Beer and Baltimore: Besties Forever

Classic beer firkin
Classic beer firkin

6 Facts about Beer in Baltimore

Brewing and Baltimore have been besties since the early 1700’s when the city was just getting started. In fact, without Baltimore beer, things may have turned out much differently. Here is the quick list of why:

  1. Without our German immigrants, Baltimore would not have had decent beer.
  2. Baltimore invented the Clipper sailing ship. The Clipper made it possible for Baltimore’s German immigrants to create lager beers.
  3. Baltimore’s Crown Cork and Seal Company invented the bottlecap.
  4. We would probably not have our current National Anthem without Baltimore’s vibrant beer scene.
  5. 45% of Maryland’s craft brewers are located within the Baltimore region.
  6. Baltimore is home to an exceptionally awesome beer club.

For more on this story, read on.

Beer is Over 13,000 Years Old

Ancient Egyptians slurping bread beer.

Brewing was not invented in Baltimore, but Baltimore has had a tremendous influence on everything brewing. For over 13,000 years, beer has been a staple of daily life. Once we moved from our nomadic lifestyle to a more settled existence, somewhere around 11,000 BC, home brewing became as common as churning butter and no less important. In fact, people drank beer, wine, and later spirits because they had no idea about safe water management practices. In other words, drinking the water made them sick. Drinking beer did not. Before you get too excited, early “beer” was actually fermented bread in water. Yum? Nevertheless, once beer came out of the farmhouse and into the tavern, beer took on a whole new character.

In the Beginning…

Fordham Brings Beer to Baltimore

Wooden barrels of beer.

In Maryland, brewing jumped from farm to town in 1703 when Benjamin Fordham opened Maryland’s first commercial brewery in Annapolis. Today, Fordham is commercially brewed in Delaware. However, the Rams Head Tavern on West Street in Annapolis produces a pint or two of Fordham in its brew room and always has a bunch of Fordham styles on tap. You do not have to go all the way to Annapolis for a Fordham pour. Rams Head Live has 5 bars conveniently located at the Inner Harbor.

After Fordham opened shop, the number of commercial breweries in Maryland continued to grow.  Unfortunately, many of them opened and then closed in quick succession. We do not know for sure why, but a couple of factors probably played a role. The first was quality. While inconsistent batches were OK at the homestead, consistency is key when you are talking about commercial scale brewing. Industry-wide quality control measures did not exist until the mid-1800’s. A couple of bad runs could and did ruin many an early brewer. The second factor was probably a change in beverage preference. Rum production in the late 1700’s gave folks a tasty and stronger alternative to much lighter beer. It also did not help that the kids of Baltimore’s tavern owners did not want to take over the family business.

Navigational map of the Inner Harbor.

Nevertheless, as Baltimore grew into the state’s primary center for commerce, so did beer’s popularity. Elkridge Landing near Annapolis was supposed to have this honor. Fortunately for Baltimore, some serious land mismanagement caused the Elkridge Landing harbor to fill with silt deposits. As a result, Baltimore, with its very deep harbor, became the de-facto center of commerce. Prior to this happy event, Baltimore was nothing more than a muddy mess with a few ramshackle buildings.

The German Influence

In 1748, 71-year-old German immigrant John Barnitz came to Baltimore to start the city’s first commercial brewery. Barnitz’s beers were a success, especially among the city’s growing population of German immigrants. Two other brewers soon followed suit:  Andreas Granshet and James Sterett. Granshet was also a German immigrant who founded Granshet Brewery near City Hall. Sterett, was an Irish immigrant whose Sterett Brewery was located on Water Street. By the mid-1700’s, Baltimore was booming and so was its thirst for good beer. A boycott of English products in 1774, including beer, further fueled the demand for local suds. Adding to that demand was a promised daily beer ration for new enlistees into the Continental Army. Let us not think of that last one as a bribe to enlist. Think of it as another benefit of fighting for American independence.

