As you drive up to Benny’s Pub, it looks like a typical local bar set in a nondescript, Maryland strip mall. You know, the kind of place you might expect to get a Natty Boh and a shot. But one look inside and you notice something different, something unexpected. There’s a brewery in there. And quite a brewery it is.
Antietam Brewery, located at Benny’s Pub, is a Hagerstown oasis, producing some beautiful craft beer. It’s currently the only brewery operating in the Appalachian area of Maryland.
Owner Bill Skomski established his pub eight years ago and named it after his son Benny, whom he tragically lost to cancer. About five years later he added the Antietam Brewery to his operation.
Skomski developed his interest in craft beer through homebrewing. Back in the early 2000s at a local homebrew club meeting, he happened to meet the brewmaster of the then Frederick Brewing Company of Frederick, MD. That brewer was Dan Maerzluft.
Brewmaster partners to develop brewery
Then in 2011, when he was toying with the idea of adding a brewery to his pub, Skomski called on Maerzluft to help him. The timing was right because the brewery Maerzluft was working for (Mountaineer Brewing in Martinsburg, WV) had recently closed. Maerzluft agreed to consult with Skomski on designing the new facility.
“I had known Bill for 10 years through the local hombrew club,” said Maerzluft, “and I knew he was a quality guy.”
Maerzluft’s consulting contract eventually grew into a full-time job as Antietam’s brewmaster. The brewery opened in March 2013, and the two guys haven’t looked back.
Antietam Brewery develops broad selection of brews
Antietam started with just three beers. Skomski wanted an American robust porter, so Pickett’s Porter was born. Maerzluft knew he needed a gateway beer, so he developed a golden ale. Now one of their core brands, General’s Golden Ale is brewed with wheat and topped off with a blend of American and New Zealand hops.
For the third beer they wanted something hoppy, but not too much so. They weren’t sure their market was yet ready for a big American IPA. Maerzluft developed a hybrid, a red IPA, that while well-hopped at 75 IBUs, also had a strong malty backbone to balance out the bitterness. The resulting Kelly’s Red River IPA has proved to appeal both to hop heads and to those who like a lot of malt.
Over time, more beers were added to the list. Maerzluft moved into Belgian styles, first brewing an abbey beer (Clara-B’s Abbey-style Dubbel) and later a saison (Batch 100). He now has a nice house IPA in Little Mac and an exceptional Hefeweizen called Hager-Weisse. With the Otto’s Orchard series, he added fruit beers to the line up.
Antietam’s Bases Loaded Copper Ale, an easy drinking ESB-style brew, is also the official beer served at the baseball park of the Hagerstown Suns.
The most special beer in Antietam’s line up, though, has to be Lil’ Ben’s Milk Stout. Lil’ Ben’s is a remake of Maerzluft’s medal-winning Black Beard Stout, which he brewed while working for Wallaby’s Brewing in Ohio. It was awarded a silver medal in the sweet stout category at the 2000 World Beer Cup competition.
Maerzluft decided to brew the beer again as a memorial to Bill’s son Benny, and it has become the signature beer at Benny’s Pub. Made with pure milk sugar and a host of specialty malts, the beer releases a complex coffee-chocolate taste that is heaven in a glass.
1605 Irish Red gives money to charity
Over the past year, Antietam’s biggest selling beer is its 1605 Irish Red Ale. The 1605 was selected by Buffalo Wild Wings to be on tap at all its Maryland stores for six months. The beer proved very popular at BW3, so much so that Antietam had trouble keeping up with production.
1605 Irish Red Ale was originally brewed in support of a local firefighters union charity event. Since then it has retained its charitable character. The brewery set aside a portion of sales revenue from all the 1605 sold to BW3s, and the restaurant chain matched the brewery’s amount. The Johns Hopkins Burn Center was the recipient of a donation from this promotion.
Brewery expands, grows to capacity
Antietam Brewery began with a three-barrel brewhouse and six 3.5-barrel tanks. The beer was so well received that within a couple of months they added two additional 7-bbl fermenters. About six months after that, they expanded to the space next door, doubling their capacity.
More recent months have seen additional equipment investments, until they have reached capacity for the space they have. Locked in between a large grocery store and a chain restaurant, there is currently no more space available in the shopping center. Internal growth is not really possible.
Expanding distribution with six pack and bottles
Except for sales to BW3, the brewery has been limiting distribution of its beer to the region around Hagerstown, primarily because they do not have the production capacity to cover more territory. They have not been able to distribute anything but kegged beer, because they don’t own any canning or bottling equipment. That is changing, however, due to a the new arrangement with a Baltimore contract brewer. In August, Antietam received its first shipment of General’s Golden Ale in 12-oz bottles. Not only does the contract arrangement give them new packaging, it also overcomes the brewery’s own internal production limitations.
More Antietam brands in bottles are likely ahead. Wider distribution of Antietam brews is surely on the horizon.
In West Virginia, Antietam Brewery beers are currently available only in Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties. They sell especially well in Shepherdstown where brewer Dan Maerzluft makes his home. The Milk Stout is very popular there and the Hefeweizen produced strong sales over the summer, Maerzluft reports.
Maerzluft says that as Antietam grows, they want to keep their distribution footprint to a one-day’s drive of Hagerstown. He and Skomski want their beer to be fresh and maintain a sense of place.
Stop in and visit the pub and package store
Benny’s Pub has a solid food menu with a nice selection of burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads, and other pub grub. With food made mostly from scratch, the menu highlights local meats, and fresh and organic cheeses. (Pub menu link)
If the brewer is in, you’ll likely see a lot of brewing action as the brewery is open to the pub seating area. Always call ahead if you’d like to schedule a brewery tour.
A visit to Antietam’s taproom makes a great rest stop on your way from West Virginia to the Washington, DC, area. It’s just a short hop off I-70, about 3 miles north on U.S. 40 to the brewery’s site in a shopping center above Antietam Creek. The pub also is only about a 10 minute drive from the Antietam Battlefield, which makes another interesting stop when you are in the area.
In one of the newer additions to his complex, Skomski has added a complete beer, liquor, and wine retail store called Benny’s 2 Go. Next door to the brewery, it carries a nice variety of craft beer, especially from Maryland and the region.
You can fill your growler with Antietam beer there using a sweet counter-pressure growler filling station. Pretty much whatever is on tap in the pub is also available for growler fills.
49 Eastern Boulevard N.
(turn right off National Pike/US 40)