This year marks the end of a small-scale but nonetheless storied Baltimore beer tradition, with origins that stretch back to a rented rowhouse and a clutch of childhood buddies who wanted to exchange gifts around the holidays. Its evolution coincided and intertwined with the rise of craft beer, garnering the annual event a die-hard following.
In 1986, six friends ranging in age from 20 to 25—Jack and Kevin Hughes, Dave Samluck, Oliver Somers, Michael Sullivan, and Steve Wrobel—decided they'd stop giving each other albums for Christmas and instead trade six-packs. Jack Hughes, who had gone backpacking overseas earlier that year, hosted the first of what eventually became the International Christmas Beer Exchange at his place on Cambridge Street.
"I said, 'Come over to my house and we'll exchange gifts there—I've got slides to show you from my Europe trip,'" Hughes says. (He still gets ribbed about the slides.) The men each contributed six six-packs of something interesting; each person would take home five six-packs, leaving the remaining 36 beers for immediate consumption. After two years of that model, a light bulb went off: Expand.
"When we had the idea for the first party," Samluck says, "I think one of the guys said, 'If people bring a lot of beer and they don't drink it, it'll be left over—and we get to keep that.' I think the first party each of us had a case and a half of beer left over, and it was like, 'Wow, this is a great idea.'" The first party was held at 121 S. Linwood Ave. and drew a crowd of about 80 to 100 people. The beer selection was not the choicest.
"When we started it, it was hard," Sullivan says. "Thirty years ago there was not that much beer available." In the first year, three people brought Dortmunder Union, a German pilsner. The group wrangled kegs of Moosehead Lager and Beck's for early parties. Attendees pitched in six-packs of Heineken and Molson Canadian. "It took a few years before it started to be something else," Sullivan says.
As the number of microbreweries swelled in the early '90s, the core beer meisters—who grew from six to eight, adding Charles Gerber and Paul Watson—started supplying better product for the party. They began making pilgrimages to breweries inside Maryland like Oxford and Wild Goose Brewing, and outside, like Dogfish Head and Victory, in pursuit of higher-quality kegs.
A culture of one-upmanship flourished within the group. One year Sullivan coaxed a brewer at California's San Andreas Brewing to ship boxes of beer to Annapolis. Somers and his wife, Erin, flew to Madison to retrieve beer from New Glarus Brewing, which only distributes in Wisconsin. Watson one year hand-assembled six-packs using only Great American Beer Festival medal winners.
"We feel like very early on we were in the beer scene," Sullivan says. "People were coming and they would see things that they had absolutely never seen at our party." The outcome of trying to best each other wasn't always positive. "Sometimes, you know, you pick a really obscure beer that turns out to just be awful," Somers says. "And you understand why it was obscure and it should probably stay that way."
The competitive streak infected guests as well. Baltimore Beer Week founder Joe Gold, a regular attendee of the exchange, brought such showstoppers as multiple vintages of Thomas Hardy's Ale, a barley wine brewed once a year, and a jeroboam of Mad Elf, Tröegs' high-octane holiday beer. Gold also furnished a rare and pricey Sam Adams Utopias in 2009, a year in which Baltimore Sun beer writer Rob Kasper participated. "Rob Kasper sent [Sam Adams founder] Jim Koch an email about being at the beer exchange," Samluck recalls, "and how he was drinking a Utopias out of these little plastic cups inside this little basement in a rowhouse in South Baltimore." (Koch replied to Kasper, saying it truly was a great beer moment.)
Also drinking Utopias was Kevin and Jack Hughes' mom. A family-friendly atmosphere was always part of the beer exchange, which eventually included nieces and nephews—all of the founding six beer meisters' children are still under 21—and their friends. "Now there are probably just as many people at the party who have been invited by descendants of the original guys than there are people that we have invited ourselves," Somers says. "It's kept it interesting."
When a young nephew brought friends one year, one of them commented, "'Oh wait, this is a party put on by your uncles? And your grandparents are there, too?'" Jack Hughes remembers. "And they're all talking about it at the party, and one guy goes, 'This is like a kegger—only with better beer!'"
Though the party was never raucous, garnering mild neighbor complaints at most, the level of devotion to it was intense, even beyond acquiring rare beers. For the first 20 years the participants (some of whom played Dungeons and Dragons together in their youth) kept a documented history of the exchange. Sullivan, who worked a government job, drafted beer exchange proclamations on Maryland letterhead. "I had at least two or three invitations declined by U.S. presidents," Sullivan says.
They also ordered various International Christmas Beer Exchange-branded paraphernalia: tasting glasses, beer koozies, bottle openers, coasters, athletic shorts, sweatshirts, T-shirts, even boxers. "Those were not a good seller. Nobody wanted those," Sullivan says. Sometimes they sold the gear, sometimes they gave it away; they never made any money, though.
The last five years' exchanges have seen about 140 people come in and out over the course of an evening—a sometimes nerve-wracking number of guests to squeeze into a narrow rowhouse. Debbie Funk, Jack Hughes' wife, remembers hosting an exchange in the couple's tiny Fort Avenue rowhome one year and making her way to the basement, "where there was also a whole lot of people. And I realized this house is 110-plus years old. All I could think of was, 'Lord, I hope these floors hold.'"
While enthusiasm for the party hasn't waned, the beer meisters decided to hang up the tradition after this year. "All good things must end," Samluck says, commenting on the final edition of the Christmas Beer Exchange (International has unofficially been lopped off by some, as the beer is overwhelmingly American today). "I'm not getting any younger." Jack Hughes likens the last party to retirement.
While the beer meisters hope to pass the baton to the younger crowd of regular exchange attendees, they're confident the core eight members will continue to gather around beer. Their friendship will be unaffected. In the 28 years they've thrown the party, they have always privately traded six-packs beforehand, often tailoring beer selections to each other's tastes. "That's one thing that's never been a question," Sullivan says. "There are ties and friendships there that go back forever."