West Virginia has a bunch of solid brewers who live here and work at its 14 breweries. But the most highly regarded and highly honored brewer that currently resides in the Mountain State actually brews his beer in Maryland. I’m talking about Dan Maerzluft, brewmaster at Antietam Brewery in Hagerstown, MD.
I’m amazed at Dan’s accomplishments.
- He is a graduate of the prestigious brewing technology curriculum at Siebel Institute of Technology (Class of 1999);
- He was on the brewing team at Diamondback Brewing that won gold at the Great American Beer Festival for their Gueuze-style lambic (1997) and gold again for their Imperial Stout (1998);
- He brewed a Milk Stout for Wallaby’s Brewpub–Medina, Ohio that won a silver medal at the World Beer Cup (2000);
- He spent seven years working for Dave Keene at the Toronado in San Francisco, quite possibly the most iconic craft beer bar in the nation.
- He has worked at breweries in Oregon (his home state), Ohio, Maryland, Texas, and West Virginia.
A long road with no shortcuts
The Portland, Oregon native has certainly paid his dues along the way.
“I started homebrewing at 17, and I never really stopped,” Maerzluft said when asked about how he began his brewing career. “I got my first apprenticeship with Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. in Portland back when they were just a brewpub.”
He was just 19 years old. After a year at Widmer, he felt the call of the big city. He moved to San Francisco and was a bike messenger there for a couple of years. Like many young guys getting into the craft beer scene, he began frequenting the famous Toronado craft beer bar.
“We had 47 taps all full of great beer. I did get to see a lot of breweries that are now big time go from a little brewery delivering the beer themselves. Lagunitas was one. I remember when they only had one beer.”
Toronado owner sees the brewer inside
After he had worked at the Toronado for several years, Toronado owner Dave Keene took him aside one day. Keene told him he should consider leaving the bartending business and finishing up the three more years of apprenticeship he needed so he could qualify to enter Siebel Institute’s brewer certification program.
“I had continued to homebrew and Keene drank my samples,” Maerzluft said. “He said to me, ‘You know you’re brewing at a fairly professional level. I think you need to finish up so you can get into Siebel and make something out of your life instead of just slinging beers over a bar.'”
Maerzluft took Keene’s advice, and looked for a good opportunity to gain a brewing career.
I’ll take a one way ticket to Cleveland, please
In early 1997, that opportunity arose, and Maerzluft moved to Cleveland to work for Crooked River Brewing Company, which was in the “Flats” district. Founded in 1994, Crooked River was the first production brewery to bottle its beer in Cleveland since the Christian Schmidt brewery closed in 1984. It specialized in English-styles and lager beer and was founded and operated by the experienced, UC-Davis-trained brewmaster Stephan Danckers. At that time, Crooked River also brewed the house beers for Cleveland’s Gund Arena and Jacob’s Field.
On the surface that would seem like a great opportunity for an apprenticeship, but Maerzluft didn’t stay there long.
“There was this very accomplished brewer, Bill Morgan, working at Diamondback Brewery in downtown Cleveland,” he said. “He had heard about me and about my being from the West Coast and a little of my background.”
Thinking Maerzluft might have some different beer ideas that could be valuable to his brewery, Morgan made him an attractive offer and sort of stole him away from Crooked River.
“So I went to work at Diamondback and spent the next two years there. Bill Morgan was a very smart guy, and he became my mentor.
In those days, Morgan was an experimental type of brewer who wanted to break new ground.
“We did some crazy things that other people weren’t doing at the time,” Maerzluft said. “We were making honest-to-goodness lambics, as true as you could in the U.S. We had a barrel cellar with French oak casks where we aged the different lambics.”
In the true Belgian fashion, they blended the lambics to make a Gueuze-style beer.
Ironically, the stout was illegal to sell in Ohio at the time due to its 10% a.b.v., which was well above Ohio’s then 6% limit.
On to Siebel Institute of Technology
After completing the four-years of practical brewing experience required at that time to qualify for the Siebel Institute’s brewing technology program, Maezluft applied and was accepted. (Around the same time, his mentor, Bill Morgan, also left Diamondback Brewing to brew for Ginga Kogen in Japan. Morgan, is now the brewer at Blind Pig Brewery in Champaign, Illinois, the town where he was a student at the U. of Illinois in the late 1980s.)
“At Siebel, I was in the long, brewing technology course,” Maerzluft said. “There was lots of classroom and laboratory work. I graduated in the Class of 1999.”
An apprentice no more
Within a couple of days of Siegel graduation he accepted a brewing job at Wallaby’s Brewing Company in Westlake, Ohio. Wallaby’s operated a large production brewery and several brewpubs in northeastern Ohio.
“I came into the production side where we also did some oversight on the other brewers at the pubs. We were making the remake of P.O.C., Pride of Cleveland, the old vintage brand.”
Not long after he began working at Wallaby’s, the brewmaster who hired him had a falling out with the brewery owner and quit.
“So I was kind of stuck there by myself to run the whole thing with some part-timers on the bottling line.”
