“For me, what it means in my life, this is my life,” he said. “This is my baby and I feel like it’s amazing to create something, and now I’m at a point where I’ve handed it over to 28 people.”
But babies grow, and after seven years, Burley Oak has matured.
The way the craft brewery operates is nothing like it did when it was just Brushmiller in his garage. There is more infrastructure with 28 employees, an upgrade in distribution thanks to a new canning line and crowds out the door for new beer releases.
Burley also added a “proper” stage for entertainment in the beer garden, along with “The Cellar,” which doubles as a small bar and aging area for wine and bourbon oak barrels that emit the basking aroma of maturing beer.
Oh, and don’t forget, there’s a cafe in downtown Berlin.
“Our reach has grown, but one thing we haven’t changed in five years is our size,” Brushmiller said in terms of how much beer they produce. “We’re still a really small brewery doing less than 5,000 barrels a year.”
One barrel is just shy of seven cases of 12-ounce beers, but a bigger operation like Dogfish Head in Milton hoped to top 300,000 for the first time in 2018.
But even will all the new projects for Burley, one the brew team has been doing for almost two years has become a measuring stick for craft breweries across the country — the popularity of its specialty can releases.
It’s not necessarily new, but it is something breweries on Delmarva have experimented with. A 2015 article by the Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade group that studies the craft beer industry, pointed to specialty releases becoming more popular especially in November and December (after the pumpkin onslaught from August to October).
A year later, the association had added specialty releases to its best practices guide for distribution of seasonal beer.
“We started last February, and it hasn’t been a year, but it’s been a skyrocket success for us,” said Brandon Smith, co-owner of Dewey Beer Co.
A Butterfinger stout made with chocolate, Butterfingers and peanut butter highlighted the October release for the Dewey brewery, along with its sour series, Secret Machine, and a double IPA. The Get Your Own, Man stout sold out prior to the release.
Smith and the brewery started doing presale tickets this summer, an idea they borrowed from RAR Brewing in Cambridge, which will release an ice cream cone beer in November.
Brushmiller and Burley head brewer Adam Davis started can releases about two years ago.
At first, it was two beers. Now, with the wildly successful J.R.E.A.M. brews, they release four or five a month.
Cans don’t last long.
“The J.R.E.A.M.’s are their own kind of beast,” said Davis. “They take on a life of their own at some point. We just keep trying to come up with creative ideas for it and keep changing it.”
Specialty can events, customer interaction and product desire have become more important during a time when industry experts are wondering if craft beer has hit a saturation level.
The data is unclear and difficult to digest in one distinct way, but it does push local brewers to stay on their game.
In 2011, Maryland had 25 craft breweries. That number hit 73 in 2017. Delaware breweries increased, too, from seven to 21 in the same timeframe.
But in recent months, 16 Mile in Georgetown shuttered its doors and Ocean City Brewing Company switched ownership and is in the process of becoming Ironweed Ale Werks.
Neither had the successful release programs that Dewey Beer Co., RAR and Burley Oak have thrived on in recent years.
“There’s an excitement to get cans and share them and trade with them,” Smith said. “It just brings in a lot more people.”
And that doesn’t necessarily mean their neighbors. While there are a sect of Delmarva craft beer groupies that gobble up products each month, multiple brewers have noticed an increase of tourists or people making it into a road trip.
“Can releases are not just important for breweries but for everybody and all businesses around,” Brushmiller said. “We see the economic impact going as far as putting people in hotel rooms in the offseason, sending people to local restaurants.
“We’re getting hundreds of people from all over the East Coast to come and get some cans we make.”
Smith with Dewey Beer Co. has seen an influx of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania residents during the summer months. RAR is also in a prime spot along Route 50 in Cambridge for travelers from across the Bay Bridge coming to the Eastern Shore.
It’s not cheap for those visitors, and it’s not cheap for the breweries either.
These four packs, usually in a 16 ounce can, range between $10-20, and most average on the higher end.
But they key is the amount of ingredients added, whether it’s vanilla, a ton of hops or something more exotic (just look at a Dogfish Head brew).
The ultra-successful J.R.E.A.M. brews by Burley Oak always have a fruit component that pairs with the sour beer base — blueberry cobbler, peach pear, apricot blackberry and carrot cake in September.
“I think carrot cake J.R.E.A.M. was something that I think people didn’t know how to take at first but once a bartender put that in front of them — the color, the taste, everything actually worked, better than we thought,” Brushmiller said.
J.R.E.A.M. evolved from Burley’s first sour beer founded by Brushmiller back when interest in sour beer was just starting to grow.
The berliner weiss sours — Sour Trip and Sorry Chicky — were a hit, and as Brushmiller and Davis tinkered, J.R.E.A.M. was created.
“Sour Trip and Chicky are light, crisp and dry, J.R.E.A.M. has a lot of lactose added in — thickens up the body, the flavor, the mouthfeel and then the fruit in there, too,” Davis said.
It was so brisk during the morning of a brew for the November specialty release that Brushmiller couldn’t stay warm after his bike ride into work.
He could have warmed up by jumping in to help with the brew process but said he doesn’t even want to pretend he does that as much as he used to.
He might be the Chief Fun Officer, but his cellphone didn’t stop buzzing the entire morning as he attended to the business side of things.
Despite all the growth, Brushmiller is happy right where things are and doesn’t hope to be the next Dogfish or Evolution.
About two years ago, the brewery team made a conscious decision to stop growing in volume, but instead focus on the quality of the brews they already produce, along with customer experience — cue the stage, cellar and cafe.
“We are probably where we are. That amount of liquid is really important to us,” Brushmiller said.
Burley hasn’t purchased any new equipment to grow in the past two years, but the computer-controlled system is a major upgrade from the day-one gear.
And there’s still plenty left for Burley to do — constantly challenged with new ideas and flavors, to keep donating to the community ($300,000 in last seven years) and maybe add a few more jobs for locals.
“It’s something I think I’m the most proud of, starting this business without a job and creating my own job to creating 28 jobs is something I’m proud of,” Brushmiller said.
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/