It took a year of research, changes in state and county laws, used equipment, and an old warehouse, but Bryan Brushmiller finally turned his hobby into a business. In August 2011, he opened Burley Oak Brewing Company.
“I opened because there is a demand for craft beer. People want choices, and they want to buy local,” says Brushmiller, who kickstarted his idea for a craft brewery in 2009, after the company he was working for closed shortly before Christmas.
“I decided to take matters into my own hands.”
The 35-year-old entrepreneur, a Salisbury resident who had made beer at home, originally thought of opening his brewery there. Instead, he chose Berlin, which, in one of those coincidences that seem to happen only in movies, was then trying to lure a microbrewery to town.
Leaders in the Worcester County town, in fact, had gone so far as to post an inquiry on a microbrewery website. In a single week, they got 1,500 replies. Brushmiller’s was one of them.
Burley Oak was a hit even before it opened. Public meetings were held on the proposal. The district’s state legislators successfully introduced liquor licensing bills in the General Assembly to allow for a craft brewery. Berlin’s mayor, backed by the town council, advocated for it.
The local media covered every step in the process.
“Bryan had a great story to tell, and people were interested. He got a lot of buzz,” says Lois Haggerty, a business counselor at the Maryland Small Business Development Center—Eastern Region, who worked with Brushmiller on developing a business plan.
Located on a quiet street a short distance from Main Street, Burley Oak is hard to miss. A carved oak tree decorates the front of the building, an old, vacant warehouse that Brushmiller leased in 2010 and renovated into two sections.
The 1,200-square-foot tavern is designed for comfort, with a long wooden bar, worn leather sofas, big-screen TV, and blackboard listing the current offerings. A large plate-glass window overlooks the 4,000-square-foot brewery.
The brewery employs three full-time workers. Local farmers supply rye and hops, which are supplemented by other ingredients bought elsewhere. Production runs 60 barrels per month retail, sold in the tavern in $4-$5 pints and $12-$18 growlers. This winter, with plans to expand into the state’s wholesale market, production will double. Farmers are increasing output to meet the demand.
Brushmiller, who figures he’s been interviewed by over a dozen newspapers, carries his celebrity casually. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and sporting a bushy beard, he sits at a table in the cozy tavern and talks about his product.
“The beer is as fresh as possible. There are no preservatives, no chemicals. It’s all natural,” says Brushmiller, declining to discuss finances except to remark that, with legal fees and other complications, start-up costs were higher than expected. (By one estimate, at least $300,000 to $500,000—and probably more—would be needed to open a craft brewery.)
Brian Carl is the brewmaster, certified in the science and with a background in commercial breweries. He oversees the scrupulously clean brewery, divided into hot and cold areas and filled with temperature-controlled metal kettles and fermentors. Sacks of ingredients rest on pallets. Kegs age in a separate cold room.
Carl juggles different types of barley, rye, wheat, hops, and yeast, along with purified water, added at different time and in different amounts, to come up with his unique recipes.
“We always have six to eight beers on tap,” he says. “We cover the basics and then we have beers we want to try and seasonal beers. For Thanksgiving, we had a smoked porter; for Christmas, a gingerbread man.”