When was DuClaw founded?
Jim Wagner: DuClaw was founded in 1996 by Dave Benfield, who is still the owner.
You have four locations in Maryland. Do they all brew on site?
It’s good you mentioned that. Due to Maryland state law, they do not. Early on, we were in quite a conundrum when we decided to take the DuClaw concept further. Dave, our owner, had the vision of expanding to multiple brewpubs. It didn’t take a whole lot of time to find out that in Maryland that was against the law.
Really? What’s the problem?
Exactly how it’s written I do not know, but the meat and potatoes of it is that an owning entity—in this case, Dave—can own one [brewpub] location, but he cannot own more than one. The rhetoric says this law was put in place basically to prevent Bud or Miller or Coors from coming into the state and opening 10 or 12 breweries and dominating the scene. That sounds well and good, but in actuality it kind of handcuffs a lot of craft brewers.
We decided at that point it really wasn’t feasible to fight the law. Dave realized after talking to the state liquor board that we could brew at one of our locations and supply a second location. We opened a restaurant at Arundel Mills, not what we’d call a true brewpub, but a restaurant that served only our beer. Legally, we were then able to brew at our original location, send our beer to a distributor and buy it back to sell at our second location.
Isn’t that a classic example of how crazy these laws become?
Then, when we opened our third location, at that point, you could legally send the beer [made at an original site] to one location, but if you owned more than one, then that’s illegal.
So once again, you were up against the limits of the law?
Back to the drawing board. We found another way to expand the business legally, and that was to build a brewery off-premises. That brewery is no longer a part of the restaurant. I wasn’t real crazy about the idea, because I felt pretty strongly that a lot of true craft beer drinkers wanted to see the equipment, and they wanted to see a brewer brewing the beer while they’re having their pint. Luckily, I was proven wrong. We realized that they didn’t care where the beer was brewed as long as you informed them how it was brewed, who it was brewed by and basically didn’t pull any punches.
As a brewer, this was actually a dream come true, because now I don’t have to worry about having a brewer at each one of our locations. With chain brewpubs, it’s a double-edged sword. A lot of places can give their brewer on premise a lot of leeway to do his own thing. But if the chain is brewing ABC Ale, and a customer tries it at one location and loves it, that customer expects ABC Ale to taste the same at all the locations, and it might not.
So there’s always tension between the autonomy of the on-site brewer and consistency between locations.
Absolutely. The great thing is our beers will taste the same at every location, because they come from the same place, same water, same brewer, same equipment.
What branch of medicine were you in [before brewing]?
I repaired dialysis equipment—kidney machines.
Does some of that background come in handy in a brewery?
What a great question, because the biggest thing for both is how important the water profile is—or, in the case of dialysis, the lack thereof. I have a lot of experience in dialysis with reverse osmosis, because it’s very important that the water be free of all mineral content before it can be used in the artificial kidney. I actually had the opportunity to bring home an old RO system. I used reverse-osmosis water in all my beers.
Is the idea to start with a completely neutral base?
You’ve got it. If you took reverse-osmosis water and brewed a beer, you’d be completely unsuccessful because there’s no mineral content—no calcium, no sulfate, no nutrients. But, knowing my salts, I could pretty much mimic any water in the world. If you and I are both brewing a pilsner, and I have the ability to control my water profile, but you’re at the mercy of your tap water, I’m going to have an edge. It’s like giving a painter a blank canvas.
AAB: What is the source of the rather dark names for DuClaw beers? Hellrazer, Venom, Mayhem …
That would be Dave. He’s quite imaginative, which can be a beautiful thing or a detriment. He realized that, in a perfect world, you brew good beer and customers come. In reality, that doesn’t happen. Like it or not, marketing is a huge part of the craft beer industry. A lot of die-hard beer geeks will tell you it doesn’t matter, but I beg to differ. With so many choices out there, there’s got to be a reason to be memorable.
AAB: I must say, if I visited one of your restaurants, it would be pretty tempting to walk up to the bar and ask for a pint of Misery.