As it happens, I have been standing “ankle deep” in beer for most of my adult life. I started in the pub business in 1980 and then began brewing in 1989, a career I have followed ever since. You could say that beer changed my life―and I could not be happier!
A beer career was never my intention. As a college student in 1974, I did not like beer. I suffered through the stuff at college keg parties with little enthusiasm. It was definitely more social lubricant than anything else, and I was totally indifferent as to whatever was in my cup.
The beginning of the end came during a college semester in London in spring of 1974 when I had my first pint in an English pub. I discovered that there was much more to beer than the fizzy, yellow stuff of college. I became intrigued with the beer and also fell in love with the English pubs―what’s not to like?
Fast forward to May of 1980, as I was finishing my academic career by working on a master’s in theatre. (Yes, I said “theatre.” No business degree for this guy!). My next move was to head to New York and wait tables and tend bar until I got my big break.
My father seemed to have a different idea. He had recently opened a pub in Baltimore and coerced me into postponing New York to work for him. He reasoned that as long as I was going to wait tables and tend bar, I could just as well do it for him for a year until I could get on my feet financially. I think he had an ulterior motive.
Literally upon my arrival from grad school (I think I had been in town less than an hour), he handed me the keys to the bar, clapped me on the shoulder and said “Don’t screw up,” then walked out the door.
Heretofore my entire experience in the bar business had consisted of trying to stay on a stool. And my formal education in theatre had certainly prepared me for running a small business―not! So I will always think my father must have had unbelievable courage (or perhaps a few beers) to have handed me those keys. But there I was.
So, what was I to do? Well, my only point of reference was the English pub―and so we began evolving our business in that direction. This was 1980, and since there was very little interesting American beer to be had, we were forced to feature mainly imports to be different from other pubs. By 1982, we had over 120 different beers and I believe we were the first draft Guinness account in Maryland.
In order to promote our business, we began doing “beer tastings” which was unheard of at that time. To better understand what I was talking about, I also started home brewing (a disaster, but I learned a lot).
In 1984, we got the crazy idea that it would be cool if we could make our own beer. This was going to be difficult because (1) it was illegal in Maryland, and (2) there really were very few business templates to follow. This was pretty much virgin territory.
We got the law changed in 1987 and two years later I brewed my first batch of beer for the pub. My trip down the slippery slope had begun, and there was never any confusion as to what my career path would now be. For better or worse, my life would be beer.
I left the family pub in 1994 and struck out on my own with my own brewery. I have never looked back. Beer has afforded me a good life, many friends and wonderful experiences. In spite of the competitive nature of the business, there still remains a very friendly camaraderie in the industry and I hope that endures. Had I not had that first pint in London, I wonder how much I would have missed.
Hugh Sisson is a sixth generation Baltimorean with a passion for brewing craft beer. He was former manager of Maryland’s first brew pub, Sisson’s, and opened Clipper City Brewing Company in 1994.