Running a 50-barrel brewery making P..O.C. by himself—and also having to check on the pubs—was taxing to say the least. When a brewer position came open at Wallaby’s only brewpub not owned by the company—a franchised operation in Medina, OH—he jumped on it.
This time, a medal as a soloist
He worked at Wallaby’s-Medina for about a year, and during that time he developed a beer called Black Beard Stout. The beer’s story begins with a young cook in the brewpub’s restaurant who wanted to become a brewer. Maerzluft took an interest in the guy and was helping him learn the brewer’s art.
“We had set up a date to get together to brew a milk stout,” Maerzluft said, “but he didn’t show up.”
Figuring that the 19-year-old had just overslept or something, Dan wasn’t particularly worried.
“Later that morning his older brother came in and told us he had passed away,” Maerzluft said with an expression on his face that suggested he was still quite moved by the event even after 15 years. “He had this freak heart condition.”
“I named the milk stout, Black Beard Stout, in honor of this kid because he could grow this big thick beard at 19 years old,” Maerzluft explained. “It was kind of a memorial beer.”
“I hand-bottled samples of the beer and sent them off to the World Beer Cup,” he said, “and won a silver medal for that beer in 2000.”
World Beer Cup silver leads to better job
During the World Beer Cup awards ceremony, which was held in Times Square, Maerzluft was seated next to the vice president of Snyder International Brewing Group out of Cleveland. The company had purchased Frederick Brewing in Maryland less than a year earlier and needed to staff it up.
“We were sitting there chatting,” Maerzluft recounted, “and he said to me, ‘You know we own the import and distribution rights to Mackeson Milk Stout out of England, and you just beat us out of the medals. I’d like to talk to you about hiring you.'”
A short time later, Maerzluft met with them back in Cleveland. One thing led to another, and he was soon working for Frederick Brewing. At the time Frederick Brewing produced the Blue Ridge and Wild Goose lines. A couple of those Frederick Brewing products were even distributed in West Virginia in the early to mid 2000s.
At Frederick, Maerzluft worked under Andy Taveerum, whom he had known from his Cleveland days when Taveerum was brewmaster at Great Lakes Brewing Company. At Frederick, Taveerum was brewmaster and Maerzluft was the head brewer. When Taveerum left for Dogfish Head, Maerzluft became the brewmaster for about the next five years.
The early 2000s were still a tough time for small breweries, following the industry overheating in the late 1990s. Frederick Brewing’s owners had taken on considerable debt when financing the brewery’s purchase and improving its equipment. The company was struggling. Their beer was selling, but they couldn’t increase sales fast enough to become profitable. In 2006, the brewery was put up for sale.
Helping out Flying Dog
At the time Frederick Brewing went up for sale, Flying Dog Brewing Company was a Denver-based brewery, but it needed more capacity than its Colorado brewery could provide. When Flying Dog found this modern, high-quality craft brewery with a large capacity up for sale, they jumped on it.
Flying Dog purchased the Frederick Brewing facility in July 2006. The brewery would continue to brew the Wild Goose brands, but would also begin brewing Flying Dog beer. (For a while, Flying Dog would also keep brewing in Denver. It would completely transition all its production to the Frederick facility by the end of 2008.)
Since Maerzluft knew the Frederick brewery equipment better than anyone else and also knew how to brew the Wild Goose beers, he was called on to assist with the transition. For a time he served as interim brewmaster for Flying Dog at the Frederick facility.
“I was tasked with formulating their products for the Frederick brewery equipment,” said Maerzluft. “I had to directly replicate what they were doing in Colorado. The equipment we had in Frederick was superior to what Flying Dog had in Denver, particularly the Krones bottling line.”
While working with Flying Dog, another fork in the road appeared. Gary Brooks, who owned a local Frederick brewpub called Barley & Hops, gave Maerzluft a call.
Let’s go, Mountaineer
“He told me he was opening a new production brewery in Martinsburg, WV, called Mountaineer Brewing Company,” Maerzluft recounted, adding that Brooks was making a large investment in some very good equipment and wanted him to lead the brewery start-up as brewmaster.
Maerzluft knew he could continue working at Flying Dog, but he wouldn’t be the brewmaster because they brought their own with them from Denver. Staying at Flying Dog would not have advanced his career. Maerzluft was living in Shepherdstown, WV, at the time and getting in on the ground floor of a nice, new facility just down the road from his home seemed like a good opportunity for him.
He took the job in late 2006, and Mountaineer Brewing quickly became the largest brewery in West Virginia after it opened in early 2007.
“Back then we were the big dogs,” Maerzluft said when asked about how Mountaineer beer was selling. “In fact we were back-ordered a lot.”
The beer sold so well that it was a constant challenge to keep enough beer brewed and bottled to supply the demand across West Virginia.
“I think we were spread a little bit too thin, considering how well we were received,” he said.
