Heavy Seas, one of Baltimore’s best craft beer producers, has taken Delaware by storm
Unfortunately for craft beer lovers, not every IPA, porter or Belgian sour produced in the world—or even our own Mid-Atlantic backyard—makes its way to the Delaware market. And those that do find a landing spot at your local watering hole sometimes get eaten up by the competition, much like the sugars that are devoured by yeast in the brewing process.
But just because the first attempt isn’t a success doesn’t mean a second effort shouldn’t be launched. After all, brewing beer requires a lot of trial and error, because not every brew that comes out of the fermenter is a gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival.
For Heavy Seas, trial, error and eventual success in the Delaware market spanned roughly a decade. After attempting to crack the First State open in 1997—and exiting just a few years later—the Baltimore-based brewery re-branded itself (from Clipper City), expanded its capacity, and began making its mark on the local beer scene around 2010.
Today, Heavy Seas is one of the more prominent regional breweries featured at liquor stores and restaurants in Delaware. And with the recent advent of its collaborative Partner Ships series, Heavy Seas continues to ride a wave of sudsy success.
Better the Second Time Around
Hugh Sisson has been working in the brewing business for more than 25 years, initially as Maryland’s first pub brewer from 1989 to 1994, then as the founder of Clipper City Brewing Co. In all that time, he says a couple of things have helped him stay sane through the ebbs and flows of craft beer popularity.
“First off, I never lost my sense of humor, which is important, considering the hits you take as a small business owner,” he says. “And you must have a good grip on numbers, to ensure that you make it over the long haul and sustain yourself in this industry.”
Both of these traits came into play in the early 2000s, when Sisson decided, after a short run, to pull his beers from the Delaware market. After a decade of consistent growth, Heavy Seas returned in 2010, followed by an influx of capital, and expansion of the brewery.
“Since we’ve come back, our Delaware business has grown at a pretty nice clip,” says Sisson. “We had a 90 percent growth rate in 2015, and I think that really speaks to the affinity for craft beer in Delaware. Our big focus is the Delmarva Peninsula, so being able to dial it up in areas like the Delaware beaches and farther north in Wilmington and Newark is key for us.”
Mike Slattery, owner of The Delaware Growler in Newark, knows the Heavy Seas lineup as well as anyone. As an employee of Standard Distributing, which handles all Heavy Seas beers in Delaware, Slattery got a firsthand taste of how Heavy Seas went from dealing with supply issues, to meeting growing demand, to their current state of widespread availability.
“Their brands were always popular and at times difficult to get,” says Slattery. “Once they were readily available, though, they began to gain momentum. The Loose Cannon IPA has been a flagship and their most recognizable beer, but the seasonals are always heavily sought after.”
When Head Brewer Chris Leonard arrived in 2013, Heavy Seas increased production by about 15 percent. An upgraded brew house in late 2014 also enabled the company to increase production from 36,000 barrels to 44,000 barrels in 2015. Leonard says a more consistent product flow has helped meet demand and develop new retail avenues.
“When I came on, Hugh had made a plan to try and serve the rest of our backyard, geographically speaking,” says Leonard. “We’ve purchased new tanks and upgraded our bottling line, and have been able to produce the same quality beers, which is the most important factor.”
Collaborative Craft Through the Partner Ships
Leonard has been brewing beer for more than 20 years now, including the bulk of his career as brewmaster at the General Lafayette Inn outside Philadelphia. But it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that he was introduced to the idea of collaborating with other breweries and brewers.
“I love it, because it’s an opportunity to get to know the other brewers and how they operate,” says Leonard. “It’s a chance for our brewers to pick the brains of other breweries, see where we can play off each other’s strengths, and it benefits the customer with a new seasonal or one-off.”
Thus far in the Partner Ships series, which began earlier this year, Heavy Seas has joined forces with Maine Beer Company to produce a Red IPA, Stone Brewing for a Brown IPA, Troegs Brewing Company for a hoppy bock beer called “Hoppelbock,” and up next, the Rye Wit with Terrapin Brewing Company, out of Athens, Ga.
Brewing Team Leader Henry Jager says he wanted to follow the traditional witbier recipe, which includes spices like coriander and fruit such as bitter orange (Hoegaarden is the classic example), but naturally, he wanted to make it their own. The addition of rye and several varieties of American hops and a secondary fermentation in white wine barrels makes for an interesting result.
“A little bit of white wine, rye, wood, orange, coriander and grapefruit, along with Cascade, Amarillo and Saaz complementing each other and the beer as a whole, made for a nice finished product,” says Jager. “It’s not too hopped up, but there’s just enough to let you know it’s there without being a distraction.”
At his Main Street shop, Slattery sells several Heavy Seas beers on draft and in bottles. He applauds the Partner Ships series, which, like many breweries of late, links Heavy Seas with other breweries to create a series of collaborative beers.
“I’m looking forward to the release of the Rye Wit as the next beer in the line of Partner Ships series, which has brought a lot of excitement to the brand,” says Slattery. “It’s aged in white wine barrels for 16 weeks, with the addition of coriander, bitter and sweet orange peel, and grapefruit peel. It’s a creative balance that’s sure to be a hit and sell out quickly.”
Nick Slemko, an assistant general manager in charge of the beer list at Ulysses Gastropub in North Wilmington, has been fortunate enough to try all three Partner Ships beers so far. “I wish we could have all their Partner Ships beers on extensively, but when we get them, they go quickly,” says Slemko. “Really, though, we stock beer according to what will sell, and Heavy Seas beers are easy to sell.”
In addition to The Delaware Growler, the Rye Wit—as well as many other Heavy Seas beers—will be available at ABC Liquors in Bear, Peco’s Liquors in Wilmington, Kreston’s in both Middletown and Wilmington, Total Wine in Milltown and Claymont and Atlantic Liquors in Rehoboth Beach.