Article By: Paul Long
Photos By: Josh Triggs
Nearly 10 years ago, Marcus Thomas reconnected with his old high school buddy, Scott Coleman, over a mutual appreciation for craft beer.
The two friends soon found themselves brewing their own beer in Scott’s garage, and about eight years later, they decided they wanted to turn their hobby into a full-time job.
So, after enlisting the help of another friend, Garrett Chambers, they launched the Cushwa Brewing Company on Governor Lane in Williamsport, Md.
The brewery opened its doors in late January and, in the span of a few short weeks, has already exceeded the trio’s expectations.
According to Washington County fi re code, the brewery cannot have more than 140 people in its facility at any one time. On Jan. 28, the day of its grand opening, the brewery staff had to station someone at the door to make sure that number was not exceeded. Customers were lined up at the door, and could only enter once others left. That continued for more than nine hours that first day, according to Thomas.
“Things are going great,” Thomas said. “We have a solid local following as well as people from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and (elsewhere in) Maryland. We knew it would be busy, but we didn’t think it would be at that level.”
Thomas, who is in charge of marketing and taproom operations, and Coleman, who handles accounting and legal matters, met Chambers – who is in charge of brewery operations – several years ago through an online app called Untapped. Chambers lived in Boonsboro at the time but later moved to Vermont for work.
When the trio decided to launch the brewery, Chambers moved back to this area to help get it off the ground. He is currently the only one of the three working full-time at Cushwa; Thomas works in quality control at a manufacturing facility while Coleman is a structural engineer.
“The timing was just right for (Chambers) to step away from what he was doing, and for Scott and I to take the plunge,” Thomas said. “Without him as our head brewer, I don’t know what we would do.”
When they decided to open the brewery in Williamsport, the trio was determined to establish a strong local connection, so they named it after the Cushwa Basin, a stretch of towpath located along the C&O Canal that was used for cargo boats during the canal’s heyday in the 19th century. The basin is in Williamsport near the 100-mile point of the 187-mile-long canal.
Thomas said the brewery’s proximity to the canal, as well as to Interstates 81 and 70, were signifi cant factors in deciding to locate in Williamsport. “We wanted a neighborhood boutique feel, but not downtown,” he said.
The Cushwa Brewing Company currently has eight beers on tap. The Cushwa Light, a cream ale, has been a huge success thus far. Thomas said it’s an easy-drinking beer, relatable for those who are still new to craft beers.
To help these newcomers, the brewery is offering “short pours,” four-ounce sample tastings of each beer, to help customers decide what best suits their tastes.
Cushwa’s double India pale ale, or IPA, is known as the Face Chop and has quickly become the fledgling brewery’s most popular offering. “We’re surprised by how popular that’s been,” said Thomas. Other beers on tap at the Cushwa Brewing Company include Gone to Plaid, a Scottish ale; Simple Saison; Chocolate Love (a milk stout), Collapsible False Bottoms (a coffee porter), The People’s Champagne (a Berliner Weisse) and an English Strong Bitter.
With more than 1,000 customers walking through the doors in the first three weeks alone, keeping up with inventory has been a challenge for Thomas and his colleagues. They briefly considered making a contract brewing arrangement with a larger beer-maker but ultimately decided against it.
The solution, at least for now, was to purchase more fermenters to help meet production needs. According to Thomas, the trio hopes to expand within the next couple of years. They will seek a location that provides more space while allowing them to stay in Williamsport. “We can’t go any larger with our equipment where we are,” he said.
For many years, wineries have been a popular destination for tourists seeking a unique way to spend several hours on a weekend afternoon. This trend has led to the creation and continuing development of wine trails in grape-growing hotbeds like California’s Napa Valley and the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.
More recently, the increased interest in craft beers has led to a similar trend in that industry, with small breweries working together to bring in customers. While Frederick, Md., has become a popular destination for beer lovers, Cushwa is one of only two such businesses in Washington County at the moment, along with Antietam Brewery in Hagerstown.
Rather than developing a competitive rivalry, Thomas said, the two beer-makers share a cooperative spirit that is common throughout the industry. Organizations like the Brewers Association of Maryland allow breweries to work together to increase interest in, and awareness of, their products.
“I see a trend toward the craft beer industry,” Thomas said. “I don’t see it overtaking (wine), but breweries are popping up. … None of us think of each other as competitors.” Instead of making a big advertising push to help launch their new business, Thomas, Coleman and Chambers have relied on the strength of social media to make craft beer enthusiasts aware of their presence. In addition to Facebook, Twitter and similar outlets, they actively maintain their website, cushwabrewing.com. But, with all those options available, another time-tested communication tool is helping fuel Cushwa’s rapid growth: Word of mouth.
“If you have a good product, people are going to fi nd your beer,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t take them long to notice.”
If a customer likes a particular beer, they can take it home with them in the form of a “crowler,” a 32-ounce aluminum container intended for one-time use. That differs from the growlers found at some breweries, which are typically 64-ounce glass jugs and can be used more than once. In addition to selling their products at their Williamsport facility, the trio is looking to reach customers through self-distribution to restaurants, stores and other outlets. So far, Thomas said, they have taken the business to where it is today without any investors or other outside help. And they’d like to keep it that way.
As the Cushwa Brewing Company continues to grow, though, some changes are inevitable. Currently, the brewery is utilizing just three and a half barrels to produce its products. Thomas said he and his colleagues would like to be using a 15-barrel system within a few years.
The three men have hired eight employees so far and also have several volunteers working to help things run smoothly.
“We’re really bootstrapping this right now,” Thomas said. Despite the pressures of operating a growing business, the trio hasn’t forgotten what drew them to beer-making in the first place, and Thomas said they still enjoy what they do.
“It never gets old,” he said. “I don’t think it’ll ever get to the point of it not being fun. It’s always awesome to have that experience, that connection with our customers.”