Rebuilding a Neighborhood

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Baltimore’s Union Collective is another example of the way breweries can inject life and community into neighborhoods waiting to blossom.


Back in 2011, three partners from diverse backgrounds got together to found Union Brewing in Baltimore: Kevin Blodger (director of brewing operations), Adam Benesch (director of operations), and Jon Zerivitz (director of marketing). They found an old building in a neighborhood with sparse options for drinking out, and opened their doors in 2012. In the six years since the opened the doors, the founders have made it one of Baltimore's anchor breweries, and a model for the wave that has come since. The brewery has recently relocated to a new site and formed the Union Collective, a 138,000 square-foot converted Sears building that will showcase local craft manufacturing and bring people together to sample the wares of local artisans. This hasn't gotten quite the attention the new Baltimore Guinness brewery has, but it's gotten a lot. It's a big, bold project that Baltimoreans are watching with interest.

Before the Collective, though, there was the original brewery, and the goals, though more modest, were the same. They wanted to create a neighborhood hub for the community. When I visited Union, I sat down with Jon Zerivitz and listened to the story of the first stop, in the Woodbury neighborhood. Zoning in Baltimore makes it difficult to find urban locations for breweries, and this meant the city was largely bereft of them at the time. "There was no brewery in Baltimore where a beer fan could go and develop a community," he told me.

 An old mill near the brewery that has been converted into residential units.

An old mill near the brewery that has been converted into residential units.

The Woodbury neighborhood, where they ultimately found a location, is near the Jones Falls River (which runs under the Jones Falls Expressway). Historically, this was a mill district, and old buildings are still thick along the course of the river. Textile mills, which Zerivitz says mostly made sailcloth, brought in workers from Appalachia to staff their operations. It was once an industrial district, but all the old mills have been turned to other uses in the intervening decades.

The partners found an old foundry building dating to around the turn of the 20th century that was zoned for light industrial and they jumped on it. Recalling this period, Zerivitz explained to the Capital Gazette's Liz Murphy what that original vision looked like.

“I mean, seven years ago, when we were brainstorming what a brewery that we could build would be like, several stories kept coming back about breweries moving into areas of cities that were very run-down. And just how much life they brought back with re-development, with the brewery as an anchor.”

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The foundry building was small--the tasting room has space for a bar and a few tables and not much more--though a beer garden outside expanded capacity in the summer months. In service of that community-based mission, the beer is geared toward sessionable ales and lagers people can enjoy over longer sessions. The brewery's flagship, which constitutes about half the current 14,000-barrel volume, is Duckpin Pale, a 5.5%, easy-sipping pub ale. (It's named after a type of bowling native to Baltimore.) I was delighted to see a pilsner and schwarzbier the day I visited. Union also does a line of goses that began with Old Pro, which, as Zerivitz describes it, initially "shocked and disgusted people." Despite the reaction, they thought it would be a great summer beer and canned it. "We felt that if we rolled the dice, people would come around," he said. They did--it became a hit, and now they do fruited and barrel-aged versions as well. Even in late May, Baltimore was getting pretty hot and humid, and I bet a gose goes down pretty well on a summer day out on the patio.

Jon Zerivitz (left) and Kevin Blodger

At six years old, Union counts as one of the old guard of new breweries, and its success maxed out the current brewery. When it came time to think about a new, bigger building, the founders hatched the idea to create a space to share with other craftspeople. It extended their vision dramatically, but when they found the old Sears building, it seemed like a perfect opportunity. "It's this huge campus basically in this bowl that was totally useless to the community," Zerivitz said. As of my visit, Union had already found a number of businesses to join them at the new Union Collective--a distillery, a coffee roaster, and ice cream maker, and a hot sauce company. There's also an indoor climbing gym, and a wood-fired pizza truck is the first food tenant. In order to really appreciate what a vast, dead space this was--and what a risky venture it will be to try to make it human-scale and appealing to visitors, you need to see some of the pictures of the old place. It took vision to see potential in this:

I visited the old location about two weeks before the old brewery went out of commission, and the Collective is now open. (Not the greatest timing ever.) I am always really excited to hear about projects like this. The brewery was already well-regarded before this project, but the Collective has the chance to do more than offer a line of good beers. It is the kind of project that, if successful, creates a virtuous cycle that will help revitalize the neighborhood around t that will support local businesses, create good, working-class jobs, and bring people into a neighborhood to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The success of these businesses will generate more revenue, create more jobs, and make the whole collective a more vibrant hub for the community. I've written about this before, but few projects are such a clear example.

The Union Collective has the chance to make a little pocket of Baltimore a little nicer, and if it does succeed, I hope others look to see if something similar makes sense in their cities.

Jeff Alworth