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Brimstone Brewing Company -- Rekindling Brewing Traditions on Brewery Hill
Story and photos by Mark Stevens
Republished from BrewingTechniques' September 1997 issue.
Undaunted by capital constraints and the shadows of former giants, a Baltimore brewer takes a practical approach to carving out his specialty niche.
Take, for example, a fresh college graduate with a thirst for brewing weird beers, give him the corner of an old abandoned brewery in an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood, provide him with just enough money to barely install and stock a small brewhouse, and tell him that if he needs anything else, he's on his own. If you think this sounds like a recipe for failure, then you don't know Marc Tewey. His Brimstone Brewing Company in Baltimore is an example of one stubborn brewery that seems to be beating the odds.
Graduating to a Higher Level
Tewey discovered that for a comparatively small investment, he could have his beer brewed at a regional brewery until he was able to get his own facility running. This plan guaranteed him entry to the beer marketplace while he generated a cash flow and built a reputation with people in the beer distribution business. The contract brewing business also bought Tewey some time to get his brewing education up to speed.
"I realized that I still had an awful lot to learn," says Tewey. He enrolled in brewing courses at the Siebel Institute in Chicago to fill the gaps in his brewing knowledge.
In the meantime, Tewey's amber beer was brewed by contract at the Frankenmuth Brewery (Frankenmuth, Michigan) beginning in late 1993, with later help from the Lion Brewery (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) as sales increased and shipping costs became more of an issue. This first beer was called Brimstone Amber in honor of Tewey's dormitory drinking days. Tewey laughs as he tells how he and his friends would often joke that the Jesuits down the hall were probably thinking of fire and brimstone, not malt and hops. The name stuck, and further inspired not only the name of the eventual brewery, but also Tewey's stone beer.
Though the contract breweries did the brewing, Tewey was responsible for marketing. Package design and distribution kept him plenty busy.
The money that he made from contract brewing, meanwhile, was immediately put to work establishing his own brewery. Many contract brewers through the years have publicly proclaimed their dedication to brewing locally while continuing to contract with distant breweries, but Tewey put his money where his mouth was.
Site selection and business plan development for his own brewery began almost as soon as the first cases of Brimstone Amber were loaded onto distributors' trucks. Within six months of the time Brimstone Amber went on sale, Tewey was breaking ground -- or rather, breaking down brick -- on what would become the Brimstone Brewing Company. The last of the contract-brewed Brimstone Amber was sold in late 1995; today, all Brimstone beer is made at Tewey's small brewery in Baltimore.
Brimstone Brewery is located in a neighborhood rich in brewing tradition. The area is known among residents as "Brewery Hill" because of the many breweries that have operated there since 1860, when George Pabst opened the neighborhood's first brewery at O'Donnell and Conkling (formerly 3rd) Streets -- an intersection that would host several breweries during the next 120 years. In fact, until 1961 the state's two largest breweries -- the National Brewing Company and the Gunther Brewing Company -- were both located on this corner, on opposite sides of O'Donnell Street.
More than 1,000 area residents worked in breweries on Brewery Hill until the 1970s, when an unfortunate progression of corporate buyouts forever changed the character of the neighborhood. The Gunther brewery was bought by the Theo. Hamm Brewing Company in 1959; it was in turn bought by the F. & M. Schaefer Brewing Company in 1963, which finally closed the brewery's doors in 1978. The National Brewery closed in 1975, when production moved to the larger, more modern Carling National Breweries, Inc., plant on the outskirts of the city.
Brewers had thus abandoned Brewery Hill long before Tewey arrived on the scene, leaving behind them the barren hulks of their huge facilities. These shells have since served as sporadic hosts to a wide range of small businesses, including a small chemical company, a private trade school, and a self-storage facility -- none of which could use more than a small fraction of the available space. The bulk of these properties sat, and continue to sit, unoccupied and derelict.
Brimstone Moves In
The location also rewarded Tewey by attracting media attention to his endeavors and by inspiring local interest from within the community.
"A lot of people in this neighborhood see this building as a spiritual place," Tewey says. "Hundreds of people worked here, and a lot of them still live down the street. National Beer was a very important thing to them."
Tewey says that ever since he put up his sign for Brimstone, local residents stop in just to see what he's doing. They like to reminisce about bygone days when the place would bustle 16 hours a day as hundreds of people turned out millions of barrels of beer annually.
