January 25 marked the one-year anniversary of the highly esteemed Cushwa Brewing Company, located in Williamsport, MD. Over the past year, Cushwa has gotten a lot of hype for their run of aromatic, hazy, and fruity hop-focused New England IPAs. Not being much of a haze fan myself, I decided to visit the brewery and find out both how the hype around Cushwa stacked up against the reality and what they had to offer beyond hazy IPAs. Scott and Garrett, two of Cushwa’s owners (along with their partner-owner Marcus), were kind enough to meet with me and talk about their business and their philosophy around beer.
All three of Cushwa’s founders are local boys. Scott and Marcus are high school friends from Greencastle, Pennsylvania, just across the state line from Hagerstown, and Garrett is a native of Boonsboro. Garrett and Scott actually met through Untapp’d, go figure, a few years ago. After meeting through Untapp’d, Garrett made a move to Vermont*, but Scott eventually managed to convince him to return to northwest Maryland. They founded Cushwa Brewing with Marcus. One benefit of the move back home is that Garrett gets to have his mom bring him lunch, as she did on the Sunday that I visited.
So where does the name Cushwa come from? Like Scott, Marcus, and Garrett themselves, the name comes from the local Maryland area. Nearby, there is a part of the Potomac River known as the Cushwa basin. Back when the C&O Canal was a major commercial thoroughfare, the basin was one of the only points in the river in which a boat could turn around. That created a natural resting point along the passage, and Cushwa Brewing draws its name in honor of that respite.
Drinkability and clean fermentation define Cushwa’s brewing philosophy. As Garrett explained, “proper pitch rate, oxygenation, and temperature management,” are critical to ensuring yeast health and with it the flavor profiles that Cushwa is trying to hit. On the question of a craft beer bubble, Scott and Garrett believe that, “as the industry progresses there will be a shake out and a flight to quality.” While Scott doesn’t believe there is necessarily a bubble in craft beer, “people want to support local, but with the number of breweries coming online, if two [places] are equidistant the one pushing quality will win out.” True to this philosophy, I found that among the many newer breweries pushing hazy IPA, Cushwa does indeed stand out for the quality and complexity of their offerings. Rather than just pushing a generic malt bill of pilsner or pale two-row malt with some flaked oats and/or wheat, Cushwa does attempt to add a well-rounded malt bill that truly complements the highlighted hop varietals. While Marcus, Scott, and Garrett never thought that they would have an “IPA brewery,” they have found that they are good at it.
Moving beyond the haze, Scott is a particular fan of the brewery’s Rambo imperial stout. Garrett especially appreciates their lower-alcohol sessionable beer where “there is still lots of flavor [available].” Some of Garrett’s personal favorites are Cushwa’s extra special bitter (ESB) and their Scottish export ale. I can personally attest that the ESB is fantastic. The owners are also still planning to brew a pilsner, a cream ale, and there is a dopplebock in the works. Unfortunately, the styles outside of New England IPA just aren’t selling as well for the time being, so Cushwa’s owner-brewers are not as free to focus on the full variety of beers they like and want to put out. The production volume for their first year was 200-300 barrels. However, Cushwa will soon expand to a nearby location; with the move, both their production volume and taproom space will increase considerably. During year one, Cushwa used contract brewing for their canning releases. In 2018, Cushwa is planning on developing a more regular portfolio, although there still won’t be anything approaching a flagship beer(s). The new facility and brewhouse (10-15 barrel capacity) will allow Cushwa to move all production in-house and use a mobile cannery for their regular and special releases. Currently, Cushwa’s brew house is only 3.5 barrels, and they are so confined for space that the fermenters also act as their brite (CO2 conditioning) tanks. For those who are curious and to give a sense of the investment the upgrade entails, a ten-barrel brewing system (without including fermenters, conditioning tanks, or a rake) costs $100,000.
Now onto the Maryland regulatory nonsense and what it means for Cushwa. Like every conversation involving Maryland brewing for the past year, the topic of HB 1283 and beer laws came up as well. Scott explained that “the existing 288 oz (one case) limit is a problem for Cushwa’s canning runs. Customers travel and wait in line a long while and get very disappointed when we aren’t allowed to sell them more.” Additionally, the licensing regime in Maryland prevents a brewery like Cushwa (unless it were to operate more as a brewpub), from offering a local wine or spirit in their brewery, which they would like to do. Scott noted that:
“The limits that are currently part of Maryland law only hurt the consumer experience without benefiting any other entity. We’re not hurting the bar industry. If people want to hang out in the tap room, that is their choice. The limits put us at a disadvantage as a small brewery near the state border. I want to [be able to] stop having conversations with customers from other states regarding sales limits and the reasons why.”
Lastly, there is the couch. At the back of the current brewery in the “loading dock,” a term that I am using generously, stands a large couch that looks vaguely like something your kooky aunt bought back in 1981. It is big, paisley, and seems comfy as hell. Apparently, this fine heirloom was something Garrett bought while living in a group house with his buddies. It has been with him ever since, and due to lacking a proper domicile to dwell in, the couch now adorns/blocks the Cushwa loading dock and provides a nice relaxing place to kick back during long brew days. If you visit the brewery, which YOU ABSOLUTELY SHOULD DO, just be cool and ask to take a seat in the back.
Big thanks to Scott and Garrett for their time and to Marcus for setting up the interview. DCBeer wishes you the best of luck in year two. Hopefully 2018 will be a better year for all of us.
* In what is a great coincidence, Garrett was working at a small Vermont brewery called Four Quarters in March of 2016, which I visited at the time and where he was my bartender. Four Quarters, located in Winooski, Vermont, right outside of Burlington, is one of the most unique and interesting breweries in the state and definitely worth a visit.