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Heavy Seas Beer

Photo: J.M. Giordano, License: N/A

J.M. Giordano

Asked about expansion at the city’s oldest production brewery (founded in 1995, before the late-’90s shakeout), Hugh Sisson’s initial response is brief. “TFM: too fucking much.”

Heavy Seas almost tripled their space in the past two years, and they’re filling it accordingly: a new taproom (not yet decorated); a new cold-storage room that’s 96,000 cubic feet; a new bottling line scheduled to arrive in November; and a new brewhouse that Sisson says they’re committing to in a week or so. Though nothing’s been finalized, the designer of the system might be the same as the one contracted by brewing titans Oskar Blues and New Glarus Brewing, says Joe Marunowski, Heavy Seas’ head of brewing operations.

“We’re spending money like we got it,” Sisson says. The original Clipper City tasting room and offices will be demolished to make room for that new brewhouse, making the Halethorpe brewery unrecognizable to those who have witnessed its growth over the past 18 years.

Because he has run both a brewpub (the erstwhile Sisson’s) and a production brewery in Baltimore, Sisson has a keen understanding of the city’s beer drinkers and of the beer industry. “This is a really hard business,” he says, “so I hope people have prepared themselves for the challenges that this industry presents. What I’m seeing from a lot of the newer entries right now is that these guys did their homework.

“The character of Baltimore beer drinkers has changed, in some ways; and in some ways, it’s absolutely the goddamn same,” Sisson says. He mentions a T-shirt the brewery made that depicted a spin on the Mr. Boh logo and the words “Heavy Seas: Actually brewed in Baltimore.” “We got about 75 percent really positive affirmations on it,” he calculates, “about 20 percent people who were completely oblivious, and about 5 percent who took great umbrage that we had taken that position. If I’d have done the same thing 20 years ago, they would have probably hung us on a cross.”

But more has evolved about the city’s drinkers than its gradual abandonment of blind loyalty to its bygone local beer. Marunowski worked at the Eastern Shore’s defunct Wild Goose Brewing and at Oxford Brewing Company in the ’90s before moving to Cleveland. He came back to Baltimore in summer of 2012. “It’s much more advanced than it used to be. Back in the day, it was very traditional, you had Hugh’s brewpub, you had the Wharf Rat [now Pratt Street Ale House], you had Baltimore Brewing Company—everyone making very traditional beers. And now you’ve got a big drive for innovation, for what’s different, what’s next.”

A large share of the young people just reaching drinking age “are much more plugged in from a cultural standpoint” as Sisson and Marunowski see it. That’s the long-term change that will give craft beer its health and longevity. “I don’t think it’s a bubble,” Sisson says—and of all Baltimore’s brewers, he might know best.

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