Renaissance Men

Kevin Noonan

, Food & Drink

Tommy and John Knorr and their Evolution Craft Brewery have contributed to the resurgence of Salisbury

Tommy and John Knorr knew they were facing long odds in a small town. The two brothers grew up in Baltimore. Tommy went to college in Utah, but when they decided to open their own craft brewery they settled on, of all places, Salisbury, Md.

That was back in 2009, and now their fledgling empire includes several restaurants and their pride and joy, Evolution Craft Brewery Co. Located in the heart of Salisbury in an old ice plant, it has established itself as one of the best craft breweries in the region.

“When you open your own business, you never really know how things will work out,” Tommy Knorr says. “We had high hopes, of course, but we were also realistic and we knew it could be a struggle. But we were doing what we loved to do and doing it where we wanted to be, that’s what mattered the most. And then we ended up having some success pretty quickly and now we’re rolling along pretty well. It’s been an exciting ride.”

And a profitable one. When the brothers opened Evolution Craft Brewery a decade ago, they produced 1,280 barrels of beer, and now the annual total is 18,000-19,000 barrels.

The Knorrs created Southern Boys Concepts as an umbrella for their businesses. They got their start back in 1996, when they purchased the Red Roost Crab House in Whitehaven, Md., not far from the Wicomico River. From there they expanded, and now their restaurants in Maryland include Boonies in Tyaskin, Sobos and Bull Lips in Salisbury, and Birroteca in two locations, Baltimore and Bel Air.

As for the brothers’ beers, their Delmarva Pure Pilsner won Best in Show at the 2018 Maryland Craft Beer Competition, and that same year readers of The Baltimore Sun ranked EVO’s Lot No. 3 IPA as a semi-finalist in its March Madness-style online voting tournament to determine Maryland’s best beer.

Other trademark brews include Primal Pale Ale, Exile Red Ale, Lucky 7 Porter, Rise Up Stout and various seasonal and limited release brews. For their full selection and other information, log onto evolutioncraftbrewing.com.

Located in the heart of Salisbury, the brewery includes a restaurant (Public House) and tasting room. Photo courtesy of Evolution Craft Brewery Co.

Recently, Tommy Knorr, 47, who lives with his girlfriend and two dogs, took time for a telephone interview with Out & About.

O&A: How did you get started in the restaurant-brewery business?

Knorr: After college I started working at Phillips Seafood Restaurant in Baltimore as a manager and two things happened—I learned the business and realized I really liked the business, so I decided it was time to start out on my own. And I had brewed beer in college as a home brewer and I always drank good craft beer. So, it seemed like a natural marriage to combine the two.

O&A: What was the first step you took after you made the decision to go into business for yourself?

Knorr: The first thing you have to do is decide where you want to be and then to find the right place. After we moved to Maryland, my brother found the Red Roost Crab House in Salisbury and we bought it in 1996. That was really the foundation for everything else that followed.

O&A: You went to college out West and you’re from and initially worked in a big city, Baltimore. How did you end up in a small town in Wicomico County?

Knorr: We spent two years in Annapolis and then visited the Eastern Shore and just loved it and decided that this is where we wanted to live. Obviously, that decision did not have a huge upside from a sales-volume standpoint. If we had opened in Baltimore, we probably would have sold a lot more beer, but we love the Eastern Shore and the Delmarva Peninsula and the slower pace of life down here. We were willing to take that risk, we were willing to sacrifice, to live the life we wanted to live. And, in the end, we still sell a lot of beer.

O&A: When you first started, the zoning laws in Salisbury prevented you from opening your brewery there. What did you do then, and how did that problem eventually get resolved?

Knorr: We still wanted to be in the area, so we opened a small brewery right across the border in Delaware, in Delmar. Eventually, we outgrew the facility, and by that time they had passed new laws and Salisbury was happy to have us and we’ve had a great relationship with the city ever since.

O&A: You started small, but you also had some immediate success and your brand grew from there. How did you manage that in such a competitive beer market?

Knorr: We pounded the pavement and we had a really good liquid to sell—basically, we got out of it what we put into it. We hired good people and produced a good product. We were about quality, not quantity, and we still are. We just preached that and were able to get out of the gate pretty quickly. It was really word of mouth that made us successful. We don’t do a lot of advertising or marketing and we rely on people telling other people about us and, so far, that approach has worked pretty well.

O&A: How do you balance increasing your business without growing too much, too quickly and losing that quality?

Knorr: That’s something we struggle with. If you’re making too many beers and that affects the beers you’ve been making for years, then you’re doing something wrong. You really have to have a balance with that and that’s something we discuss all the time. We want to branch out and grow, but we also want to stay loyal to the brands that have been successful for us and the brands that we know people like.

O&A: Craft brewing and breweries have exploded in recent years. How do you stay competitive in today’s market, when it seems like there are thousands of craft beers from which to choose?

Knorr: That’s a real challenge because you want to stay relevant and, at the same time, not move away from what made you successful in the first place. If you take your foot off the gas for one minute you can be left behind. In the end, it comes down to quality and knowing your market and that’s what we’ve stayed focused on.

O&A: How did you come up with the name “Evolution Brewery”?

Knorr: We went through a million names, trying to come up with something that really related to the particular beers we were brewing. We wanted something that showed that we were making good, solid beers and were also willing to take chances with new brands without sacrificing the quality we wanted. Basically, we wanted to evolve and constantly grow and improve, and from that we came up with Evolution.

O&A: You’re in business with your brother, and history shows that family businesses often end up badly, for the business and the family. How have you two managed to deal with that?

Knorr: Well, obviously, like in any family, we’re going to bicker over certain things, and we’ve had some strong disagreements at times, because we both have strong personalities and opinions. But for the most part we’ve maintained a good balance, because he brings a different perspective to the business than I do, and that’s a good thing. And we’ve always put the quality of the product ahead of everything, and at the end of the day we’re usually on the same page.

O&A: After a rocky start in Salisbury, your brewery and restaurant have been a big part in the rejuvenation of the downtown area. What kind of impact do you think your business has had on the city?

Knorr: I think we’ve had a big impact on a general renaissance, and we’re very proud of that. And we’re proud that we built our brewery in a part of town that wasn’t doing so great and is now thriving. Every city needs something cool to attract younger people and help attract new businesses. Perdue is obviously a huge employer around here, and if someone is considering working for Perdue and he takes his wife downtown to see what it’s like, they want to have a thriving restaurant and social scene. It’s part of what makes a city a desirable place to live, and even though we’re not the only reason that has happened in Salisbury, we’re proud that we’ve been a big part of it.

O&A: Where do you see your business 10 years from now?

Knorr: I hope we’re doing the same thing and making the same core beers that are still relevant, and at the same time creating new beers that make people happy. And I hope we have the same staff and everybody is growing personally and professionally. Basically, I’m hoping for more of the same.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.