Beer glass from New Bremen Glass Manufacturing.

As more and more brewers found a home in Maryland, the need for ancillary industries grew, particularly the production of glass bottles. In 1785, John Frederick Amelung opened the New Bremen Glass Manufacturing site in Frederick County. The facility not only manufactured beer bottles but also drinking glasses and goblets. In fact, George Washington was so impressed by a set of goblets that Amelung gave him, Washington raised the tariff on imported glass to encourage the creation and expansion of domestic glass manufacturing.

Beer, a Flag, and an Anthem

Beer and a Flag

It is not too far of a stretch to say that without Baltimore’s robust commercial brewing industry, we may have gotten a completely different national anthem. You see the flag that flew at Fort McHenry, the one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would become our national anthem, was made by Mary Pickersgill who had a small flag shop on the edge of today’s Fells Point.

Soon after taking command of Fort McHenry, Major George Armistead commissioned Mary to make a flag. The problem was that the flag George wanted was huge. It was good thing that Mary’s neighbor was a hop house. Mary would use their floor to lay out the flag at night and hand stitch away. Without the city’s vibrant brewing scene, who knows what would have happened? 

Star Bangled Banner house and home of Mary Pickersgill.

Sadly, the building where Mary worked is no longer standing. In its stead sits the Star Bangle Banner House and Museum which takes visitors through the fantastic story of our flag and anthem. Visitors can also check out Mary’s house to get a feel for how she lived and worked.

Beer and an Anthem

Maebh and her moose at Fort McHenry.

Speaking of the National Anthem and alcohol, the anthem is sung to the same melody used by a 1700’s London based Gentlemen’s group known as the Anacreon Society. The tune, From Anacreon to Heaven, was the club’s drinking song.

On another note, if you have ever had the opportunity to sing the anthem around a bunch of Baltimoreans you might have noticed something a bit peculiar. About seven lines in at the part that goes “Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave,” Baltimoreans will shout out that “oh” in very distinctive Baltimoreese. Mary Powers first took this bit of poetic license in 1979 at a Baltimore Oriole’s game. Mary, the ringleader of the “rowdies” in Section 34 at the old Memorial Stadium, used that “O” as a way to get Oriole fans, known here as “dem Os,” riled up and ready to go. Some may find this disrespectful, but I say that since the song was born in Baltimore, Baltimoreans have a right to sing it anyway we want. 

Baltimore’s other contributions to the world of beer include:

  • Making it possible to lager good German beer in the U.S.,
  • Mastering quality control for brewing consistency,
  • Inventing new brewing techniques, and
  • Inventing the infamous bottle cap that still adorns virtually every beer bottle anywhere in the world. 

If you are curious as to how all of this came about, read on.

Finally, Lagers!

By the 1830’s Clipper ships had reduced the time it took to cross the Atlantic to less than 30 days. This was fantastic news for Baltimore’s German brewers and German immigrants. Why?  Well, in the old country, Germans were particularly fond of lager beers. Unfortunately, the yeast used in the brew had a shelf life of only about 30 days. This meant that it was more often than not dead by the time it got from Germany to Baltimore. The big old bulky ships like the U.S.S. Constellation (an Inner Harbor attraction) were just too slow. So, what is the Baltimore connection here?  

The Baltimore Clipper Saves the Day

Clipper ship Pride of Baltimore 2.
Baltimore’s Most Famous Clipper – Pride of Baltimore 2 –

Baltimore, at the time, was the undisputed ship building capital of the nation and ships at the time were big and bulky and not very fast. Good for the ocean, not so good for inland waterways. Maryland’s light summer winds and a relatively shallow Chesapeake Bay made it obvious that a new ship design was needed to get to smaller towns along the shore. In response, the creative talents of some of the world’s best shipbuilders got to work. The result?  The birth of the Baltimore Clipper; a narrow draft boat with a bunch of sails that turned out to be really fast.

