A brief history of craft beer in Baltimore

Posted at 7:19 PM, Oct 20, 2016
and last updated 2017-08-23 19:06:21-04

Baltimore is synonymous with beer.

According to the Brewers Association, 60 craft breweries operate in the city today and brought in a total of $652 million in revenue in 2014, yet Baltimore beer extends far beyond the simple mix of water, yeast, hops and grain. Beer is steeped in the city’s history.

In 1748, John Leonard Barnitz opened the first commercial brewery near Hanover and Baltimore Streets. Before then, women brewed in the home, making just enough for their families to drink in colonial Maryland. The demand for beer picked up during the Revolutionary War when soldiers were promised a daily ration of beer as an incentive to fight.

“The war sparked industrial brewing,” according to Maureen O’Prey, author of "Brewing in Baltimore."

Craft beer has a huge presence in Maryland. Check out other stories about Maryland beer here.

An influx of German immigrants escaping forced military service sailed on clipper ships directly into the port of Baltimore in the mid-19th century. With them, families brought their brewing traditions and introduced lager beer, a welcome addition to the ales brewed at the time.

Baltimore was an ideal place for making beer and the industry flourished, thanks in part to the city’s quality water supply—a key ingredient in good beer—and access to the railroad bringing in necessary grain shipments.

As the city’s population grew, so did the number of breweries and neighborhoods centered on brew culture. Bustling Fells Point catered to merchant sailors, immigrants and laborers passing through looking for work.

Rob Kasper, author of "Baltimore Beer: A Satisfying History of Charm City Brewing," said Brewers Hill in east Baltimore and Brewers Row (formerly near Gary and Hillen Streets) were home to large-scale brew factories, including what became some of the city’s most well-known beer icons such as National Brewing Company, Gunther and American Brewery.

Brewers of the time eventually made their way to the city’s outskirts of Canton and Highlandtown in search of locations to excavate underground vaults for beer storage prior to the invention of refrigeration.

Homebrewing gained popularity during the prohibition era, yet wasn’t legalized until 1978 by Jimmy Carter. His legislation helped usher in a renewed interest in regional craft beer and flavor experimentation.

“For anyone that was dedicated, it was interesting and new,” O’Prey said. “They could make their own flavor combinations and figure out that they liked.”

This excitement for craft, or small batch, beer spurred a curiosity in discovering different types of beer, and opened the tap for modern-day breweries such as Union Craft, Brewer’s Art and Heavy Seas. These breweries have helped position Baltimore as a key player in national brew culture, a fact filmmaker Nick Kovacic, director of the documentary film "Brewmore Baltimore," says has a direct impact on Baltimore’s growth. 

“Having local craft beer builds a community and the money that people are spending at the craft breweries goes directly back into the local community. Having a direct connection with seeing and meeting the people that make your product is kind of a special thing.”