By George Berkheimer, Senior Writer
Hardly anyone walks a mile for a Camel anymore, but enter any of Howard County’s craft brewery taprooms and there’s a good chance some of the visitors may hail from another region, if not out of state.
It seems there’s something magnetic about brewpubs, something that compels those with an appreciation for craft beer to visit the source and enjoy the freshest brews possible only a few feet from where they were made.
That quirk — if it can be labeled a quirk — lies at the heart of the growth that the small-scale brewing industry is currently experiencing.
As a result, brewing has outgrown the confines of its consumer product category to become an engine for tourism and economic growth.
“The craft brewing attraction is a core focus for us in marketing the county,” said Howard County Office of Tourism and Promotion’s Director of Tourism Development Amanda Hof. “We’re running an aggressive multi-state advertising campaign around it through February, and it’s something we’ll be paying attention to for the foreseeable future as the industry continues to grow.”
Six and Counting
Six breweries currently call Howard County home. These include Ellicott Mills Brewing Company and Manor Hill Brewing of Ellicott City; Black Flag Brewing Company, Hysteria Brewing Company and Push American Brewing Company of Columbia; and Jailbreak Brewing Company in North Laurel.
Other craft beer havens include Rams Head Tavern in Savage and Columbia’s Ale House, which recently have been joined by the OC Brewing Company’s tap house at the Gateway Overlook shopping center in Elkridge.
It hasn’t been lost on Hof and her colleagues that brewery visitors from outside the region don’t limit their time — or spending — to the taprooms they visit.
“They go shopping, they dine in one of our restaurants, sometimes they stay overnight and take in a concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion,” she said. “There’s a shared benefit.”
Since 2015, the Tourism office’s Howard On Tap smartphone application has helped beer lovers discover breweries in and around the county, and offers a reward for visiting them all.
The next step, Hof said, is to upgrade digital and social media marketing ads to help determine when a random click of interest converts to a hotel stay.
“We know our app has had thousands of downloads since we introduced it, and that URL is among our top web pages that get views,” she said. “We don’t know how much economic impact it generates, so this is something we can do to gather metrics and start understanding that relationship.”
Variety of Styles
Each brewery in Howard County has a unique focus, producing flagship brews as well as the occasional one-off experimental batch.
Manor Hill, for example, specializes in sour beers, while Jailbreak brews feature culinary-inspired flavor profiles intended to be paired with equally flavorful foods.
Ellicott Mills is known for its mastery of German styles, Black Flag concentrates on flavors and aromas without getting too weighed down by the artificial constraints of categories, and Push riffs on what it terms “honest and eccentric” craft beer, with a heavy nod to India Pale Ales.
“We’re experimenting with finishing our beer in red wine barrels and bourbon barrels, allowing it time to take on some of the complex flavors that can be found in the wood,” said Hysteria Spokesman Zachary Michel. “We’re looking to explore lots of different styles, with an allusion to the mad scientists of yore and their turn-of-the-century experimentation.”
Tourists and locals can discover just how extensive Howard County’s brewing scene is on Sept. 30 at the second annual Hops & Harvest Festival at the Columbia Lakefront, which features most of the county’s brewers, as well as other Maryland producers.
“We’re positioned to grow this event to a two-day festival and are hoping to move the venue to Merriweather Post Pavilion in the future,” Hof said.
The Beer Bus
Maryland Brewery Tours, launched in July by Chad D’Amore, founder of the Columbia-based CoFestCo events production company, makes it easy, not to mention much safer, to visit multiple Howard County breweries in one day.
“We offer tours on the first and third Saturday of each month,” D’Amore said. “We’re probably going to have to step that up already, because there’s a large demand for this service.”
Patrons begin and end the chartered bus tours at the Sheraton Columbia Town Center Hotel, which partners with D’Amore to offer free parking and discounted lodging to tourgoers. The five-hour tour includes an hour and a complimentary tasting at each brewery, with tours of the operations at each stop.
“We’re planning to expand offerings to include different routes and get other breweries involved in some of the outlying counties,” D’Amore said. “We’re already fielding requests for private birthday and bachelor parties as well.”
Impromptu surveys of his inaugural tours reflected about 60% of participants coming from Howard County, he added, with 30% coming from elsewhere in Maryland and the remainder coming from out of state.
“We’re really happy to be a partner on the tours,” said Black Flag Founder Brian Gaylor. “The people it brings in are really interested in what we’re doing, and they spread word-of-mouth advertising that helps more people discover the breweries here.”
The growth in demand and custom has prompted some of the existing breweries to accelerate their own plans for expansion.
At Jailbreak, the owners are installing a 2,000-square-foot kitchen that will offer upscale casual food and sharable appetizers.
“The restaurant should be up and running by December,” said Co-Founder Kasey Turner. “There is no outdoor seating at the moment, but we hope to add it in the future.”
“Aside from the bus tours, we use online registration for our weekend farm brewery tours because we’re limited in the number of people we can accommodate,” said Manor Hill Owner Randy Marriner.
Nevertheless, the seasonal and locally sourced menu that highlights the farm beers served at his Manor Hill Tavern in Ellicott City has been so well received that the family is looking to expand and more than double the tavern’s kitchen space to accommodate private events.
Two other family-owned venues — Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia and Food Plenty, slated to open in Clarksville this fall — also serve as outlets for Manor Hill’s beers.
Push, occupying a small brewing space in the corner of Columbia’s Frisco Taphouse, recently announced plans to open a full production brewery facility next door to the restaurant by the end of this year.
Sense of Community
Kevin Atticks, executive director of the Brewers Association of Maryland, noted that the proximity of so many breweries in Howard County has created a sense of community that has fostered collaboration and cooperation among brewers rather than fierce competition.
“I’m not sure how to gauge an impending saturation point in Howard County,” Atticks said. “Those operating now are selling everything they can make, and there appears to be enough demand to comfortably allow for the addition of new breweries.”
In the state of Maryland, he said, the metrics indicate a roughly $946 million impact from sales taxes, jobs and ancillary business tied to the brewing industry.
“Howard County has made itself an attractive, helpful and inviting place for brewing,” Atticks said. “Brewers like it because it’s located between major metropolitan areas, it has the zoning they need, and it has promoted a wonderful quality of life that attracts people looking for things to do.”