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Brewing in Baltimore by Maureen O’Prey

Maureen O’Prey’s Brewing in Baltimore was released at the end of 2011 but provides great insight into the past, present and future of beer. Residents of both the District and the Old Dominion should find it a pleasurable read.

O’Prey’s extensive research pays off as she provides insight into the early drinking habits of Americans at the beginning of the 19th Century (an estimation has Americans drinking 30 gallons of spirit annually, 24 of which were beer).  To give credit where it’s due, early 19th Century Americans had far more varied beer styles than America did just 40 years ago.

Discovering the past we gain new hope for the future. Consider the American (or Baltimorean) landscape of beer styles in 1972 comparatively to the early 19th Century. O’Prey writes that a “variety of brews were produced in Baltimore, including ales, porters, stouts, weiss beer, strong beer (high alcohol), table beer, ship’s beer (low quality for sea travel), and small beer (low alcohol).”

The book’s foreword is written by Hugh Sisson, founder of Clipper City Brewing Co. Heavy Seas Beer. Sisson is reflective and states, “as I grow older I become more nostalgically aware of my predecessors.” This book is testament to the predecessors he had.

The owners, brewers and maltsters that make up Baltimore’s brewing history, were predominantly Germany and Czech. What was a sizeable amount of beer in the early 1800s, (3,000-4,000 barrels), quickly became a drop in the bucket. By 1895, George Bauernschmidt, was the largest brewer in the city, cranking out 60,000 barrels annually. Names like August Beck, John Tjarks, Henry Eigenbrot and George Brehm leap from the page and may inspire a ‘that sounds familiar’ in the back of our brains.

If the following story of George Brehm sounds familiar, that means you’ve been paying attention to DC-brewing history: Brehm immigrated from Bavaria in 1864 and worked for George Neisendorfer’s brewery. When Neisendorfer died, Brehm married his widow and took control of the brewery in 1866. Under Brehm’s ownership the brewery increased from 10,000 barrels annually to 20,000 barrels annually.

DC’s biggest brewer, Christian Heurich, immigrated from Haina, Germany and originally came to America, via Baltimore in 1866. He found temporary work in a few Baltimore breweries (first Rost’s, then Seeger’s). During 1873, Heurich married George Schnell’s widow, Amelia Schnell. George Schnell was of course the man whose brewery Heurich would eventually take over in 1872. Before there was the C. Heurich Brewing Company there was the Schnell Brewery and tavern. In 1884 Amelia Schnell died, leaving the plot of land where the Brewmaster’s Castle now stands to Heurich.

Much of Brewing in Baltimore reads like a who’s who of Baltimore’s industrial forefathers. Beyond names there are institutions mentioned, giants in their own right, particularly the American Can Company who had been canning goods since the 19th Century. However, the attempt to can beer before prohibition was unsuccessful. After repeal, in 1935, American Can Company became the first to successfully can beer, retaining the fizz and eliminating the metallic taste beer had taken on; the invention of a liner did away with this problem. Without the American Can Co. there’s no Bud, no Dale’s and no DC Brau. In a way, beer in a can owes it all to Baltimore’s American Can Co.

The author adeptly addresses the irony in cans when she points out that the silver lining of the canned beer breakthrough wore off after WWII. O’Prey writes “the ground breaking can designed by the American Can Co. could not stop the quality of beer from diminishing by the time it reached Europe and the Pacific. Once the military returned home, some had acquired a taste for this weakened beer.” In a simplified way, this is the struggle in today’s craft beer movement: to do away with weak-tasting beer in favor of the more flavorful. Also to trade in the diminished, widely-shipped product, for a fresh, local alternative.

It’s important to take note not only of beer’s history from your parents and grandparents generations (after reading this book you will know they are different), but also the trajectory of one company in particular. O’Prey does just that with a once-brewed-in-Baltimore behemoth, Natty Boh.

While many Baltimore breweries struggled to compete with larger national breweries (Anheuser-Busch and Pabst for example) National Brewing Company thrived, shipping National Bohemian overseas to the military during WWII. National expanded in 1955 opening plants in Detroit, Michigan and Orlando, Florida to meet demand. Observing National, O’Prey notes that “standards were exacting and the beer was constantly tested for quality.”

While no craft brewer today wants to release less-than quality beer, many are consumed with the packaging and production of a fresh, living product. So varying degrees of quality are to be expected. Ask any craft beertender in the DMV and they will tell you: with time product will change. The average beer hunter should purchase their pint and select their snifter accordingly. In the words of the original beer hunter, Michael Jackson, “a brewer with his beers can be like a mother with her children. Some head brewers secretly wish that their beer never had to leave the brewery.”

O’Prey is meticulous in her record keeping, noting that since Prohibition was eliminated, National brewery spent over 2 million dollars. By 1964 they had produced over 1 million barrels per year. National Brewing Company would eventually sponsor the Baltimore Colts and Jerold Hoffberger would own the brewery as well as the Orioles. Despite all the numbers, O’Prey never looses sight of the real story behind Baltimore brewing: the people. As Hugh Sisson says in his foreward, “brewing is a history more of people than product…think Jerry Hoffberger and the Baltimore Orioles…I find myself wishing I could sit and have a beer (and maybe crack some crabs or catch a ball game) with many of these folks.” The question is, whose beer would they have? We can only speculate. In the meantime, let’s hope there will someday be as many DC-beers at Nationals Park as there are Baltimore beers in Camden Yards.

The 127-page book is a quick read with images on every page and fascinating factoids throughout. Many of the photo credits are attributed to the author, a testament to O’Prey’s love for all things Baltimore and all things historical.

Maureen O’Prey’s Brewing in Baltimore is available for $21.99 from Arcadia Publishing and can be purchased here or can be ordered from your favorite local bookstore.

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