Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Heavy Seas: Twenty years in the making.

In 1880, a Hugh Sisson of Baltimore, Maryland, delivered marble to Washington, D.C., for the construction of the Washington Monument.

One hundred and nine years later, in 1989, a son of a Baltimore pub owner, a descendant of that 19th century Sisson, delivered the beer goods. He successfully lobbied the Maryland legislature to permit brewpubs to operate in the state. (Yes, there was indeed a barbaric time when brewpubs were illegal!)

Immediately thereafter, he would install an eight-barrel brewing system in his family's eponymous pub and make local 'craft' beer history. Sisson's became Maryland's first brewpub since the repeal of Prohibition.

Sisson's brewhouse

In 1995, he relinquished his stake, and opened a production-only brewery, which he called Clipper City Brewing, locating it just southeast of Baltimore, in Halethorpe, Maryland. His name? Hugh Sisson.

Twenty years ago today, 8 December 1995, Sisson and Clipper City rolled out their first beers. Today, his brewery, now known as Heavy Seas Beer, remains there, successful and thriving.

Hugh Sisson @The Old Brogue

But that first day almost didn't occur.

A county fire marshal conducting a final inspection in late November 1995 became confused by .. what is this? A micro-brewery? What will be in those large tanks? Beer?

Not so fast, he told Sisson. Beer is flammable at very high temperatures. The fermenting tanks were fire hazards and would need to be entirely encased in asbestos, he said (undeterred that water, which comprises 95% of beer, is used to douse fires). That obviously would be a financial non-starter for the fledgling brewery.

Fortunately, Sisson had made the acquaintance of the brewmaster at G. Heileman, a then national brewing company with a plant located just a quarter-mile away. In fact, G. Heileman's brewmaster was eager to taste the beers from the much smaller upstart. Sisson asked for his assistance, and the brewmaster phoned the fire marshal. "We don't encase our tanks in asbestos," he said. "Are you going to close us, one of the largest employers in the county?" The next day, the fire marshal gave Clipper City the green light, sans asbestos.

Heavy Seas kettle door

Sisson will also tell you that the 'sailing' was rough after he opened for business. Less than four years into the brewery's operations, the bubble burst for microbreweries (what are now known as 'craft' breweries). A lot of unprepared players had gotten into the game, and a lot of bad beer slowed consumer acceptance. Sales slowed and the brewery survived by contract-brewing beers for other non-brewing companies.

Clipper City's first seasonal that December 1995 was a winter beer, a malty and hoppy English-styled 'winter warmer, ' that Sisson named "Winter Reserve." A decade later, he would re-brand it as Winter Storm, placing a sea captain and parrot on the label.

Freshly bottled Winter Storm 2012

The captain would become a pirate by the next release, Small Craft Warning Uber Pils, and Sisson would call this line of 'big beers,' Heavy Seas. He soon added an IPA, Loose Cannon, and several others. The line would become so successful (Loose Cannon comprising the largest percentage of the brewery's output), that Sisson no longer needed to contract-brew. He rechristened the brewery as Heavy Seas Beer.

Heavy Seas' roster of employees is big. Brewers have gone on to open other breweries in Maryland and Virginia. Several have brewed at such well-known breweries as San Miguel, SABMiller, Sam Adams, and Victory, to name only a few.

The brewery plant was recently expanded to envelop nearly half of an industrial complex. Its annual production is at the fifty-thousand barrel mark; capacity is three-fold that. The brewery's beers are sold in seventeen states. Its cask ale program is the largest for any production brewery in the United States. The brewery has been recognized for excellence several times at the Great American Beer Festival.

Brewery panorama

I've known Hugh Sisson since almost the beginning of the Sisson's Brewpub days. In fact, I worked for him for several years at Clipper City. Please forgive me as I get personal and quote myself from Facebook:
Congratulations, Hugh! What a long, strange, rewarding, tasty, struggling, successful, fulfilling, satisfying, and one-for-the-craft-beer-history-books trip it's been. And it continues!

As Kevin Atticks —Executive Director of the Brewers Association of Maryland— put it: "History in the making." A tasty twenty-year history.

  • A barrel of beer is not a physical thing. It's a unit of volume measurement, equal to 31 gallons. So, to put Heavy Seas Beer's annual output in perspective, it is 50,000 barrels: that's sixteen million, four-hundred forty-thousand bottles of beer per year, with room to grow.
  • Heavy Seas' website has a short history of Sisson's career and the development of the brewery: here.
  • Sisson's Brewpub ceased operations in 2002.

  • For more from YFGF:

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