Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A look at Union Craft Brewing Company, and more...

(Photo, above: Duckpin Pale Ale.)
 I’m happy to say my first article for Charm City Craft Beer is about great new brewery that just opened a few months ago, and that has had immediate success.
Union Craft Brewing Company is located just on the other side of the Jones-Falls river from Hampden, in the Woodberry neighborhood, in the Clipper Mill Industrial Park, at 1700 Union Avenue. While work has been ongoing in the building since 2011, the brewery officially opened on the 6th of June. In fact, the highly-respected Woodberry Kitchen is nearby, and is already one of Union’s draft beer accounts.

Union was co-founded by homebrewer and graphic designer, Jon Zerivitz. “I got tired of spending long hours working in a cubicle for a large corporation. So I started homebrewing in 2010, just as a hobby. I really enjoyed it, and quickly had an idea: why not open a brewery 
of my own? So, I started looking for a space in Baltimore, and for a pro brewer to partner 
with,” Zerivitz  told me during a visit to Union last week.

(Photo, above: Jon Zerivitz, left, and Kevin Blodger.)

   A friend told Zerivitz about Kevin Blodger, who started homebrewing while in college. Blodger had worked at the former Frederick Brewing co. (where Flying Dog now brews) in Frederick, and was head brewer at the former Capital City Brewing location in the Inner Harbor. He held the same position at Gordon Biersch in Chicago, and most recently, Rockville. “After five years at Gordon Biersch, I wanted to branch out and be able to brew more beer styles, and to be able to show my creative side more. Jon offered me the ability to do that, and to do it in my hometown of Baltimore,” Kevin remarked, during a long, humid brew day.

(Photo, above: the brewhouse.)

   “We have a brand new, 20 barrel Premier Stainless Systems brewhouse, and four twenty barrel fermenters,” Blodger told me, as we toured the small warehouse-like space. “We hope to brew about 1,500 barrels of beer this year, and double that in 2013.” He added. “We raised about $800,000 to open the brewery,” Zerivitz, 32, said.

(Photo, above: the fermenters.)

   Many beer drinkers in the Baltimore area will by now have tasted one of Union’s flagship beers, Duckpin Pale Ale. Duckpin is made with Cascade and Columbus hops from the Pacific Northwest, as well as Galaxy hops from New Zealand. It weighs in at 5.3% alcohol by volume (ABV) and packs in 55 International Bittering Units (IBU.) That’s quite a lot of hops for a brew of session beer strength!

 Zerivitz commented on Union’s philosophy: “Coming into this market, we saw a need for ‘sessionable’ craft beers that were approachable, but also as finely crafted and as full flavored as other regional offerings. That is the approach for our core, or flagship, line. On the other hand, we will not limit ourselves to what kinds of other beers we may make as seasonals, one-offs, and collaborations.”

(Photo, above: the GABF Gold Medal winning 
Balt Altbier.)

“As far as the Balt Altbier, the other core beer in our portfolio, we recognized a longing for the German styles that DeGroen’s (the former, much-missed, Baltimore Brewing Company that existed just off President Street until 2005) once brewed here by those that were around in those days. It’s a style we love and wanted to bring back to Baltimore as a local favorite.”
   Balt Altbier is a bit stronger than traditional Düsseldorf altbiers, with 5.6% ABV, versus the 4.5% normally seen there. This dark copper/deep amber colored brew is brewed with an ale yeast, but fermented at lower, lager-like temperatures. It makes for a beer with a creamy head and mild bitterness. The Balt is brewed with four malt varieties and two different types of hops.
The Balt Altbier won a gold medal at The Great American Beer Fest on October 13th, in the traditional German Altbier category.
   Blodger and Zerivitz rolled these first two beers out to the public at a release party at Max’s Taphouse in Fell’s Point on Friday, June 29th. It was a packed house. A number of cask-conditioned versions of both brews also appeared that day, and did not last the night due to thirsty patrons. Clearly, it was a great start.
   When I first visited the brewery on July 17, Blodger told me and members of a local homebrew club that Union’s third beer was a Gose, and that it was in the fermenting tanks. “It’s only been in the tank for six days, but you can have a taste if you like,” he said. We all agreed, unsurprisingly. We also agreed that the beer had great potential. We were right.

