Hugh Sisson brought the brewpub to Baltimore. Then he really learned about the beer business
Published: October 5, 2011
On an early September Saturday, a crowd mills around the office at Halethorpe’s Clipper City Brewing Company, sampling beer while waiting to start a brewery tour. The multipurpose room feels cramped, with desks, cases of beer, shelves stocked with merchandise, and a bar forming a perimeter around the 50 or so people wedged in the center. Still, the group, mostly twentysomethings, happily sip beer out of pint glasses emblazoned with the Heavy Seas logo, an eye-patched skull and crossbones.
Hugh Sisson, the founder and managing general partner of Clipper City, leaps on a chair to get the crowd’s attention. He tells them the 30-minute tour, which he leads one Saturday a month, will commence in five minutes, so they’d best get refills now. A middle-aged blond woman in a pink tank top edges up to the bar, slides her glass forward, and says, half-sheepishly, “I want something light.”
Kevin Ashford, a brewer at Clipper City and the pro tem bartender, glances hesitantly at the taps. His options are limited. Of the six Clipper City Heavy Seas brews on tap, the pale ale is arguably the mildest, especially in comparison with a triple-hopped IPA or a sable-colored stout. One of the offerings on draft is Baltimore’s award-winningest beer, Heavy Seas’ Märzen, which has won medals at the Great American Beer Festival for five years running. An American styling of a German beer traditionally served at Oktoberfest, the amber Märzen may have a smooth texture and a pleasant maltiness, but it’s not “something light.”
“Try the pale ale,” Ashford says.
The blonde’s request reflects a popular taste. Baltimoreans tend to favor a low-flavor, low-priced beer that they can knock back the whole night—which makes for a difficult environment for those selling complex, locally made but pricier brews like Sisson’s. He has grappled with this challenge since the ’80s, when he first started brewing. “Baltimore was much more of a Budweiser-Coors Light town then,” he says. And in some ways, craft brews still aren’t the easiest sell, as Sisson knows all too well.
With more than 20 years of experience making and marketing craft beer in Baltimore, Sisson, 57, is perhaps the city’s most seasoned beer veteran. When he’s not presiding over beer dinners or leading brewery tours, he works the numbers, swiveling around in a chair in the same small office from which the tours start. His desk is in the corner, close to the bar and not a minute’s walk from the 15,000-square-foot warehouse where all the brewing, bottling, and shipping happens. Some time ago, when a gasket blew in the brewery and 6 inches of foam covered the warehouse floor, Sisson was among the first to start sweeping it up. Hard-won success has not gone to his head. “I like to say we blazed a few trails along the way,” he says casually.
Sisson didn’t go into the beer business because he loved the stuff. “In 1974, I was a college student that didn’t like beer,” he says. That’s not entirely shocking if one considers the mass-marketed suds of the day: Old Milwaukee, Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Nor was Sisson too taken with the Land of Pleasant Living, despite being a native. He grew up in Roland Park and attended McDonogh School in Owings Mills. After he graduated from University of Virginia with a master’s degree in theater in 1980, he intended to move to New York City. “I was the actor/director type,” he says, though there’s no trace of artsiness in his crisp, businesslike demeanor.
Sisson’s father, Albert, persuaded his son to tarry in Baltimore to tend bar in the new pub he had purchased on Cross Street in then slightly run-down Federal Hill. Young Sisson was not a hard sell. He was enticed by the budding renaissance under way in that part of the city in the early ’80s, as well as the promise of making money. “After grad school, the romance of poverty had worn thin,” he says. And a more lucrative livelihood would enable him to be his father’s “retirement plan,” a factor that sealed Sisson’s decision.
The job turned out to be more than just a waiting gig: “I’d been back in Baltimore for 20 minutes, and I’m in the bar. My father looks up, throws me the keys, and as I catch the keys, he says, ‘OK, don’t fuck up.’ And walks out the door.”
With the catch of the keys and not so much as a business class under his belt, Sisson plunged into the hospitality industry. He taught himself accounting to ensure the pub steadier financial footing, but also learned the nitty-gritty of marketing on the fly. In ’81, he notes, “Every place carried the same booze, every place carried the same beer. We didn’t have a kitchen. The only thing to focus on was beer.” Sisson’s became Baltimore’s beer bar because that niche was available.
Sisson roped in around 120 imported beers by 1982; it was among the first two bars in Maryland to offer Guinness on draft. He started home-brewing in 1984 simply “to know what I was talking about.
“This is what you do, you’re supposed to be knowledgeable,” Sisson says matter-of-factly.
