The restaurant that is Assawoman Bay Brewing Company was under construction when I visited this spring. It was disorienting and made me grateful for the weird beer reporter position I’ve been in for the last few years. I’m privileged to see a lot of breweries mid-construction or conversion, to taste beers that might eventually get made (or, tragically, beers I like that don’t ever get made) and to get a sense as much of the cons as of the pros of brewing for a living.
For long, boring reasons, the restaurant that the Assawoman Bay Brewing Company occupies had a different name last year, but the beer was so successful they’ve decided to emphasize it, bringing it front and center rather than as an ancillary product.
And there’s a pretty good reason for that.
Head brewer Jason Weissberg has been undeniable from the beginning. A craft beer professional who has worked all over the country, Weissberg has been able to establish Assawoman Bay as a solid, reliable beer right from the start.
Jason has been brewing since the early 90s and has a professional’s ease of manner. After taking some time off from brewing to work the front of the house (he most recently was the general manager at Dogfish Head), he decided he wanted to get back into brewing.
For someone with a lot of experience and demonstrated skill, it’s pretty easy to get employed in the brewing industry. It is a pretty good time to be a professional brewer because there is a lot of choice. Jason, for example, knew he didn’t want to work in a big production brewery. He also was fairly convinced that he wanted to work with a startup, someplace where he didn’t have to conform to someone else’s recipes.
There’s also the brewing oddity of personality. It is tough to come in to a new company as the boss and deal with standards established by your predecessor. Brewers have a similar relationship with their drinkers and making changes always can be difficult and even dangerous.
Not that starting from scratch didn’t present its own list of problems. Among them was committing the time and money to making good beer. A lot of the time (especially when investors are involved) there can be a sense that brewing is a license to print money that is valid upon the boiling the first batch. Jason said he was fortunate to make a connection with the ownership pretty early on wherein they signed on to do good beer in the long term.
Assawoman Bay Brewing opened toward the tail end of the boom, which meant it was easier to get people to try their beers, but also easier to alienate the beer drinking public. This is the approach Jason laid down. He knew that an educated public means a lack of neutrality when it comes to beers. A new brewery might get some leeway, but it won’t get a ton of it.
“It’s not just enough to be local and craft,” he said. “You have to be good.”
Beyond beer batter
Over the winter, Assawoman Bay Brewing Company started racking up honorifics, including Best Porter (TransPorter) and Best Marzen (Maryland Marzen) in the region at the U.S. Beer Tasting Championships. Being on sale at the 45th Street Taphouse created a lot of buzz around the beer, and the buzz created demand.
If there had been any doubt about Assawoman Bay as a beer with more than a little potential, it was swept away.
Less than six months after it opened, the decision was made to put Assawoman at the fore of the new restaurant, and not just in name or attitude.
All through the spring, Jason worked with the chef who was creating recipes based in the beer.
“He was fascinated by all the different flavors,” Jason said.
The restaurant menu will have sauces and glazes made with beer, wort, spent grain and whatever else the two can wring out of the brewing process to improve the flavor of the foods.
Designed for a minimal crew
Being there at the beginning, Jason was able to have the brewery set just like he wanted it. The way he wanted it was to make it outrageously efficient. Every piece of equipment is placed in a way that he can pretty much run the whole show by himself. As demand increased, Jason was able to, if not quite stay ahead of it, at least not get clobbered by it.
Mostly, this had to do with savvy more than anything else. Although the temptation to begin distributing widely was omnipresent, he fought the urge (and the occasional pointed question from above) because he didn’t want to disappoint.
With tap handles at a premium around town, Jason thought it was important to live up to the commitments and demands of a few select customers. He slogged through the summer last year, and came out on the other side with a real sense of what it’s going to take to get through this summer and all the following summers: storage capacity.
He’s got plenty of tanks for lagering and made some more improvements that will allow him to stay ahead of demand and even begin to expand into distribution in a bigger way.