Two Decades of Brewer's Artistry: Drawing national attention but remaining a favorite local hangout

Making beer is an art of compromise and tough decisions. One of the first big decisions Volker Stewart and his partners had to make, as they prepared to open the Brewer's Art, was cutting up their brand new 10 hectaliter, steam-jacketed, two-vessel brewhouse, a showpiece which they had bought in Austin the year before.

The brewhouse—the heart of the miniature beer factory they were aiming to open—would fit in the expansive brick Charles Street mansion they'd leased to serve as the new brewpub and restaurant. But there was no way to get it into the room without knocking out heavy walls fixed with complex antique woodwork.

"We had to take apart the brewhouse," says co-owner Tom Creegan, who actually joined the partners about two years after this happened. "It's on like a metal frame."

The brewhouse was taken apart, the copper kettles severed from the skid, the pipes removed, and the whole thing was reassembled inside the restaurant behind the first-floor dining room, where it's been ever since.

Creegan says the original partners aimed to build "something that the original crew wanted to hang out in. The mantra was we're just gonna work for ourselves for as long as we can."

And so slowly, over two decades, and without a lot of fuss, the Brewer's Art has become a national icon. As the Brewer's Art celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the dining room has become a destination restaurant, and looks like a separate entity from the bar and the lounge. Reservations for the dining room get you a quieter, more elegant scene and some very good specialties, like Berkshire pork shank ($28), by chef Andrew Weinzirl.

"We've had several chefs over the years," Creegan says. "We pretty much let everyone put their own thumbprint on it in the spirit of the original chef, Johey Verfaille."

Subsequent chefs "tweaked it a little," he says, but always "keeping within the confines of the structure and feel. The building sort of dictated it. The chef comes in with an idea but they hang out in here and the place almost speaks to them."

The bars—an upstairs lounge with high ceilings, a chandelier, and an expansive front window; and a downstairs red-brick cave with arched cubbies—are a whole different, impossible thing: at once a neighborhood hangout and beer tourist draw. The bar-only menu includes burgers ($11-$13), crab dip ($5) and baked mac-n-cheese ($7), although dining room favorites (Choptank steamed mussels [$13]; rosemary garlic fries [$5]) are also available.

The road from new brewpub to national icon was winding and scenic. The Washington Post first noticed Brewer's Art just a month after it opened, deeming it "already a success" before the first batch of Resurrection Ale had come out of those copper kettles. By January of 1996, it was only brewing one beer, but the WaPo plugged it again, citing the elegant atmosphere and eclectic bottle selection.

By 2001 the Brewer's Art topped the Daily Record's readers' annual A-List Survey. But it was mid-decade before writers started getting hip to the brew pub's true specialty: Belgian-style ales. And even then there was a learning curve. The Sun's Kevin Cowherd denounced his wife in print for ordering an Amstel Light in the dining room: "Like going to Harvard and taking a gym class." But then he wrote that Brewer's Art's brews were "hoppy," which is wrong. They are mainly smooth and malty and sweet, not sharp and hoppy and bitter.

That's what Belgian Trappist Dubbel and Tripel stuff is: strong, dark, and smooth. It's counter-programming to the microbrew mainstream.

"When we started," Creegan says, "several beers would come back. [Customers would] say, 'Can I get it in a straight glass, instead of a goblet?' And bartenders explaining why it was cloudy… so every transaction at the bar took a lot more time than it does now."

Those smooth Belgian Dubbels can sneak up on you. Exercise caution.

By 2007, Esquire had taken notice, blurbing the place in its list of best bars. Stewart went to the University of Baltimore newsstand and bought every copy. Then in 2009 Esquire named Brewer's Art the country's best bar. "It was really surprising," Stewart told the Baltimore Business Journal. "I didn't expect it at all."

By the 2010s Resurrection, brewed under contract at Sly Fox Brewing in Pennsylvania, was selling in bottles throughout the mid-Atlantic.

Any beer-related story about Baltimore would give a nod to Brewer's Art. Beer snobs bought in as well; as the brewpub made Draft magazine's 2015 top 100 beer bars in the U.S.

Even Ozzy Osbourne's people sent a friendly letter demanding Brewer's Art cease and desist marketing a beer called "Ozzy."

They renamed it Beazly, after the bartender who signed on at the beginning, Mark Barcus. He has manned the basement bar for all of 20 years, and is set to leave this month.

Beazly is not the only long-timer. Brewer's Art has employed 520 people over its two decades, Creegan says, but staff turnover at Brewer's Art is not brisk: "The newbies have been here for like two years. A lot of people have been here a long time." But Beazly's the longest-serving.

At 4:58 p.m. on a Wednesday, Beazly is just opening the dark, low-ceilinged dungeon of brick and steel beams that is the basement bar. As is his habit, Beazly's got some '80s music on the stereo that sits on a shelf above the bar-back. He's blond and wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. Thin with the slightest paunch. And he is fully engaged in his job.

He politely declines the offer to be interviewed for a CP profile. "I'm not a guy who likes to draw a lot of attention to himself," he says, pouring a Birdhouse Pale Ale. The regulars make their way in steadily. He knows the faces, and many of the names. "You never touched your water," he tells a woman as she sidles up to the bar. "I looked at the straw and there wasn't a mark on it."

Making conversation, Beazly allows that he grew up in Newark, Delaware: "a nice place to grow up." But further details do not come. As the regulars file in at the start of his shift, he discretely drains two shot glasses.

Jim, a retired kitchen cabinet salesman and regular, tells this reporter a story to warm the mayor's heart: He moved to Harford County in the middle of the last decade, but couldn't stand the peace and quiet, so he moved back to the city to be near the action. He lives in Hamilton now, as does Beazly, who once drove him home after he had a little too much to drink, he says.

Beazly rubs his hands together as he watches the crowd, alert to empty glasses and plates, scanning eyes. "The usual, all three of them," a woman requests, and Beazly complies instantly.

I drink a Beazly, formerly Ozzy, a Belgian-style, high-octane brew that goes down way more smoothly than it should.

Beazly explains the complicated happy hour situation while scanning the bar and the dark recesses beyond for new orders and new needs. He keeps an even keel. The place is loud and filling up fast, and it's only 5:30. The professional is at the helm, and everyone is happy.

The stereo is tuned to Channel 33 on Sirius XM, the satellite radio: 1st Wave, '80s Alternative. The song is Simple Minds' 'Don't You Forget About Me.'

Copyright © 2017, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
81°