A Family-Funded Fixer-Upper
"[My father] has the business experience," says Tewey, "but he leaves the brewery decisions to me."
A few bank loans also helped the brewery get on its feet, though no outside investors are involved. Brimstone is still an entirely family-run operation.
Despite good fortune in securing start-up funding, the brewery has little cash left over for frills -- or even for some basics -- and Tewey admits the road has been rocky.
"We're the cheapest brewery on the East Coast," says Tewey. He points to the various systems in the brewery's physical plant, emphasizing the ways in which he trimmed costs to get things running. "The plumbing alone took me two months to get working," he says. "A professional plumber could have gotten it done much quicker, but I would have had to pay him $20,000."
Tewey sees his lack of capital as an asset, not a liability. "I've been undercapitalized since day one, but I'm certainly aware of it, and I just have to do things myself," he says. Undercapitalization has meant that the company doesn't carry much debt load, doesn't have as many expenses as many of his competitors, and consequently, doesn't have to sell as much beer to turn a profit.
"We turned a profit in our first year," Tewey says. "How many breweries do that?"
The Brewery -- Quality Equipment, plus "Stuff"
Much of the equipment installed since then was scrounged together, salvaged, or purchased second-hand from various sources over the past three years. Tewey likes to refer to all of the various second-hand pieces of equipment as "stuff," bringing to mind the old joke that anything that can be used in brewing is labelled "stuff," and the rest is simply "junk."
"Stuff just sort of finds its way here," Tewey jokes. "We like getting cool stuff."
The stuff: Some of the second-hand equipment that has shown up includes a 400-gallon (approximately 13 bbl) open-top stainless steel vessel, two other stainless steel vessels (one 30 bbl and one 60 bbl) obtained from a dairy, and many of the parts for the bottling line. The open-top vessel was turned into an open fermentor and has been recently pressed into service for Tewey's Big Strong Ale.
The two dairy tanks have yet to find a purpose in the brewery; they were available cheaply at the time, and Tewey jumped at the opportunity to get them. He is confident that they will eventually come in handy as the brewery continues to expand. Tewey also managed to outfit his brewery lab with testing equipment obtained from a larger brewery that was closing.
"We paid next to nothing for equipment that would have cost us thousands of dollars to buy new," Tewey boasts.
One of the most impressive items in the brewery is a towering 80-bbl cylindroconical fermentor that Tewey obtained when a much more robustly capitalized brewery failed. The vessel dwarfs the smaller 30-bbl tanks, and it takes a couple of very long brewing days to fill it, but Tewey insists that the brewery is making full use of the tank's huge capacity.
The bottling line: The bottling line purchased in 1996 represents a big step forward in the brewery's ability to grow. Because most beer in the United States is sold in six-packs at the retail level rather than through draft accounts, the bottling line opens up a large market and allows Brimstone to build on local loyalty. Tewey is hopeful that people who try the beer in local pubs will be inclined to pick up a six-pack of it when they see it at local liquor stores.
Kalwa began his career on Brewery Hill in 1961 as a machinist for the National Brewing Company and garnered more than 30 years experience before he retired from G. Heileman in Baltimore in 1996 when it was purchased by Stroh's (and subsequently closed). He now operates a private machine shop business, rent-free, in just about the same area of the brewery that his shop occupied more than 30 years earlier.
The arrangement was part of an agreement between the two men that has proven convenient for both. Tewey knew he wanted to bottle but that a new bottling line was far beyond what he could afford. Kalwa knew how to build a bottling line, and better still, he knew where to find old scrap parts to do it. For Tewey, the potential benefit was seductive: a large bottling line for about one-fifth the cost of new equipment. Kalwa agreed to build the line using outdated parts, and Tewey agreed in turn to provide him with space that he could use to set up his own business. Tewey's space at Brimstone was, and still is, far larger than his needs, so the deal was struck, and work on the bottling line began.
The bottle washer had also been around the local brewing scene for a while before it reached Tewey; it was originally built for the old National brewery and was subsequently adopted by G. Heileman's plant on the outskirts of Baltimore.
The filler and capper are similarly here-and-back-again. Purchased as cast-offs from a Pepsi bottler in Iowa (obtained for Tewey by a New Jersey company), they were originally built by Crown Cork and Seal, which was, ironically, located just a block away from the brewery. The labeller, like the bottle washer, originally belonged to National. (Kalwa was able to obtain several of the machines, which he hopes to sell to other brewery owners he might find with mindsets like Tewey's.)
