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Maureen O’Prey: Brewing in Baltimore

Baltimore has always been a beer town

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Brewing in Baltimore

Maureen O’Prey

Arcadia Publishing

Baltimore has always been a beer town, but we didn’t realize to what extent until we read Brewing in Baltimore, by Maureen O’Prey. One of the Images of America series—you know, those slim, sepia-toned, paperback mini-histories—Brewing takes the reader from the dawn of beer in Baltimore through the sorry years of “near beer” during Prohibition right up to 2011, with the rise of craft breweries and the reappearance of National Bohemian on tap. The book features more than 200 vintage photographs, many of them early beer advertisements, the story of how Natty Boh came to be brewed elsewhere, and a rundown of modern local brewers like Stillwater Artisanal and Bawlmer Craft Beers.

According to the book, Baltimore’s first manufacturing industry was beermaking, in the shape of the Barnitz Brewery, which opened in 1748, a scant 19 years after the city’s founding. The Zion Lutheran church, which was built in 1808 and still stands on Lexington and Gay Streets, was in part funded and populated by German brewers. (Even now, the church’s web site is available in either English or German.)

The 19th century brought a flurry of new breweries and maltsters (who sold that crucial ingredient, malt). And here the book gets a little soporific, what with the litany of whozits and how many barrels a year they produced. But if you throw one back and keep reading, you get to the effects that technology wrought on the industry, which are of interest. In 1891, William Painter invented the Crown Cork Bottle Closure, which allowed for a tight seal on bottled beer, retaining flavor and carbonation. (The Crown Cork and Seal plant building still looms over Greektown.) The American Can Company, another Baltimore company, successfully canned the first beer in the 1930s. This allowed beer to be shipped overseas to soldiers and sailors during World War II. When they came back, they had become accustomed to this lighter stuff made at national breweries rather than the richer craft-brewed varieties, which helped lead to the demise of the smaller breweries.

During Prohibition, many local breweries shut down, but a few began making beer with super-low alcohol content or malt products like hop-flavored syrup for pancakes. Those that survived were better able to jump back in the market in 1933 when Prohibition ended. H.L. Mencken, who had vocally protested Prohibition, was reportedly one of the first to drink real beer again, the Globe Brewery’s locally produced Arrow Beer.

Maureen O’Prey will sign her book at the Heavy Seas brewery on Dec. 17 from 11 A.M.-5 P.M. Reservations required for a brewery tour. Visit hsbeer.com for more information.

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