Gose is a style of beer native to Eastern Germany that uses salt as well as acidulated, wheat, and pilsner malts in its recipe. This, along with a slight touch of lactobacillus, makes for a refreshing, slightly salty, brew with just a hint of sourness. A perfect, thirst-quenching, summertime beer, with very little bitterness.
  The Gose style is rarely seen these days, but is one that Blodger was able to experiment with at Gordon Biersch, and that he wanted to create again. Union’s Gose sold out within two or three weeks, and won’t be seen again until next July.
   Fortunately, two other beers have already been released, and more are on the way. Blackwing Lager, a German-style Schwartzbier, or dark lager, is available at local watering holes now. This smooth, malty brew, with overtones of chocolate and mild coffee, is very light-bodied and easy drinking. It has just 4.8% ABV. Another beer is Hampden on Rye Pale Ale, a collaboration beer done with Brewer’s Art and Dog Brewing of Westminster. This beer was made for Hampdenfest 2012, and uses the same yeast as Resurrection, a Belgian-inspired Dubbel seen at most craft beer bars in B-More.  

Hampden on Rye has two different types of rye malts in its recipe and a substantial 52 IBU’s to match is nearly 6% alcohol. Speaking of collaborations, when I visited last Wednesday, October 3, Brian Strumke of Baltimore’s own Stillwater Artisanal Ales was at Union. The occasion: the brewing of a Smoked Saison, called “Hard Times.”

(Photo, above, from left: Jon Zerivitz, Kevin
Blodger and Brian Strumke of Stillwater Artisanal

“We used a Plumwood Smoked Malt, along with two other kinds of malts, oats, and couple of Noble European hops, Perle and Tettnang. ‘Hard Times’ will have about 7% alcohol and a mild bitterness,” Zerivitz commented. “In fact, we worked with Blacksauce Kitchen, a great local business here in Baltimore, to smoke our own malts, which is a particularly unique aspect of this beer,” he added.

The name wasn’t chosen by accident, Strumke told me: “We are roasting Casey Hard, General Manager and main beer event organizer at Max’s Taphouse, at of Love & Regret on Saturday, October 20th. Hard Times is brewed especially for that roast, though it will of course be available at Max’s and other bars as well.”

 Of Love & Regret is Stillwater’s bar in Canton, which opened at the end of May, and has met with rave reviews for its food, beer, cocktails, and service. October 20th is the second day of Baltimore Beer Week, a ten-day smorgasbord of all things beer in Baltimore, which runs Oct. 19-28. Expect to read more on that in future columns.
   Blodger and Zerivitz have a busy Beer Week ahead of them: “We are brewing a new beer, an as yet unnamed American Red Ale, to debut on or before our Halloween party at the brewery on Oct 27th. We are also hosting the first annual Duckpin Day at Stoneleigh Lanes Bowling Center. It is all you can bowl and drink on Sunday Oct. 21,” Zerivitz told me.
   “We will also have cask ale on at the Pratt Street Real Ale Fest Oct. 20th, a tap takeover at Alonso's with a cask made by the Alonso's crew, a tap takeover at JD's Smokehouse in Canton, a jalapeno-infused cask at Max's Taphouse’ Maryland breweries cask day, and a few other 'pint night' type of events around town that week,” Blodger added.
   Zerivitz and Blodger have even more up their sleeves: “We plan to can our beers when we have enough extra capacity to do so. Right now, we can’t even keep up with the demand for our brews in kegs,” Zerivitz remarked, smiling. That’s a nice problem to have! The demand came quickly: Union already has between 50 and 60 draft beer accounts, aka bars and restaurants, in Maryland and D.C.
   The next collaboration? Zerivitz told me: “I have another, more unusual collaboration in the works with two local artists, Christopher Attenborough (of Beer/Wine bar Grand Cru) and Sean Naftel. The gist of the collaboration is a take on the quintessential American experience of Tailgating. They have completely renovated an old Winnebago into the ultimate man-cave tailgate bus, and we have developed a beer to go with it.”
That I must see! Perhaps at a Ravens game….

While Union Craft Brewing Company is strictly a production facility, and not a brewpub, they do have a tasting room, which is open on most Saturdays, from 1 to 4 pm. You can taste the beers there, and they sell growlers of their beer to go as well.

A filled 64-ounce growler costs $17, and growler refills are $10. “We have the feeling we’ll be getting to know a lot of people here in Hampden,” Zerivitz commented, happily. “We also have been hosting private tours and tastings for groups by appointment,” Zerivitz added.

Union Brewing t-shirts are also on offer. Brewery tours are given on Saturdays at 1:30, 2:30, and 3:30 pm. No reservations are required.

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