Beer takes us on adventures. It allows us to discover new flavors and exotic cultures. Our quests for great beer can lead anywhere, from corner pubs to faraway breweries.
For Hugh Sisson, beer altered the trajectory of his life.
In 1980, he was intending to become a stage actor and director. He planned to move to New York after completing his course work at the University of Virginia, for a master’s degree in theater. But his father, Albert, persuaded him to come help at a newly opened family business, a tavern called Sisson’s. When he walked in to start what he thought would be a short-term position, his father tossed him the keys to the pub, said, “don’t f*** up,” and walked out the door.
With this, Hugh’s path shifted. A renaissance was underway in Baltimore, and Hugh determined to join in the excitement by setting sail in the pub industry. As he cultivated the atmosphere of Sisson’s, he borrowed from his travel experiences abroad, particularly London, with its pub culture and beers. To differentiate itself, Sisson’s became the earliest true “beer bar” in town, focusing on imports and, eventually, craft beers. But in the mid ’80s, he and his father began to chart a course to even greater success: converting the pub to a brewpub.
The brewpub movement on the East Coast was in its infancy in the mid ’80s, and Hugh was in the first wave of pioneers. Hugh, his father, and former Senator George Della, Jr., lobbied for a bill that legalized brewpubs in Maryland. In 1988, the bill was signed into law, and in ’89, Sisson’s became a Maryland’s first brewpub, with Hugh at the helm as brewer.
Ultimately, Hugh was more intrigued by the beer business than the bar industry. And in 1994, he left Sisson’s to found Clipper City Brewing Co. It started small. Two brewers brewed once a week. A small band of part-timers manned the bottling line. Hugh managed sales, accounting, and whatever else needed tending. He even worked shifts on the kegger. Within the year, they had grown to a “whopping” five employees.
Hugh and the crew navigated the way to success, slowly and not-so-steadily: a rocky market made contract brewing necessary to enable the brewery to stay afloat, and another Baltimore brewery, Oxford, was absorbed in 1997 to add volume. By 2003, a third brand—Heavy Seas—was created, a decision which increased sales, but also caused branding confusion. Who was this company—Clipper City, Oxford, or Heavy Seas? But the Heavy Seas brand grew robustly, easily outpacing its older siblings in both volume and market reach.
Eventually the brewery decided to narrow its focus and eliminate confusion. In 2010, the Oxford brand was discontinued, and the company moved all its products under the Heavy Seas banner, establishing three distinct product levels: the Clipper Fleet, the Pyrate Fleet, and the Mutiny Fleet. Since that time, the brewery has been operating at full steam and has been adding additional capacity as quickly as is practical. Now, Hugh and the Heavy Seas team’s primary challenge seems to be just keeping up—they say it’s a “good problem.”
Hugh has many ties in the brewing community, both nationally and locally. He has served on the PR committee for the national Brewer’s Association. He is one of the founding members of the Brewer’s Association of Maryland and has served as president, vice president and treasurer multiple times. Hugh also founded the Cross Street Irregulars, Baltimore’s first homebrewing club. And since 1986, he has been an active player in legislative issues surrounding beer in Maryland—from festival legislation for manufacturing brewers to growler legislation for retailers.
Hugh wears many hats. He has led over 500 beer dinners, and is an acknowledged expert in the art of food and beer parings. For 23 years, he has co-hosted a weekly radio show reviewing wines, beers, and spirits on the Maryland NPR network. He remains a tireless ambassador for the brewery. He attends most brewery functions, leads some of the weekly brewery tours, and travels to promotions across the country. Recently, Hugh, a sixth generation Baltimorean, wrote the foreword to the new book, Brewing in Baltimore. He is working on at least one book project, hopefully to be completed in 2013.