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Union Craft Brewery Looks to Put the Charm in Charm City Beer

Posted by on in September 2014 Editions
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Country music fans often sing of having a "hometown honeymoon."  Those who like to strap on the old feedbag and stuff their faces with fried chicken, pizza, and pasta will tell you there's no better place for that than the Hometown Buffet restaurant chain.  But Baltimoreans looking for a hometown beer?  More and more are gravitating to Union Craft Brewing.

Founded by three local friends -- Adam Benesch, Kevin Blodger, and Jon Zerivitz -- this growing operation is quickly becoming a hometown favorite to locals and Marylanders alike.  Benesch, who recently sat down with the Beverage Journal on the eve of Union Craft's two-year anniversary, stated, "Being that all three of us are hometown guys, a lot of our passion for what we wanted to create here revolved around community.  We really wanted to be a community-based brewery.  What that means to us is hosting community-type events at the brewery, but also being very involved out in the community, whether it's partnering with local charities or coming up with ways to connect with other people in Baltimore doing great things.  That could mean restaurants holding various events or local causes that we connect with.  And beer is just that great thing everyone loves having around."

Among the most popular events that Benesch and his partners have hosted on site was a recently completed summer movie series.  For four straight Fridays in July, they showed films on a 20-foot inflatable screen in the brewery's large parking lot that all revolved around a theme of "bro's on screen."  The titles included everything from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "Wayne's World" to "Top Gun" and "The Lost Boys."

"We are going to do it again probably in the fall, probably with a different theme" Benesch stated.  " We open up the parking lot, and people bring their chairs and their blankets, and we have beer on the site on trucks.  The community showed us that they wanted such an event by coming out in droves for these movie nights."

In addition, Benesch and his partners indeed love to welcome local food trucks to their parking lot and use those opportunities to showase their beers.  Benesch noted, "There are two types of breweries.  There are production packaging breweries that manufacture beer to be distributed out to bars, restaurants, and liquor stores.  The other is brewpubs. They're typically smaller, but not always. They are coupled with a restaurant like the Brewer's Art or Oliver's.  We are a production brewery.  We have no kitchen, and we have no food here.  So, we love partnering with local food trucks to come to our parking lot, set up shop, and provide food for our guests.  It's a great way to showcase all of these great tastes that are coming off of these food trucks.  Two, it's great for us in that they offer a great variety of food.  We love trying out new food trucks as well as established favorites."

The trio has also found success in donating its beers to local businesses and causes.  "There are laws around that about we can and cannot do," Benesch noted. "We do love partnering with charities that are doing great things in our community.  A lot of times when they are trying to fund raise or do great events, we can work it out to provide them beer that they can then provide for their guests or even sell and help raise money for themselves."

Benesch, Blodger, and Zerivitz were all born in the Baltimore metro area and had been craft beer fans for many, many years dating back to their college days.  Benesch and Blodger attended the University of Maryland, College Park together in the late 1990s.  "Kevin started home brewing in college," Benesch recalled, with a grin, "and I would often hang out and drink it all!  After school, he went into teaching for about two years. But he got the buzz to follow his passion and got an entry-level brewing job at Frederick Brewing Co., which is now where Flying Dog is. He learned the brewing trade on the job and at other jobs that he took at other brewers across the country."

He continued, "I had been talking to him for a while about coming back to Baltimore from Chicago.  Around that time, I connected with my third partner, John, who I knew through some common friends.  We actually connected at a friend's wedding about four years ago now.  The three of us came together, and we found that we had a similar passion for craft beer and for Baltimore.  We put our heads together to open this brewery.  It is the first production brewery within the Baltimore city limits in 30 years.  That was the good part of it.  The bad part?  There was no brewery in Baltimore for 30 years! The Health Department, the Fire Department, and every zoning board had NO idea what we were talking about.  So, that made for a lot of red tape that we had to get through."

The three have separate and defined duties and responsibilities, which makes the overall operation run smoothly. "Kevin is the head brewer.  He brews beer and makes them taste great.  At Union, he has really developed his recipes.  John does a lot of our marketing and branding.  He makes our beers look great.  I handle the distribution and a lot of the business side.  I get the beer in people's hands."

Union Craft Brewery is located along the Jones Falls River in the historic Woodberry neighborhood of Charm City, not far from the Maryland Zoo and Loyola University.  It officially began operations in 2012 with the installation of a 20-barrel brewhouse and the initial launch of Duckpin Pale Ale.  On Saturday, Aug. 9, Union Craft celebrated the two-year anniversary of its first batch of beer hitting the taps in Baltimore.

With that celebration done, the focus has shifted to the next two years and beyond.  The goal is to continue producing beers in Baltimore city mostly for the home market, although that home market is projected to grow.  "As of right now," Benesch stated, "our beers are only available in Maryland and Washington, D.C.  We'll probably enter into Northern Virginia in the next six to nine months.  Then after that, we'll go a little north.  So, in two years, we'll hopefully be a little more of a regional brewery with the ability to ship our beers to the surrounding states for many years."

Today, there is an on-site tap room that is open to the public Thursdays and Fridays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.  During those times, Union Craft staffers give tours of the brewery, and people are invited to taste the beer.  The partners helped get a law changed in 2013 at the state level that allows them to now sell a pint of beer during those hours.

Benesch gives major credit to his two partners for the early success of Union Craft Brewery.  He also applauds those brewery operators around the state and in other parts of the country who were responsive in giving out helpful tips and advices early on.  "We certainly spent a lot of time meeting and talking with other brewery owners to figure out 'Hey, how do we NOT fail!'  How open brewery owners are in lending ideas and offering advice is one thing that is really awesome about our community.  The one thing that probably everyone we talked to said was, 'Everything is going to cost twice as much and take twice as much time.'  I believed them and built that into our timeline and our budget."

Benesch concluded, "The other thing that has proven very true and helpful to us is passion.  A lot of people ask, 'What is craft beer?'  Well, a lot of it comes down to passion.  There are craft breweries like us all over the country that are just passionate about their beer and passionate about their home market.  When you combine those two things and build a business around that, it's pretty amazing what can happen.  It IS beer.  We try to remember that, 'Hey, we created this brewery, and we love this business.'  At the end of the day,  it's about having a good time, it's about creating this great and high-quality beverage, and all of the great things that come with that."

 

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Teddy is a graduate of UMBC. In additional to his Beverage Journal writing duties, he is an entertainment reviewer.