The sharp scent of hops is strong in Union Craft Brewing’s tasting room. That’s because four Ziploc gallon bags of the fresh, green, flowering cones are lined up and open along a shelf on a wall.
Over speakers, a cover of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” transitions to head-banging metal. Master brewer and co-owner/founder Kevin Blodger sits at the end of the bar, looking at a laptop screen. Behind the bar, 12 taps are lined up like little soldiers, their contents displayed on chalkboards above.
This place is chill. About six guys are canning beer in the brew house next door. Colorful empty cans trapped in twisting conveyors wind down to be filled with seasonal red ale, their lids popped on before landing gently in an array of six, and a plastic six-pack holder is snapped on.
Union is brewing Foxy, a red IPA only available in the fall.
But it’s not likely that Union co-owner/founder Adam Benesch will crack open one of his cold brews at the end of the day. His obsession has long passed the simple pleasures of imbibing. He and his partners, Blodger and co-owner/founder and marketing director Jon Zerivitz, are obsessed with the making of beer.
Benesch met Zerivitz in high school and Blodger in college, long before the micro-brewery craze began in the ‘90s. Six years ago, the three reconnected and pooled their beer passions.
“We were celebrating a beer that was from Seattle or Western Maryland,” Benesch says. “And that just didn’t seem right.”
Two years later, the three started production in their current location on Union Avenue in Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood. It was the first time that Charm City had hosted a production brewery since Natty Boh left 30 years before.
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Union is a start-to-finish production, from purchasing the ingredients and brewing in shiny, stainless steel tanks to canning and distribution. The brewery started with 7,000 square feet, expanding as adjacent properties became available. That relatively small space is one reason Union beer is packaged and sold in cans. Canning machines are more compact, which leaves more room for giant brewing tanks.
“It used to be that cheap beers came in cans,” Benesch says. Today’s brewers know the benefits of skipping glass bottles. Along with a smaller production footprint, cans keep oxygen and light out. Plus, they’re more environmentally friendly, and there’s additional room for eye-catching graphics.
In the land of craft brews, branding is key. Union keeps things hyper-local. Its first beer, Duckpin, is named for Baltimore’s cousin to bowling. “Nobody has a bad time duckpin bowling,” Benesch says.
Union’s other beers include Anthem (to honor the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and Pink Flamingo (named for the John Waters movie). Seasonal beers flow in and out of production, including Foxy and Snow Pants, an oatmeal stout brewed for winter weather. Local artists create original artwork for the cans.
While branding is entertaining, the brewing is serious work — and surprisingly uncomplicated. There are only four primary ingredients: malted barley, grain, hops and yeast.
“You can get any flavor you want from four ingredients,” Benesch says. Grain and sugar are the sole drivers of flavor and alcohol content.
Union started out with four tanks and has expanded to 17, some of which are double the size of the original tanks. More will be added this month, and still more in February. The team is looking at moving to a new location in two years.
The staff has grown, too, and now the brewery has 21 employees. “We’re brewing every day, three times per day, 18 hours a day,” Benesch says. “We’re trying to meet demand.”
Union is a central figure in Baltimore’s growing brewing community. Craft brewing “is different than any other industry that I’ve been in,” Benesch says. “In the end, we’re just making beer.” But there’s always room for more beer and even collaboration between local breweries, he says.
Craft brews aren’t about solitary drinking, and so the guys at Union love to throw a good party. The tasting room is open on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with tours on Saturdays. Several times a month, Union invites food trucks in for a laid-back happy hour.
The distinctive cans are also found in local restaurants and stores throughout the region.
“I love going out to restaurants that are supporting us,” Benesch says. “That doesn’t get old.”