Many of today’s most successful craft brewers were converted via home-brewing. Jim Koch, the founder of Sam Adams, unearthed a lager recipe in his father’s attic and recreated it in his kitchen in 1984. Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione concocted a sour-cherry ale in his Manhattan apartment in 1992. Sisson describes home-brewing tepidly. “I was adequate, at best,” he concedes. “You’re making beer with kitchen utensils. I’m not a terribly patient individual, and that really was unappealing to me.”
It was the first pub-brewed batch that captivated Sisson, in 1989: “When we installed the equipment at Sisson’s and for the first time in my life I could make beer on equipment designed to make beer and focus on the process and nuances and subtleties of the process—that was an epiphany.” To install that sort of equipment, Sisson had to transform his family’s bar in to a working brewpub, a facility that brews its beer on the premises. At the time, brewpubs were illegal in Maryland. So Sisson lobbied for legalization with the help of then state Sen. George Della Jr. (D), and in 1987, his bill passed the state assembly.
When Sisson’s became the state’s first brewpub in 1989, Sisson had few templates to follow. There were no other local establishments to model the pub after; even more significantly, there was no one walking him step by step through the brewing process. As he puts it, “We woke up one morning and we owned $350,000 worth of stainless steel and a book, and that’s how we learned to make beer.” Armed with copies of Gregory Noonan’s Brewing Lager Beer and George Fix’s Principles of Brewing Science, Sisson learned to make hops, barley, yeast, and water yield a serviceable potable.
Sisson volunteers that his early beers probably wouldn’t have hacked it in today’s market. But consumers, not yet conversant with refined IPAs, lagers, and stouts, were less discerning in ’89. Once, he botched a raspberry wheat beer by using the wrong yeast and wanted to toss the batch; at Albert Sisson’s insistence, the pub offered it anyway, and patrons guzzled it gladly. “That was a mistake we got away with,” Sisson says. Consumers’ relative ignorance afforded him some “ramp-up time, to get my fecal matter coagulated.”
Not only did he get his shit together fast, but he also cornered the market until the mid-’90s. His only competitor, Theo DeGroen’s Baltimore Brewing Co. in Jonestown, zeroed in on traditional European brews, while Sisson’s rolled out popular American styles with thematic names: Edgar Allan Porter, Marble Golden Ale, Stonecutter Stout. The pub’s bestseller, Stockade Amber Ale, took its name from the first small brewery in Baltimore, which, according to Sisson’s research, was housed in “a wooden stockade on what would now be the corner of Hanover Street and Baltimore [Street].” The local theme was quite deliberate, and Sisson would later recycle the strategy.
The brewpub business leveled off in 1994, “which was no reflection on us or what we were doing,” Sisson says. More likely, it owed to a proliferation of little breweries. A Baltimore Sun article from January of that year reported on the heightened interest: “There’s a ton of people out there wanting to start breweries,” said an official from the state comptroller’s office. The bull beer market gave Sisson the impression that the city was ripe for a larger local brewery—one that could fill the void left by local cheap-suds favorite National Bohemian’s outsourcing.
“The original concept of Clipper City was, ‘Let’s be the local guy,’” Sisson says. He picked Clipper City as the name of his new brewery to build on the hyperlocal theme he first developed at Sisson’s. An elegant image, nearly entirely masts and sails, with only a sliver of hull at the bottom, the clipper ship was first designed in Baltimore; its silhouette appeared on Clipper City’s label. For Sisson, the branding motif was obvious. “I thought that everybody in Baltimore knew where the clipper ship was first designed and built,” he says. “It became readily apparent shortly thereafter that people didn’t know that.” When the brewery began churning out suds in ’96, it was geared for growth. Within the year, the company faced drearier prospects.
The mushrooming of microbreweries led the market to flip-flop in supply and demand. Consumers were inundated with more local beer than was salable. “Very quickly, I had to move philosophically from playing the game to win to playing the game not to lose, which is not my personality type,” Sisson says. The brewery’s facilities were larger than its own output could sustain financially. To stay afloat, Clipper City started contract brewing, or producing other breweries’ beer. “At one point, 75 percent of the beer going out of the door was other people’s beer,” Sisson remembers. “That wasn’t really why we built this place. But it got us to the point where we were gonna survive.”
His own beer, despite its quality, wasn’t catching with the local audience. Part of the problem was insular marketing. Around 2002, Sisson released Clipper City Balto. MärzHon; the title was clearly a pun on Märzen and “hon.” But it flopped. “As soon as I got 20 minutes outside of the city, nobody got that joke,” Sisson says, frustrated even in hindsight. “That is a kickass product. And I couldn’t sell it anywhere but right here.”
