Brewing up business: It takes more than good beer to be a good craft brewer

Bill Skomski Sr., co-owner of Antietam Brewery in Hagerstown, Md., stands inside the company's new location at 140 Western Maryland Parkway.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

The nationwide craft beer boom shows no signs of going flat, and the Crossroads area is part of that tide.

“I didn’t think it would happen as quickly as it did,” Bill Skomski Sr. of Antietam Brewery said of his company’s progress. “We really fell into the right place at the right time.”

Antietam, based in Hagerstown, Md., is not alone. The beer business is seeing a lot of movement. There are startups, like Cushwa Brewing Co. in Williamsport, Md. And there area established ventures, like Roy Pitz Brewing Co., of Chambersburg, Pa., which recently expanded to Philadelphia.

But the beer business doesn’t brew up profits by magic. Owners of some area craft breweries say it takes dedication, teamwork, a bit of luck, commitment and, most of all, good beer.

Daniel Maerzluft, brewmaster and co-owner at Antietamn Brewery, pours ingredients into a tank inside the company’s brewery at 140 Western Maryland Parkway in Hagerstown, Md.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff photographer
‘Vibrant and flourishing’

Small and independent American craft brewers contributed $55.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2014, according to the most recent figures from the Brewers Association.

The number includes the impact of beer brewed by craft brewers as it moves through the three-tier system (breweries, wholesalers and retailers), as well as non-beer products, like food and merchandise, that brewpub restaurants and brewery taprooms sell.

The industry also provided more than 424,000 jobs, more than 115,000 of them directly at breweries and brewpubs, including serving staff, the association reported.

“With a strong presence across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, craft breweries are a vibrant and flourishing economic force at the local, state and national level. As consumers continue to demand a wide range of high quality, full-flavored beers, small and independent craft brewers are meeting this growing demand with innovative offerings, creating high levels of economic value in the process,” Bart Watson, chief economist for the association, said in a news release.
Area craft brewers range from ventures that distribute their beverages across state lines to small operations that just recently outgrew the owners’ home-brewing equipment.

Several told Crossroads Business Journal that it all starts in the glass.

‘Craft beer people’

“Probably the most important thing is that you have quality beer and that it’s consistent,” said Daniel Maerzluft, brewmaster at Antietam Brewery. “Consistency is (a craft brewer’s) biggest challenge. It’s also something we can handle.”

Maerzluft is co-owner of the business with Skomski and a handful of other investors.

The brewery recently expanded from its original home in Benny’s Pub in Hagerstown to a brewery on Western Maryland Parkway on the west side of the city.

The new facility has attracted a different kind of customer.

Benny’s still thrives by offering a range of beers, from American standards to Antietam’s brews to beverages from other businesses, Skomski and Maerzluft said.

“What I see (at the Western Maryland Parkway location) is more the beer connoisseur,” Skomski said.

Those customers tend to travel to craft breweries to sample wares, Skomski said. Sometimes, he’s noticed, a customer will buy a beer in advance for a friend who plans to visit Antietam.

“Definitely now our customer base is craft beer people,” Maerzluft added.

The move also allowed the business to produce more beer.

Skomski said Antietam could produce about 70 barrels of beer at the old location. That’s grown to 3,500 barrels at the new facility.

“We can grow into 10,000 barrels by changing equipment, tanks and such,” he said.

Antietam now distributes fairly widely.

“We’re basically in every county in the state of Maryland and will be in 21 counties in West Virginia,” Skomski said.

“We’re looking to branch into Pennsylvania … probably by the end of this year, if not earlier.”

A six-pack from the limited run of 100 cases of Antietam Brewery’s Octoberfest Lager.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer
‘Start small and stay small’

When Antietam Brewery brought in its new equipment, some of the old devices found their way to younger counterparts, such as Cushwa in Williamsport, Md., and Rockwell Brewery in Frederick, Md.

Paul Tinney, who owns Rockwell Brewery with Matt Thrasher, said he came to know Skomski during lobbying sessions at the General Assembly in Annapolis, Md. When Skomski mentioned he’d have some equipment to sell, Tinney listened and they struck a deal.

“We couldn’t keep up with the customers we had with our little glorified home-brewing system,” Tinney said.

Tinney said he and Thrasher were friends and home brewers with different tastes: Tinney prefers English- and Scottish-style brews, while Thrasher favors India pale ales. Eventually the brewing and the talk turned into a business partnership.

“We wanted to start small and stay small, and what growth we did we wanted to do gradually,” Tinney said of their plans. “We outgrew it almost immediately.”

The business had been open for less than six months when it bought the equipment from Antietam.

Still, the self-funded partners plan to keep their operation small.

“We don’t have at the top of our list the goal of making a national brand,” Tinney said. “I reviewed business cases that were $3 million-plus, just to get open. We’re nowhere near that.”

‘All produced locally’

In Chambersburg, Pa., Gearhouse Brewing Co. has been open less than a year.

“We’re ahead of where we predicted,” said Jessee McMath, one of the co-owners.

McMath said he and his wife Candice own the business with Lavan and Heather Gray and David and Erin Kozloski. They enjoyed visiting breweries together, and David Kosloski has a background of working at Flying Dog Brewery in Maryland and Troegs Brewing Co. in Pennsylvania.

The partners sought advice for the challenging task of launching a business.

“We worked with the local downtown organization, and they helped us out,” McMath said. “It was kind of a long process.”

They also got some help from a recent change in the state’s liquor laws. The change allows the business to sell its own beers along with locally produced wine and spirits.

“We can have a full bar, but it’s all produced locally,” he said.

By the states

• Maryland: 65 craft breweries (25th in the nation) with an annual economic impact of $651,624,000.
• Pennsylvania: 205 craft breweries (seventh in the nation) with an annual economic impact of $4,448,434,000.
• Virginia: 164 craft breweries (13th in the nation) with an annual economic impact of $1,045,835,000.
• West Virginia: 15 craft breweries (45th in the nation) with an annual economic impact of $211,240,000.

— 2014 figures from the Brewers Association