Building a beer scene
Jun 06, 2019 08:38AM
● By J. Chambless
The team behind Elk River Brewing Company: Tim Ward, Lee Lewis, Jessica and Brad Carillo, and Joanna DiPaola.
When it comes to drawing a crowd, few things bring people together like good beer. And when it comes to downtown Elkton, the burgeoning craft beer scene can be attributed to Elk River Brewing Company.
While it’s been open only since October 2018, Elk River has been followed by Valhalla Brewing, located just north of Elkton, and Maryland Beer Company, which recently opened on Bridge Street. That adds up to enough locations to draw curious beer fans from as far as north Jersey and Annapolis, who find out about the brews through internet resources such as Untappd and venture into Elkton to see what’s going on.
That’s good for the breweries, but it’s even better for Cecil County.
Just before a regular weekly Wednesday meeting last month, the owners and staff members of Elk River Brewing sat at the large bar and discussed how the dream of opening a brewery became a reality, and what they’re doing to keep the momentum going.
Brad Carrillo graduated from college in Colorado in 2002 and took a job as a property developer for Patriot’s Glen in Elkton. He and his wife both have Colorado roots, so they were well aware of what a brew scene can do for a downtown.
“I had been a kitchen brewer,” Brad Carrillo said. “I do enjoy brewing, but I never really got into it.”
But he knew and loved all kinds of beers. After buying a home in Elkton, he and his wife started Aspen Property Management in their home in 2006 and eventually outgrew the basement. “I was looking for office space, and rented an office space four doors down from what would become Elk River Brewing,” he said. “The county offices moved out at some point, but my business continued to grow, so I moved down the street and became pretty involved in Elkton. I’m a big advocate for the town. Eventually, the business grew even more and relocated.”
But Carrillo loved the downtown and saw the promise held by Main Street.
While an initial brewery idea never got off the ground in 2015, Carrillo did buy the storefront at 112 E. Main St., which had been the longtime home of Minster’s Jewelers but had most recently been turned into offices. When the building was vacated in 2017, Carrillo and his friend, Lee Lewis, began to dream of what would become Elk River Brewing Company.
The plan simmered before “I told my wife, ‘I think we should put a brewery here,’ and she didn’t say no,” Carrillo said, laughing. “She didn’t quite say yes, either. But I took it as a yes.”
The zoning process was remarkably smooth on a local level, he said, because Elkton officials saw the value of bringing people back downtown. To get federal approval took about six months, Carrillo said, but once the paperwork was lined up, demolition got underway. Mark Clark and Associates was the architect.
The office walls had to come out, first of all. Carrillo said he was most focused on the bar taps, and his dream of seeing all 16 in operation. The heavy work was done by everyone who could pitch in, while Jessica Carrillo is responsible for the resulting décor and the clean, open look of the bar area.
Scott Bieber, who has been brewing beer for 30 years, was instrumental in setting up the basement brewing operation. And he was persistent. “He kept returning my messages,” Bieber said as Carrillo laughed. “For six months, I was the extra help with the contractor.”
The resulting space is comfortable and airy. There are several TVs, and board games for customers to play, but the main focus of the room is on the beer, not on distractions. There are some 1920s newspapers that were uncovered in the floorboards that are now framed and displayed, as a nod to the building’s past. Downstairs, a thoroughly modern brewing system is in place, although the walls retain the layered look of the building’s 150 years of history.
To keep the bar area clear of kegs – and to avoid having to haul kegs up from the basement every time one was needed – there’s a system of cooled tubes that bring the beer up on demand to the tap from a chilled basement storage room.
There is a storage room in the back that could be turned into a kitchen when the time is right, Carrillo said. Presently, customers can bring in their own food, or buy sandwiches and snacks from the Central Tavern, located directly across the street. Since there’s no kitchen in the bar, no one under 21 is allowed inside.