The Baltimore Clipper was originally designed as a coastal craft. However, the newer larger vessels that crossed the Atlantic copied both the unique hull structure and innovative sail configuration. The result? The fastest ships anywhere in the world. This increased speed meant that lager yeasts from Germany could now get to Baltimore’s brewers alive and ready for action.

Lager Needs a Garden

Underground lager hut.

Aside from the yeast, lager beers are distinguished by their unique brewing process. To “lager” a beer is to condition it at low temperatures. Back in the home country, brewers made lagers in the winter where they could take advantage of the cold temperatures. Brewers would dig out cellars and use ice from nearby rivers to create a perfect environment in which to lager. To help keep the cellars cool in the summer, brewers planted trees on top. The trees made for a bit of an idyllic setting in which to enjoy a good beer or two. The beer garden was born.

With the correct yeast finally available, German brewers throughout Baltimore, began to lager their beers in earnest. They used naturally occurring caves found in and around the city or dug their own. Many of these “caves” still exist below the City’s streets. Every so often a cask of beer appears out of the blue. Casks have even been found in the old sand mining tunnels under Federal Hill.

Innovations and Inventions

Wiessner’s Contributions

Wiessner's Brewery front façade. Also called the "German Pagoda."
Wiessner’s Brewery

Another brewing innovator was John F. Frederick Wiessner, an 1853 emigre from Bavaria. Wiessner was a keen businessman and adamant about quality control, two features that quickly distinguished his beers from the competition. Wiessner was also an early adopter of the latest and the greatest technologies and processes. He then adapted them to his brewing and storage processes.

For example, he invested in those newfangled refrigeration machines so he could lager his beers above ground. He adopted the use of steam rather than an open flame to heat his mash and employed a gravity fed grain elevator. He even installed his own bottling equipment. All of this made Wiessner’s brewery one of Baltimore’s most enduring success stories. The building where Wiessner brewed still stands on Gay Street. Baltimorean’s fondly call it the “German Pagoda.” If you are into architecture, the building is a must see.

Your Basic Bottlecap

Beer bottle caps in a pile.

As for that bottle cap, it was invented in 1891 by William Painter of Baltimore’s Crown, Cork & Seal Company. The invention of the bottle cap was a game changer. It eliminated the basic cork stopper (think wine bottle) which had the tendency to pop off from the carbonated pressure or to dry out and shrink if not stored properly both of which allowed the good stuff to escape. Only one thing has really changed in 100+ years in the manufacture of Painter’s bottle cap: The inside of the cap is now lined with plastic rather than cork. The bottlecap also became the world’s first widely used disposable consumer item.

For good or bad, the success of the disposable cap paved the way for all sorts of disposable consumer products. In fact, King C. Gillette, who was a salesman for the Crown company, invented the disposable razor blade. While not born in Baltimore Gillette’s razor blades and his company certainly were.

Resurrecting Craft Brewing

Baltimore’s Breweries Disappear

Like breweries across the nation, the number of breweries in Baltimore declined steeply in the years of Prohibition, World War I, and World War II. Baltimore was by no means dry, distilling spirits was just easier. During the war years, grains were diverted to feed the troops, while materials for bottles and cans produced bullets and other war material. Industry consolidation caused the rest of the decline in local brewing.

Wooden barrels of rum.

Breweries across the nation were gobbled up into what became known as the Big Four:  Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz, and eventually what is now Molson Coors. This consolidation created enormous economies of scale for the manufacture and distribution of beer throughout the country. They also had the resources to launch national marketing campaigns further increasing their sales. Local breweries could not compete.

By the 1970’s, Maryland’s brewing industry had all but disappeared. Then came President Jimmy Carter. In 1978, a year after his election, Carter signed into law HR 1337, which made home brewing officially legal. For some mysterious reason (big beer lobby?) the end of Prohibition only legalized homemade wine and cider. HR 1337 was good news if you wanted a brew with more character and taste than the big national beers. Unfortunately, small batch brewing had become almost a lost art in America. 