The challenge of thinking small: Most of the equipment in the brewery, like the building itself, was designed for large-scale production. Scaling it back to meet the modest needs of a young microbrewery required that much of the equipment "underachieve" and that some of the people involved adjust their expectations. Just getting the bottling line running was an educational experience for Kalwa, even though he'd done it many times before. He needed no training with the equipment itself, but rather he had to transform his "mega" brewing mindset to one more compatible with "micro" brewing. Many of the challenges involved in setting up the bottling line for Brimstone required that Kalwa adjust the performance of the equipment. He had to learn to slow the machines down from the speeds at which they would run in a large-scale industrial brewery and to scale back his ambitious maintenance schedules.
More local help: Though the bottling line was an expensive and time-consuming set of equipment to install, it does not represent the total cost of getting bottled beer into distribution channels. Packaging must be designed; labels, six-pack carriers, and bottle cases must be printed and delivered; and distributors and retailers need to be encouraged to carry and promote the products. While packaging design and production is often an expensive, time-consuming process, Tewey saved some of the trouble and expense of design by finding a local artist willing to barter by way of an arrangement similar to that made with Kalwa. Color separations and printing still cost Tewey thousands of dollars, but he was able to avoid immediate cash outlays for design work.
Most of Brimstone's beers can be regarded as specialty beers even within the craft brewing industry, and each imposes slight changes in the brewing process. All Brimstone ales, however, have in common a base grist of American two-row pale malt and a single-step infusion mash. Roasted and caramel malts are varied with each recipe to create different color and flavor profiles, and some have sugars added in the kettle. The brewery uses city tap water, which is passed through a heavy charcoal filter in the brewery; the water Tewey brews with is just a bit hard.
Brew day begins with the delivery of pallets of malt from the second-story storage area, brought in by forklift. The sacks of malt are broken open and poured into the hopper of the Peerless (Joplin, Missouri) malt mill, where they are crushed and augered into the 15-bbl mash vessel. Here they are mixed with hot water from the 30-bbl hot liquor tank that sits a few feet away. The mashing temperature and times vary slightly from batch to batch, but most are done in the low 150s °F (66-68 °C).
The brewery's operating schedule changes from day to day and might seem erratic to the nonbrewer. On any given day, the workers are likely to be either brewing, filtering, or bottling; rarely will they do any two of these tasks on a single day. A typical brewing day starts at 8:00 a.m. and may take 10 hours or longer. A typical bottling run consumes 6-8 hours and requires a few extra hands, so Tewey occasionally brings in temporary part-time people to work the bottling line. Some weeks, Brimstone may not brew at all; other weeks the brewery might produce five batches.
A Damnably Good Line-up
In the days before iron kettles, it was common for brewers to heat their wort by dropping hot rocks into a wooden kettle. This arduous practice had been abandoned for centuries until it was revived in 1982 by German brewer Gerd Borges in the form of Rauchenfels Steinbier. Stone beer was brewed in the United States for the first time 10 years later by Bosco's Pizza Kitchen & Brewery in Germantown, Tennessee, where it is brewed to this day. Brimstone brewed its first rendition of stone beer (the second U.S. version) in 1994. It remains a difficult style to brew, and one that is rarely attempted by craft brewers (see box, "Stone Beer -- Playing with Fire in the Brimstone Brewery," on page 80).
Honey Red: Currently Brimstone's best-selling beer, Honey Red begins its life as a fairly ordinary amber-colored ale, much like those produced by countless craft breweries. After fermentation is complete, the beer is filtered more finely than usual and pumped to a bright beer tank. The fine filtration removes all of the yeast from the beer to prevent a secondary fermentation from taking place after the honey is added. Tupelo honey is first heated to boiling to sanitize it, then added to the stabilized beer. The resulting sweet honey expression in both the flavor and aroma is much more pronounced than the character typically produced by simply adding honey to the boil or even to the primary.
Big Strong Ale: One of the most unusual of Brimstone's beers, this barleywine is brewed with crystal malt and a good amount of cane and brown sugars. Big Strong Ale has a considerable starting gravity of 1.110 (25.7 °P) and a terminal gravity of only 1.010 S.G. (2.6 °P)!
