Nothing caps off a Saturday afternoon of beer exploration than a nice quiet pint and a pretzel bigger than your head, which is why I headed to Tall Tales in Parsonsburg. I ordered up a pretzel and an Excalibur and sipped at one until I got the other. Thanks to a spot of good luck, though, by the time I ate the pretzel it was cold.
Eric Camper, the assistant brewer at Tall Tales came out to get a pint after a long day. It was approaching 9 p.m. and he and the group in the back had been at it awhile. They were bottling not drinking, although one didn’t necessarily exclude the other. And when Eric saw me he wanted to show me around. Eric always wants to show everyone around.
A lot of brewers love brewing, but Eric has the air of a person who still can’t quite believe he lucked into such a wonderful job. After all, they only had started bottling 15 hours previously, and likely would push a 20 hour day by the time they cleaned up, but Eric just is joyful being in the brewery and being a brewer.
Tall Tales expanded earlier this summer, quadrupling in size and adding a brand new bottling line. As with any other major change, they still were working out the kinks.
99 bottles of beer on the wall
Eric had mania behind his eyes as he walked me through the new bottling process and, specifically, the ins and outs of the new machine. His colleagues, half a dozen servers, cooks and the like, knocked around a soccer ball joking and blowing off steam. It clearly had been a stressful day, but the vibe was more of satisfaction in the day’s work rather than relief that it was over.
Breakage was something of an issue and partial fills, two of the tough parts about bottling by machine. Partial fills stood, uncapped, on the table at the end of the line as Eric took me through the process. The bottles were loaded into one end of the machine and passed along something of a packaging gauntlet.
They slid onto the line single file and worked their way along to the labeler (this day it was Red Headed Stepchild), were picked up, washed out and sent along to the filler. This had been something of a problem all day. After being cleaned, the bottles, in groups of ten, hit the 90 degree corner and were held there. When it was time to go to the filling phase, sometimes they didn’t quite make the turn. Other times, they spun right through the fill line, unfilled.
Both of those things happened as I watched.
Eric wasn’t filling the bottles, just showing off the machine, so no beer was harmed in the demonstration. Moreover, as if to show they still were pretty sharp, the staff shot into action when Eric moved to catch the bottles that didn’t make the corner. I didn’t ask, but it was as if, when one bottle didn’t make the turn, another shot past the filling line, because as Eric grabbed the one, someone appeared at the other end of the machine and grabbed the other.
Moving the merch
Last year, several local breweries were bottling in limited editions. This year, nearly all of them have some way of mass distribution. It’s not just a testament to the brewers and their hard work making great beer (though that is the main case). It also is a function of living in a seasonal region. People like being able to get the beers they get here when they’re home. Eastern Shore beers are increasingly popular in western Maryland (or Maryland, proper, I guess) as well as in Wilmington, D.C. and Philadelphia.
This regionalism is an opportunity that is, if not exclusive to the region, certainly a rarity in American Craft Beer. Lots of people recommend beers based on the fact that they’ve been at the breweries and talked with the brewing staff. That isn’t really news. What’s worth thinking about, though, is the shear volume of people who come here specifically for vacation and tour the breweries, not as part of a “beer tour” but rather as a part of the tourism experience.
Reliving the experience is in demand as much as merely having the beers is, which bodes well for everyone.