When people told me Fin City was above Hooper’s Crab House, I didn’t take them literally. After all, Hooper’s is just on the Assawoman Bay and it would make sense to have a brewery just above it on the water. Imagine my surprise when I showed up to Hooper’s to meet some of the owners and the brewery was in the rafters behind the bar. How it got there is a story in and of itself, but the important part is this particular location distinguishes Fin City from most other breweries.
Brewer and principal Vince Wright, along with his partners Patrick Brady and Ryan Intrieri laid out an audacious (especially in this day an age) plan for growth that so far as proved to be a solid move. They adopted a pay as you go business plan and have been executing it with only the occasional bump in the road since they started brewing.
They got into the business on the basis of Wright’s award-winning Captain Jack’s Pumpkin Ale, which they began brewing on premises at Hooper’s, where Brady and Intrieri work. The had cut a deal with the restaurant owner to let them brew on a seven barrel system as well as serve their beer there.
Following the tourists home
What has emerged is a practice wherein the entire brewery is something of a pilot system. Experimental batches (including, most recently a Blackberry Wheat and a DIPA) are available only at Hooper’s. Based on the brews’ popularity and the guys’ disposition to brew it, they can put the beer into production. Alternatively, they could make it a one off or a seasonal local exclusive.
Recently, I happened across some Fin City beer in Accident, Maryland, which is practically West Virginia. Actually, the beer is available in West Virginia, most of Maryland and by the time you read this, D.C. and probably Delaware, among other places. They are not brewing this much beer seven barrels at a time.
Instead, Vince rents time and space at Peabody Heights Brewing Company in Baltimore where he was trained to brew on the big system by brewing legend Ernie Igot. Peabody brews, bottles and distributes beer for Fin City all over the region, but it isn’t, strictly speaking, a contract brewery; it is more of a co-op.
Vince gets his hands dirty, as it were, doing production there, because the end game is to have their own system, but the folks at Fin City are biding their time.
I do not believe in the craft beer “bubble.” It isn’t that simple or clear cut. I do believe that in the coming years, people who got into brewery for what they thought were monster profits and respectable margins are going to get out when they realize they are wrong or stop selling beer if they make an inferior product.
A brewhouse of one’s own
Nearly every brewer I’ve ever spoken to on the topic believes something similar. There is no definite timeline, but many people believe there is a looming consolidation and, over the next five years, anyone looking to buy a production brewing system will be able to do so at relatively little cost.
That’s what Vince is counting on as well. The guys want to stay in Ocean City, which means they will have to pay a small fortune for property. The current plan is to continue to build up their reserves and write a check for an entire, debt free, brewery as the market levels out over the next five or so years.
In the mean time, Fin City has hit a point where they can, in a manner of speaking, cruise on their success. They will continue the R and D at Hooper’s (which is totally worth the trip for itself) and push their beers out along their already successful distribution lines. Pumpkin beer season is (alas) upon us, but Vince said they intentionally limit their production so there isn’t so much beer left over that it is still on the shelves this winter. Captain Jack’s will be available widely but in limited enough quantities that you’ll wanna have your share before Thanksgiving.