"This is a tough beer to ferment," says Tewey. "It is typically fermented warm at about 85 °F (29 °C) with three yeast additions." Because Big Strong Ale is usually brewed only in small batches of about 12-15 bbl and takes so long to ferment, Tewey can make use of the brewery's 13-bbl open fermentor rather than the brewery's other cylindroconical tanks. The result is a very complex barleywine in terms of flavor and aroma, with raisin and sherrylike flavors, and a substantial 55-60 IBUs. Higher alcohols are evident in the beer.
"We think this would be a great laying-down beer," says Tewey. "We're thinking about holding back a small amount of each year's run for release in later years."
Storing away stocks of the barleywine is a potentially difficult goal considering orders for the 1996 version of the beer far exceeded production, due in large part to the beer's local notoriety. According to Brimstone brewer Rick Kennedy, one local beer bar (Racer's, in northern Baltimore) ordered 9 kegs from a total production run of only 20. The rest went into bottles, most of which were sold before they were shipped. A portion was also reserved for a special holiday beer tasting in Washington, D.C. Big Strong Ale is a hard beer to find, but an interesting one to seek out. (Tewey is currently working on a way to sell Big Strong Ale from the brewery's website [Brimstonebeer.com] as a special showcase item, probably for around $50/case.)
Raspberry Porter and Blueberry Wheat: Brimstone has produced a number of fruit beers over the past three years. The Raspberry Porter is part of the regular production schedule and is available in both bottles and kegs. In the summer months, Brimstone also produces Blueberry Wheat, which is generally available only in kegs.
The fruit beers go through a normal wort production and fermentation phase, except that fruit is added after the primary fermentation is complete.
"We look for the gravity to drop to about 1.016-1.018 (4.08-4.58 °P) and then we add the fruit," says Tewey. The beer then goes through a somewhat vigorous, but not too aggressive, secondary fermentation.
Both beers are made with real fruit purées purchased from Oregon Fruit Products Company (Salem, Oregon). The purée is 100% fruit; as such, it still contains seeds and other solid matter.
"The beer needs to be filtered -- and it's a hellacious filtration," says Tewey. The acidic purées (with a pH of about 3) lend a tart bite to the beers.
Tapping into the Community
By capitalizing on their neighborhood status, though, Brimstone has done much better with free publicity and word-of-mouth advertising than many other small breweries. The brewery has been featured in at least five television news spots in the past three years, in addition to numerous articles in various local newspapers.
"We've always been able to find cool things to talk about with media people," Tewey explains. "We always have a story to tell them. Now, we've got guys like George who are the old National Brewery guys teaching us young guys how to do things, and the newspapers eat it up."
The problem with relying on media, as Tewey readily acknowledges, is that the exposure is short-lived and dependent upon continually finding new angles; it also lacks the effectiveness of a television ad campaign, which offers repeated messages to targeted audiences at certain times.
Settling into the Niche
When asked if he might someday travel the route of public stock offerings as some other local craft brewers have done, Tewey shakes his head: "That would open us up to government oversight and make us responsible to shareholders." He says he prefers a pay-as-you-go policy, developing the brewery as his business grows. He seems content with fostering slow but steady market awareness by maintaining community ties, including sponsoring competitions and prizes for area home brewing clubs.
That's not to say Tewey isn't thinking ahead, however, but he's adamant in his belief that specialty brewing is the best way he can succeed in the market. He's eager to open a brewpub that will showcase his stone beer. What he has in mind is a dining area beside a brewhouse behind glass so that patrons can watch rocks travel from a brick kiln at one end of the brewhouse to the kettle -- and all the fireworks that follow. He does not foresee himself selling any mainstream pale lagers or ales, and a reformulation of his original Brimstone Amber Ale recipe is as close as Brimstone ventures toward the run-of-the-mill.
Several new seasonal beers are also in the works, and Tewey recently picked up a used Brew Magic (Sabco, Toledo, Ohio) recirculating infusion mash system (RIMS) to use as a small pilot brewery for developing new recipes.
When asked what kinds of new beers are on tap for the coming months, Tewey smiles and says, "Fuel. Fuel will be an imperial stout, by some definition of the term, and it will have all the necessities of life."
He says he is also thinking of some type of India pale ale, perhaps hopped at around 65 IBUs. One interesting beer on the agenda for 1997 is a single-hop beer that Tewey is brewing for the Brickskeller in Washington, D.C. Tewey refuses to say too much about this beer, but claims that its three additions of experimental, 16% alpha-acid Symphony hops will make it well worth the wait.
A Glowing Future
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