Graphic designer Jon Zerivitz spent the past decade carefully crafting catchy, colorful images that existed on his clients' websites, a virtual display case that left him longing to create a product he could touch, smell and, most importantly, taste.
So the 32-year-old Lutherville-Timonium resident turned to beer. Not to drown his troubles over his career, but to launch a new one.
Zerivitz opened Union Craft Brewing at 1700 Union Avenue in Baltimore's Woodberry neighborhood back in June alongside partner and head brewer Kevin Blodger.
"The concept is a real neighborhood brewery that fosters the community," Zerivitz said.
"It’s been pretty amazing. I’m actually really initially humbled by how well we’ve been received especially by this neighborhood community," he said. "Not only did the community association embrace it, but the other businesses down here have really embraced it. People are so happy that we’re here."
Inside the brewery space in an industrial park, a stainless steel brewing system dominates the room; tanks are lined up against the back wall, where the sweet barley 'tea' called wort becomes beer through fermentation. Empty kegs, which Zerivitz cleans and fills one at a time, by hand, are lined against walls and a giant refrigerated 'cold box' stores the filled kegs.
Union Craft Brewing is a production brewery, as opposed to a brewpub—the beer they produce is kegged then sold, through a distributor to bars in the Baltimore metro area. In 2013, they plan to add a canning line at which point the beer should be available in liquor stores.
The brewery's name is simple but to its founder, Union Craft Brewing means a lot.
"We had a lot of names in the pool—we didn’t land on Union until we moved into this space and were really feeling the neighborhood vibe and the ghosts of the old industry down here," Zerivitz said. "That’s when we struck on Union—it's a great name: it's the street we're on, it's the craft beer movement that brings people together in ways that a lot of other commodities can’t."
Trading a Desk for a Brewery
It wasn't so long ago though that Zerivitz had a career in graphic design and turned to brewing as a means of escaping a job that left him feeling unsatisfied.
"I took up homebrewing as a hobby, and to reconnect with something creative that was also tangible," he said. "I kept at that for a couple of years, got deeper and deeper into beer and the beer scene in Baltimore. That’s when it clicked that I should build a brewery here."
As with any new enterprise, he said the hardest part was finding investors and raising capital,especially considering the current economic climate.
"That’s probably the biggest hurdle—raising those funds and then dealing with that pressure of having that behind you," he said. "I would say it was even more difficult to raise the capital, it was a lot harder to ask uncle Mike to throw down on this—because of the economic climate it’s more difficult to get people to throw down their money."
There were bureaucratic hoops to jump through too, Zerivitz explained. Since there hasn't been a production brewery inside the Baltimore City limits for about 30 years, he said, officials weren't sure what to do with Union.
"Most people think you're building a restaurant," he said. "City officials didn't have a lot of experience with breweries."
The fact that it's been three decades since a production brewery existed within city limits, though, doesn't mean that Baltimore doesn't have a rich tradition of brewing—just look at National Bohemian.
Tradition, History ... Irreverence?
"We definitely have a deep reverence for the history of Baltimore in general. We're in an old neighborhood, we really value the history of this neighborhood, the city itself, and the brewing tradition," he said.
That doesn't mean he doesn't plan to bring a certain amount of irreverence and youthful energy to his endeavor though.
"We go at it with a sense of humor and certainly bring with us everything that is going on in American craft beer today—there’s a little bit of boundary pushing; we're not only going to make traditional style beers."
But at launch, the brewery took aim at those traditional styles to create beers that are full-flavored but approachable, such as the Duckpin Pale Ale and Balt Altbier, to appeal to those who might not already be craft beer drinkers.
"You can’t say you don’t like something until you’ve tried it. I would say that Union beers are probably a nice place to start [drinking craft beer], based on the fact that they are well-made but not extreme. They're easy-drinking and won’t blow your palate away."
And to appeal to fans of craft beer, Union recently launched Old Pro Gose—a traditional German style that has a tart flavor.
"One of the reasons we felt confident that we could put out a beer this esoteric is because of the expanding palettes of craft beer drinkers today," he said.
Up next is a black lager-style beer that Zerivitz said will be brewed in the near future. In the future he said that Union will brew to season and also release beers according to what they're interested in doing.
"We like big stouts and barrel aging, we crave variety just like everyone else. And we love to brew," he said.
All four beers currently in the line-up, he said, are being sent to the Great American Beer Festival for judgement—just three months after they began producing beer.
The head brewer at Union, Kevin Blodger has a wealth of brewing experience—he's been at it for nearly a decade, working for Gordon Biersch first in Chicago and later in .
"Kevin has medaled at GABF three times," Zerivitz said. "He pretty much dominates the brewhouse on his own. I would say when it’s brew day I’m his assistant brewer. On other days I’m cleaning kegs, filling kegs, cleaning tanks."
The Pursuit of Passion
You read that correctly—Zerivitz, despite founding the brewery, is one of only two employees there and does the majority of what he called the "grunt work" on his own.
"I'm working for myself, any job that needs to get done I do. Almost selflessly, I don’t think about whether or not it’s beneath me. We’re all down for the cause, I’ll do absolutely anything it takes," he said.
While launching the brewery he said sometimes that meant 100 hour weeks and very little sleep, working without air conditioning during one of the hottest Julys on record.
Working so much could easily put a great deal of strain on life at home—Zerivitz is married and has a 10-month-old daughter. He called his wife, Julie, the unsung hero of the brewery.
"She’s supportive, always wants to be here helping and knows that I’m trying to grow this business for our future and our family," he said. "I hope that I’m able to find more of a balance between this life and my home/family life sooner than later."
Despite the stresses, hurdles and hoops, though, Zerivitz said that he's glad he pursued his passion.
"It's always been an industry I thought I could bring something to. As an aspiring entrepreneur and a lover of Baltimore, all these things make it so worthwhile. I’m so glad to have this business right now even if it were to close down tomorrow I feel so amazing about what we’ve done so far," he said.
The tasting room Union Craft Brewing is open from 1-4 p.m. on Saturdays at 1700 Union Avenue in Woodberry. To find out where you can find Union brews on draft check the brewery website.