that became our giant "American" beer companies. It's just that folks forgot what it was supposed to taste like for a while. They've remembered now.

  3. Man of La Muncha says:

    One unanswered question is, Why is it hard to raise hops organically? I've encountered mention of that issue recently in the NW Brewing News, but no explanation to the problem.

    I've ordered John P. Arnold's history of beer-making, as I'm curious about the introduction of hops in the middle ages. However, Arnold's history stops in the early 20th Century. I'd be interested to find a history of the impact of Prohibition on U.S. brewing and the revival of brewing, first by the national lager makers (Coors, A.-B., and so on) and later by the medium and small brewers.

  4. Malcolm says:

    I did a bit of research, and it seems that the major issue is that a) there's only just now a growing demand for organic hops, and b) they are particularly effected by a couple of fungus diseases.

    http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/PDF/hop.pdf