Craft Brewing Returns

The lack of brewing ingredients, knowledge of technique, equipment, and Google all challenged homebrewers to harness their American-bred ingenuity. These pioneers brewed in the same spirt as Thomas Edison when he was inventing the light bulb. Edison tried over a thousand times before he finally succeeded. Once he did, he rebranded all the failures as just examples of what a light bulb is not. 

Modern beer brewing tank with pressure gauge.

The resurgence of craft brewing in Maryland started with Baltimore native Hugh Sisson. The installation of brewing equipment at Sisson’s in 1989, gave Hugh the credit for re-launching craft brewing in Maryland. The success of Hugh’s beers prompted him to open Clipper City Brewing Company in Halethorpe in 1995. Today, Clipper City Brewing produces beers under the Heavy Seas label. Next to open was DeGroen’s located on the former site of the brewery where Mary Pickersgill sewed the flag. The German-inspired pub restaurant The Baltimore Brewing Company paired DeGroen’s beers with traditional German fare. Unfortunately, the Baltimore Brewing Company, with its thick delicious pork chops, is no longer in business.  

Today’s Brew Pub

The modern brew pub concept quickly caught on with Baltimore’s restaurateurs. Many have owners that are avid home brewers. Some to check out include: The Warf Rat located across from Camden Yards; Brewer’s Art in Mount Vernon; and Red Brick Station in White Marsh. While not a brew pub, Dundalk native Stephen Demczuk, founded the Baltimore Washington Beer Works. An avid Edgar Allen Poe fan, Demczuk brews the RavenBeer line of beers. He names his beers after the stories and poems of Baltimore’s adopted native son.

Copper beer tanks in a pub brew room.

Today, craft brewing in Baltimore and around the state is thriving. In 2018, Maryland boasted 94 craft breweries producing nearly 300,000 barrels a year with an economic impact of $826 million. Not bad for the nation’s 8th smallest state by size. Speaking of state sizes, did you know that Alaska is actually three times bigger than Texas? Just something to ponder the next time you look at a U.S. map.

Women Retake their Rightful Place

Historically, men dominated commercial and pub brewing   Today, women are re-claiming their centuries-old brewing heritage in ever increasing numbers. Maryland women brewers and women-owned breweries are becoming more common. They include Checkerspot Brewing at the M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Suspended Brewery also in Baltimore, and Denizens Brewing in Silver Spring. 

Throughout Baltimore and the state, new breweries are popping up all the time. This gives you a pretty darn good reason to come and explore some of the best beers in the world. For more on this story, check out Maureen O’Prey’s Beer in Maryland: A History of Brewers. To find a local brewer near you, check out The Maryland Brewer’s Association.

Baltimore’s Awesome Beer Club

Wooden beer firkin.

If you are really into beer, go to the next meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Beer in the Wood or SPBW for short. On the 2nd Thursday of the month these folks hit a new local brewery to open a firkin of cask-conditioned ale. This is beer the way it should be. The group is an awesome collection of men and women whose only connection is their love of great beer. They also do some cool activities that usually involve brew tours or “volunteering” at beer festivals in foreign countries.

Links to Brewers Mentioned in this Article

Denizens Brewing
Heavy Seas
The Wharf Rat
The Brewer’s Art
Red Brick Station
Checkerspot Brewing
Suspended Brewing
Raven Beer

Have a favorite Baltimore brew? Tell me about it.

Visiting Baltimore and wondering what to do? More ideas are just a click away.

Take me to more article like this.

By Carolyn

Carolyn is a seasoned traveler who finds amazing things to explore wherever she goes. Carolyn has explored all 50 states in the U.S. and has traveled widely throughout Canada and Europe, including Iceland. For over 15 years, Carolyn has been helping people make the most of their get-a-ways by personalizing their travel adventures. She believes "tailored to you" is the only way to make the most of your next adventure.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.