“At some point we will put a kitchen in, or get the law changed,” Carrillo said. “And we’re not sure which would be the path of least resistance. We have ball fields behind us, and if parents want to come in with their children after a game for dinner and a beer, that’s been a little bit of an issue. Other than that, everything’s been great.”
Pointing the way toward future development, there is a shaded yard out back that would be an ideal beer garden when the time comes. And the parking lot in the back would be a great spot for a food truck.
But for now, Carrillo said, Elk River is focused on keeping all 16 taps running, offering a range of beers for every palate, and in becoming an integral part of the Elkton business community. There are plans for an early June event that will unite all three local brewpubs, there’s a street party planned for June, and the Fourth of July weekend will be another chance for Elk River to join Valhalla and Maryland Beer Company to show off what they can do.
“It’s better to be friendly than in competition,” said Lee Lewis, the general manager at Elk River Brewing. “Especially on weekends, we get people who are making their own tours, going around to all the places. It benefits everybody if we work together.”
“Most of us downtown see the value of feeding off each other’s success,” Carrillo said.
That spirit of sharing is common in the craft brew business, Carrillo said, citing beer events in Colorado where brewers swap ideas with each other for the good of the business as a whole.
For head brewer Scott Bieber and assistant brewer Tim Ward, having gotten the job of filling all 16 taps down pat, it’s time to branch out. “The first core beers we served were ones that I had been home brewing,” Bieber said. “For the first six months, I was really concerned with making enough styles to fill out all 16 taps. We finally did it in January or February. Now we have beers waiting to be put on. Now that we have a good variety of styles, we’re branching out and doing things that are new to me professionally. We got some bourbon barrels and filled them with a high-gravity stout that will be our anniversary beer in October. We also have a small batch of a sour beer.”
“We’re hitting a phase where the beer scene here has grown, and we’ve created a brand in Elk River that our beer’s good,” Carrillo said. “We’re kegging now, and we just got a crowler [canning] machine. That’s something we’d like to see grow here.”
And some of the experiments pay off immediately. There was a salted chocolate stout, for instance, that was brewed in a small batch. Fifteen gallons were sold out in two days.
“There are five restaurants in the county serving our beer,” Carrillo said. “That seems to grow weekly. We can keep our taps full with our half-kegs, and we can start self-distributing locally. If we go over the state line, we’d have to have a distributor.”
Right now, for every beer aficionado, there’s someone who doesn’t know what the whole craft brew craze is about. “Some of our local customer base has zero idea,” Carrillo said. “We know how to talk to people who come in, and we offer them a taste. Nearly everyone will find a beer they like, and they will come back.”
To broaden their appeal, Elk River has branched out to serving wines, sourced from local vineyards Crow Vineyard and Broken Spoke, as well as a line of bourbons. Carrillo said the goal as Elk River approaches its first-year anniversary is to solidify their foundation and then move on to expand, and enter more brewery competitions to get the word out. “I’m proud to show what we do,” he said.
On most Fridays, both Bieber and Carrillo hang out in the evenings to meet customers and answer questions. First Fridays are busy, and Elk River releases a new beer at each First Friday event, so that draws a crowd. A “Mug Club” limited to 100 patrons is nearly sold out.
But for the small staff of people who make Elk River Brewing run, staying local is always a goal. Their ever-changing beer menu features Octoraro Red, North East River Pale Ale, Mayor Rob Altbier, Bohemia Belgian and many more, showing that when it comes to Cecil County, the beer revolution is definitely here. And here to stay.
For more information, visit www.elkriverbrewing.com.
The booming beer scene
There’s much more to Cecil County’s brew scene than Elk River Brewing Company. With the addition of two other flourishing craft brew operations, a “beer tour” of the region is definitely drawing visitors to the region. Other options include:
Valhalla Brewing Company
41 Cherry Hill Rd., Elkton
Valhalla has live entertainment, and a kitchen that’s open nightly.
Maryland Beer Company
601 N. Bridge St., Suite C, Elkton
No one under 21 is allowed on premises. There is food truck dining, and the space is dog-friendly.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.