Maerzluft was kept busy running Mountaineer’s 15-barrel brewhouse to fill its 360-barrels of fermentation space. As soon as the beer was mature, he either kegged it or pumped it to the state’s only beer bottling line where he filled 12-oz bottles. Once kegs and six packs were filled, cases were stacked on pallets, and the beer was quickly shipped out to the distributors.
Things seemed to be going well. Sales were growing. But bad news arrived in mid-year 2010. Gary Brooks told Maerzluft he was closing the brewery and selling its equipment.
“It was a financial decision on his (Brooks) part.” Maerzluft said.
It was decision that caught Maerzluft by surprise since Mountaineer sales were strong, even with a lot of back orders from distributors.
Just like that, West Virginia’s largest brewery was no more. The brewery that state craft beer fans had hoped would put West Virginia-made beer on the shelves in other states of the region abruptly ceased operation.
Mountaineer’s brewery equipment was sold to a group in Texas who were starting a new brewery there. Pedernales Brewing of Fredericksburg, TX, planned to have noted brewery consultant Dr. Paul Farnsworth¹ set up the brewing equipment at the new brewery, but he was unable to do it. Yet again, Maerzluft was called upon to help out new owners of his former employers’ equipment.
In 2011, Pedernales Brewing hired Maerzluft as a consultant to assist them with setting up the equipment they bought from Mountaineer. He disassembled and packed up the equipment in Martinsburg and shipped it to Texas, where he put it back together and got it running. Then, he brewed the first three Pedernales beers.
“They’re really nice people,” he said of the folks at Pedernales.
He could have moved to Texas and gone to work for Pedernales, but having a family with well-established roots back in West Virginia told him it was not the right move.
Dan Maerzluft, Hagerstown calling
Not long after he returned home from Texas, his future called.
Bill Skomski, the owner of Benny’s Pub in Hagerstown, Maryland, had known Maerzluft for about 10 years. They originally met at local homebrewing club activities back when Maerzluft worked for Frederick Brewing.
Skomski told Maerzluft he wanted to discuss a consultation arrangement for installing a small brewery in his pub.
This was during a period when Maerzluft was working on getting his own Vandalia Brewery project together back in West Virginia. However, since his Vandalia project was only in the early concept stages, he took Skomski up on his offer in 2012.
Maerzluft helped get things designed and equipment ordered for what would become Antietam Brewery. Then, once the equipment began arriving, Skomski asked him if he would extend his consulting engagement and do the installation. Maerzluft agreed.
With the planning for his Vandalia Brewing project not moving along very fast, Maerzluft decided to take the offer. That was two and a half years ago.
“I’d never brewed on a system this small in my life,” he said. “Even brewpubs I was at were bigger than this. It was a really neat challenge considering there had never been a brewery in the Hagerstown area before.”
After over two and a half years of operation, Antietam is still the only brewery in western Maryland.
“The beer was so well received here,” Maerzluft said, “that within a couple of months we added two 7-bbl fermenters, and about six months after that we expanded to the space next door and doubled our capacity.”
That pretty much brings Maerzluft’s career up to the present. He now seems rather settled in as Antietam’s brewmaster, anxious to show visitors the nice range of beers he brews.
The difference between the beer he brews at Antietam and the ones he formerly made at Mountaineer is that there is more of Dan in the Antietam beer.
“Absolutely,” he exclaimed. “My hands were pretty much tied at Mountaineer to what I had to make. There, they were all very basic, straightforward beers. Here, I’m able to do a lot more of what I like.”
If you live in the three counties of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, you are in luck. Antietam beer is distributed there. If not, you can always make a field trip to the brewery.
Since his Mountaineer Brewing days, Maerzluft has been a regular at the Bramwell Oktoberfest, whether or not he had beer to offer, This year was no different.
On October 10, 2015, Dan was pouring his Antietam Brewery beer at the 20th anniversary Bramwell Oktoberfest. As you might figure, his beers did well in the commercial brewery competition, and he took home three Bramwell medals. While at the festival, he said more parts of West Virginia could expect to see Antietam beers over the next year. Now that sounds good.
We’re fortunate to have him
Though the years, Maerzluft has been involved with craft beer from the West Coast to the East Coast and several points in between. For 25 years has worked and rubbed elbows with many craft beer celebrities and award-winning brewmasters. He’s seen the industry change dramatically, and he’s grown with it. Today, the region’s new generation of young craft brewers are fortunate to be able to rub elbows with him.
Maerzluft brings a heaping amount of perspective, experience, and wisdom that is a pretty rare commodity in the region’s craft beer industry, where most breweries and brewers seem to have begun in the last ten years.
Craft beer fans in West Virginia are fortunate to have a brewer of his stature in our region. Brew strong, Daniel.
This article is largely taken from an interview conducted with Maerzluft in June 2015.
¹ Dr. Paul Farnsworth would later consult on Charleston Brewing Company’s start-up, and then help open BrewHub in Lakeland, FL, a contract brewer that currently makes beer for Cigar City and several other high-quality craft breweries, though Farnsworth is no longer with BrewHub.