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Closing Time

Regulars Mourn the Pending Closure of DeGroen’s Grill

Jefferson Jackson Steele
IT'S BEER O'CLOCK: The Baltimore Brewing Company will go dark for good when the last of its remaining kegs runs dry.

By David Morley | Posted 2/2/2005

DeGroen’s Grill—aka the Baltimore Brewing Co.—has brewed its last batch. As of press time, the Jonestown brewpub’s management planned to serve the last of the beer remaining in its kegs, but when those are dry the tavern will go dark for good.

Since the news that DeGroen’s days were numbered became official in mid-January, dedicated imbibers have been gathering ’round the copper-topped bar and talking about the bar as if it were not a business but a good friend whose demise is imminent. Last Wednesday, Jan. 26, DeGroen’s regulars mixed with members of the “Mug Club,” a group that meets every week at happy hour for supersized drafts and stogies, and pondered why the 15-year-old brewery could not make a go of it any longer.

The Baltimore Brewing Co. capitalized on a trend when it opened in 1989, a time when microbrews were few and far between. At the time, Sisson’s on Cross Street (now Ryleigh’s) was DeGroen’s only competition in town, and the styles of beer the two joints brewed were as different as night and day. DeGroen’s brewer Theo DeGroen (a native Hollander) favored Old World-style Germanic lagers, like pils (a classic north German malt beverage), rauchbock (a smoked beer), and marzen (an Oktoberfest-style beer), which require a longer and cooler fermentation than the more popular ale-style beers that places like Sisson’s specialized in. The microbrew business these days is tougher in Baltimore with half a dozen local breweries in the city competing for customers.

It was DeGroen’s classic style that attracted regulars like Mike Natalie of Little Italy, who says the Baltimore Brewing Co.’s product reminds him of beers he drank while traveling in Europe. “It was like being overseas,” he says, noting that he has been drinking at DeGroen’s since it opened. (Before it was converted to a brewpub, the building housed a food-distribution center). Likewise, Bill Brownley, a regular who had his first cup of DeGroen’s pilsner at the 1994 Fells Point Fun Festival, says the beer reminds him of being in northern Germany in the 1960s, when “every town you’d stop in had a different brewery, and they were all good.”

Several things appear to have contributed to the tavern’s inability to stay afloat. For one, the brewery has been sitting, literally, in the middle of a construction zone for more than a year. Land around the brewery has been fenced in, buildings that stood around it have been demolished, and new structures are being built, all in the name of urban renewal. But it doesn’t make DeGroen’s an easy spot to walk to or park near. In 2000, DeGroen took a job in Germany to brew beer for Parkbrau in Rhineland-Pfalz.

Spike Owen, general manager of DeGroen’s brewpub, says the business is not making any money and cites the construction as the key culprit.

“Pretty much, it costs us a dollar-five to make a dollar,” he says. “In other words, it’s costing us more to be open than what we are making.”

Owen says that sales figures dropped significantly in 2004, despite an increase in sales every year until 2003. Construction, he says, reduces walk-in traffic and makes it difficult for newcomers to find the place. Regular customers are deterred from returning because they cannot find a place to park.

“We went from having about 80 metered parking spaces out front to about a dozen,” Owen says.

He says the bar and brewery will close as soon as the last of its 74 kegs is drained (the equivalent of about 9,000 beers). They estimate it may take about four weeks, and after that the place will close its doors for good, though Owen says he and DeGroen are keeping their eyes open for a possible new location to reopen in the future.

No doubt, members of the Mug Club say, the bar’s closure will leave many who loved it crying in their beers.

“There’s just no one in this town who’s going to make a lager like Theo DeGroen,” Brownley says.

“These are the best beers in town,” Natalie laments. “Now I have to find a new favorite spot.”

In the meantime, the proprietors don’t want to see any of the precious brew go to waste. “We want people to come in and help us finish these kegs,” Owens says.

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