He had pigeonholed his beers for a slim audience—predominantly because of his brewpub success. “That gave me a slanted sense of consumer appreciation for craft beer,” he says. “When we left that [brewpub] environ and moved to this larger platform, I was assuming there would be just as much interest in what we were doing.” Instead, he discovered that he was not in “the little perfect world that we spent years creating” at Sisson’s.
Lackluster local support, perhaps, boggled him the most. “The locals couldn’t give two craps about whether you were made locally or not,” Sisson says. “They all wanted to know what the price was.” For Sisson (who also reviews wines on WYPR-FM’s Cellar Notes), it’s unconscionable to shell out $50 for a bottle of wine or under $5 for a six-pack of beer. Natty Boh, however, seems to win out more often than not as “Baltimore’s beer,” even though it’s manufactured in North Carolina by Miller. “I underestimated the amazing resilience of that brand—for no reason that makes any sense at all,” Sisson says. Thus, Clipper City found itself at a crossroads: Stick with the original business plan and target an uninterested audience, or scrap that and venture into larger markets.
The overhaul that salvaged Clipper City beers came in early 2010 in the form of rebranding. Heavy Seas’ Märzen replaced the Balto. MärzHon; Classic Lager (based on the recipe used to make National Premium) replaced McHenry Lager; Clipper City’s Gold Ale and Pale Ale now fall under Heavy Seas as well. “Clipper City” as a brand no longer exists, though the brewing company itself still retains the name. Ninety-nine percent of the beer made at its brewery is Heavy Seas.
Brewery tours and beer dinners sell out consistently. The company recently tacked on a 10,000-square-foot addition to the brewery to clear space for more brewing tanks. And though Sisson predicts another “Darwinian cleanup” in the craft-beer market in a few years, he says he isn’t worried.
In Baltimore, Sisson and his new line of beers have garnered a significantly larger following. “They’re the new darlings of Baltimore, since they rebranded,” says Bob Simko, the longtime manager of Max’s Taphouse. “If Hugh makes it, they will drink it.” Heavy Seas’ Great’er Pumpkin, its bourbon barrel-aged pumpkin ale, was nearly sold out at Hampden’s Wine Source during a visit last week; at Wells Discount Liquors on York Road, the Märzen was completely gone. “They can’t make enough of it to go around,” says Joe Falcone, one of Wells’ beer managers. “It’s the No. 1 in-store local.”
Jed Jenny, the beer manager at the Wine Source, adds that although Heavy Seas “is huge” for the store, people still occasionally ask for the Clipper City brand.
Clipper City beers were sold in Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and snatches of Pennsylvania and Delaware; the Heavy Seas brand now sells in 18 states, from Florida to Maine and as far west as Michigan. “If I could have made a living only selling beer within a 75-mile radius of here, I would have done that,” Sisson has said on more than one occasion.
To appeal to more people, he rebranded. He finds that the pirate theme cultivated by Heavy Seas intrigues people. But in rebranding, he had to shed something somewhat dear: heritage. “I’m slightly versed in Baltimore’s history and culture, [but] I’m not immersed in it by any stretch of the imagination,” he demurs. But that history runs in his blood. Sisson Street, which runs through Remington, takes its name from his family, which has called the city home since the 19th century. The early Sissons quarried marble for the city; notably, the marble interiors of the Peabody Institute and City Hall were the work of their marble company. Hugh Sisson has also affected the city’s history. Although Sisson’s, without him at the helm, gradually lost speed and reinvented itself as Ryleigh’s Oyster’s, his efforts there ushered in the brewpub concept in Baltimore.
While wending his way past stainless steel tanks and the towering coolers in the brewery’s warehouse, Sisson tells the Saturday tour group about fermenting, bottling, and packaging. He explains the art of brewing—which he hasn’t been in charge of since he left Sisson’s—to the slightly buzzed audience. He takes a handful of hops and distributes the bright green pods to the crowd, instructing them to rub the flowers between their fingers so they can smell the resin left behind. He passes out malt to munch on. He gets worked up when telling them how to pour his beers: “Right down the middle of the glass! None of this candy-ass down the side of the glass stuff!”
The performance pleases. His master’s degree in theater proved of some use after all. Sisson’s job now consists largely of being the public face of the company, and he excels in that role, even if it’s a bit wearying. “Showing up for a brewery tour, showing up for a beer tasting or a beer dinner, yeah, it’s still fun,” he says. “But I’m going to work.”
After the group adjourns back to the office to drink more beer, he lingers briefly and dashes off soon after. The blond woman at the bar polishes off her pale ale and asks for a different beer. By her last sample, she’s sipping the IPA.
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