Union Craft Brewing makes space for fellow entrepreneurs.
The barrel aging room at the back of Union Craft Brewing doubles as a storage area for empty beer cans. Towers of cans stacked precariously around a conference table reach to the ceiling — the red-striped Duckpin ale cans, blue-trimmed Anthem cans, fancifully illustrated cans for seasonal releases.
“They’re waiting to be filled,” says Adam Benesch, one of Union’s co-founders.
It’s no wonder this company, which sold some 4 million beers last year, needs more space.
Benesch and partners Kevin Blodger and Jon Zerivitz started Union in 2011 after experimenting with initial test batches of Duckpin Pale Ale on Benesch’s Ellicott City deck.
That first year, they sold about 600 barrels (each barrel equals a hair under 14 cases), mostly to local outlets like The Wine Source and Frazier’s on the Avenue in Hampden, and Max’s TapHouse in Fells Point (where the company celebrated its fifth anniversary last year). Union now has 24 employees, not including part-time event staff, and brewed about 11,000 barrels last year.
Even with that growth, Union is still tiny in the craft beer world, let alone in the larger industry. At 300,000 barrels, Delaware’s Dogfish Head is close to 30 times larger than Union. And Boston-based Sam Adams produces some 3 million barrels a year. Moreover, Benesch says, craft brews only account for about 15 percent of the beer market.
“So 8.5 of every 10 beers drunk in the U.S. are a Miller Lite or a Budweiser.”
In the next 10 years, Benesch says, Union’s growth plan envisions a seven-fold increase in production. “So we’ve been saving our dollars because we knew we’d run out of space.”
Union’s owners initially had trouble finding the right place to grow into. Many of the city’s old manufacturing facilities have been transformed into mixed-use residential developments and fancy condos.
“A lot of city-based manufacturers end up going to nondescript warehouses in the county,” Benesch says. “That didn’t seem right to us.”
They found an immense building not far from the current Union headquarters in the Hampden/Woodberry area. But the 140,000-square-foot space, most recently a distribution center for packaging products, and before that for Sears, was triple the size they needed.
“At first, we said we couldn’t do it,” says Benesch. “But we kept hearing about other businesses that needed more room to grow, so the idea hit us.”
The name — Union Collective — painted along the upper edge of the long, low-slung building visible from the Jones Falls Expressway provides a writ-large clue to what that idea entails. It is slated to open in July.
One company Benesch knew was growing out of its space was The Charmery, owned by his friends David and Laura Alima. During the past few years, Union has collaborated with the ice cream shop on such flavors as Chocolate Double Duckpin, and they co-hosted a beer and ice cream pairing dinner.
The Charmery currently blends its ice cream in its tiny kitchen on the Avenue in Hampden, and the 5,500-square-foot space in the Union Collective building, says David Alima, will more than double production, to serve customers at the existing Hampden shop, the Factory store, and a new shop slated to open in Towson.
“Union Craft Brewing didn’t have to do this,” Alima points out. “What they are doing is giving these Baltimore brands an opportunity to take the next step in growing, while staying in Baltimore City.”
The Union team handpicked its tenants, Benesch says, and in the process learned a lot about the energy that small businesses are contributing to the city, some of it kept pretty quiet. Of the 60-plus companies he got in touch with, Benesch says he’d been aware of “maybe a third before this.”
“The idea,” says Benesch, “is about putting like-minded, successful entrepreneurs under one roof.”
Kedrick Smith, co-founder and chief operations officer of Huckle’s, says the company’s current facility — the kitchen at Maggie’s Farm restaurant — accommodates an output of about 1,500 bottles of hot sauce per day, each filled by hand.
With the fully automated production line in its new Union Collective home, he says, they’ll be able to crank out double that every hour. Smith says Huckle’s sells every drop it bottles — to more than 100 locations in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“Our intention is to go national,” Smith says. In particular, the company has high hopes for its best-seller, the vibrant red Late Harvest Jalapeno. “We fully expect it to grow legs and walk out to the West Coast.”
So far, the only non-food tenant is the Columbia-based Earth Treks climbing gym, which will use 20,000 square feet for its synthetic rock walls and a yoga studio. Benesch, whose 12-year-old son climbs at the Columbia location, knew the company had been looking at the Baltimore market and approached it with an offer.
Earth Treks is “a great fit” for the collective, says chief financial officer Chris Jenkins. “The people who climb are the same people who love craft brews.” (Though he does point out that beer should come after climbing.)
“Climbers tend to be progressive and like things that are local,” Jenkins adds. “That fits the demographic of the Hampden neighborhood really well.”
Earth Treks accepted, and the facility is designed for manufacturing, but that doesn’t mean the public isn’t invited. Benesch says about 10 percent of Union’s business flows from its taproom, which generates income even as it converts visitors into loyal customers.
“We want to take that model across the other businesses,” he says. “Have you been to Vermont and visited the Ben and Jerry’s factory? Now you can come to Baltimore and visit The Charmery factory.”
Some vendors began opening shop in May. For information, visit union-collective.com.
Martha Thomas is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and editor.