The Independent Brewing Company is located in the far reaches of Baltimore, in the small town-come- outer suburb of Bel Air. Bel Air, with a population of around 10 000 people, is not dissimilar to a lot of the other middle class, mid-Atlantic/southern towns I have passed through over the course of the last couple months. However, by virtue of being where a lot of my family live, I have come to know Bel Air more intimately than any other place I’ve been. Really, though, it seems that there isn’t all that much to know. The streets are lined with a variety of car dealerships (all seeming to specialise in what I take to be ludicrously large pickup trucks) and a plethora of fast food and restaurant chains. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that the Australian themed Outback Steakhouse serves up a mean surf and turf, but it’s still pretty soul destroying to see that nearly all the restaurants in the area are more or less arbitrarily placed there - you could be in Idaho, Vermont or North Dakota and you’d have a very good chance of seeing the same string of eateries.
Although it is nestled in amongst a bunch of traditionally left wing counties, Bel Air and its immediate surroundings are considered to be home to a relatively large Republican constituency. On at least a few occasions, dad and I have, while sitting at the brewery, been approached by either proselytising Christians or outspoken conservatives. I don’t particularly mind this (most of the time I’m just stoked to have someone to talk to), but it’s still none the less shocking to hear someone talk with such conviction, passion and at times aggression about things I don’t think are either true or morally justifiable. (For example, one time dad was talking to a bloke who mentioned that his daughter attends college in Charlottesville, Virginia. Dad then proceeded to ask whether she was around during the riots, to which the bloke replied ‘oh, you’re talking about the time that Democrat ran over a woman?’) Dad, whose nightly ritual involves watching the Al Jazeera news at 6, the SBS news at 6:30 and the ABC news at 7, was obviously taken aback and ultimately did well to hold his tongue. What really annoys me the most about exchanges such as these is not that I don’t share the same beliefs as these people, but more often than not, I’ve had their beliefs presented to me with such confidence, vitriol and arrogance that it makes it hard to find any common ground.
The brewery itself has two main drinking rooms - one of which is a large, open rectangular space with high topped tables and a long bar that runs down the entirety of one wall, the other a smaller room that looks like a more traditional restaurant, despite the fact that the brewery itself does not serve any meals. Prior to it’s current incarnation, the building was used as a sort of car repair garage, and that is still evidenced by an old dark green pickup, emblazoned with the brewery’s logo, that sits just outside the entrance. The place is consistently packed out, and often dad and I have had to stand around for a while and wait for a seat at the bar to open up. Dad, over the space of a couple years and numerous visits to Bel Air, has developed a good relationship with the owner and a lot of the bartenders. Phillip, the owner and head brewer, is tall and middle aged. He has long greying hair and a sizeable beard that I have seen, on at least one occasion, platted into one or two thin strands. He comes over to talk to dad whenever he’s in, and he has a genuine charm and warmth about him. According to dad, Phillip’s business started with the intention of selling nothing but beer - no water, no food or anything to distract you from the beer. While the proceeding years have led to some sort of diversification - you can now buy snacks, Independent merchandise and grub from a rotating selection of food trucks - it is still very obvious that the beer is far and away the main attraction.
Most nights, the brewery seems to host some sort of community group; runners and cyclists come in after races and there is an art group that rocks up regularly, canvases and paint in tow. On top of this, every Sunday there’s a ‘Bend and Brew’ session, which involves a morning session of yoga and a complimentary beer at the brewery. All these events make The Independent a real centrepiece of the town, and provides Bel Air a sense of community that may not be immediately obvious otherwise.
The beer itself is very good. There’s about twenty taps that regularly rotate, based on season and demand. The Independent signature is a Belgian blond ale called ‘The Blue Eyed Blond.’ There’s always a plethora of both west coast and east coast IPA’s, including such gems as - ‘The Jeff Session ‘The Nasty Woman,’ ‘The Bad Hombre’ and the ‘Alternative Facts Imperial Session IPA’ - which of course, is just a regular IPA. After spending the first couple months of my stay in America totally drowning myself (and my sorrows) in IPA, I have reached the point that now nothing sends a shiver down my spine quite like a whiff of piney and citrusy hop juice. So, you know, instead of taking a step back from drinking like a fish (and having to face my problems in the process), I’ve spent the last few weeks drinking almost solely dark beers. One of my favourite beers on the menu is the Cereal Killer Milk Stout. It sits at a reasonable 6.7% ABV and 40 IBU, pouring a dark brown with a small off white head. Having not drank many milk stouts in my time, it’s a style that I don’t really have much of a benchmark for - but I guess the easiest comparison in Australian terms is Batch’s ‘Elsie.’ The aroma is quite straightforward - high sweet notes coming from the lactose (hence the ‘milk’ in milk stout), and a low coffee bitterness. The mouthfeel is considerably soft and light, and a complete contrast from the syrupy feel of an imperial stout or the stodginess of the Knucklehead Porter - the Independent’s other flagship dark beer. This understated and unobtrusive mouthfeel immediately makes the beer both palatable and inoffensive, ensuring that it is straightforward enough to be enjoyed by a casual drinker while also being complex enough to be dissected. The actual taste of the beer continues this narrative, mirroring the high sweetness of the lactose and the low bitterness of the coffee present in the aroma. The initial aftertaste is a sharp sweetness that eventually clears to reveal a dull and pleasant bitterness. As is the rulewith most stouts I’ve had, as the temperature of the beer rises, more flavours come to the fore - particularly notes of oatmeal and a more apparent hoppy bitterness that must account for its fairly significant 40 IBU. Really, it’s a lovely, unassuming beer that is easy to drink, warning and attractive to a wide range of pallets.
Tonight is my last opportunity to go to the Independent before I head to England and also the last time I’ll get to hang out with dad for a while. We’ve been going to the brewery practically every night for the past couple weeks, so there is a part of me that is relieved to be doing something else. But also I think it’s pretty remarkable, and a testament to the quality of the Independent, that dad and I have continued to go back without hesitation. Also, I feel absolutely honoured to be able to spend this much time with dad and it always be so easy and comfortable. Last night we were sitting at the brewery only to realise we’d had two beers before either of us said a word to each other. You know, if we for one second can ignore the thousands of dollars we’ll inevitably have to invest in alcohol rehabilitation once we arrive back to Australia, it’s been a very special and fulfilling time. And ultimately, the Independent has been a brilliant back drop to it (I’m not sure whether a surf and turf at the Outback Steakhouse would have had quite the same appeal).