Detective John Munch was born into the American cultural consciousness on January 31, 1993, when the pilot for Homicide: Life on the Street first aired on NBC. Homicide was The Wire creator and showrunner David Simon’s first show, based on his work as a reporter covering the Baltimore PD Homicide unit in the late ‘80s.
Portrayed by then 47-year-old Richard Belzer, Det. Munch entered the world a middle-aged, cranky, worldly, avuncular secular Jew from Baltimore who could’ve just as easily been a disaffected community college English professor as a city homicide detective.
An avowed conspiracy theorist and occasional misanthrope, Det. Munch certainly never exuded hospitality, but was, evidently from the beginning, a keen observer of tavern culture – which is perhaps what led him, in Homicide’s third season, to open a brewpub.
When Det. Munch and his colleagues, Detectives Lewis (Clark Johnson) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor), elect to buy the nearby Waterfront Bar early in the third season of Homicide, it comes across as a fairly straightforward subplot for ancillary characters.
As the detectives navigate the city rules and regulations for owning a bar, deal with permitting appointments, take alcohol server training classes, and consider how to make their new venture a success, they eventually hire a consultant of sorts: “He’s Irish, old school, knows the ropes,” Munch assures Lewis.
McGonnigal (a single-episode cameo by Jerry Stiller), despite being old school, leads Munch down the garden path of brewpub proprietorship. The clientele at the Waterfront leaves something to be desired by patron and publican alike. In its perpetual gloom lurk mostly hardbitten joyless men, drinking mechanically and erupting in the occasional barfight.
“What we need,” McGonnigal counsels, in the manner of many a weary beer rep, “is an event.” Munch suggests a ladies’ night. McGonnigal shakes his head. “Something bigger, more exotic… How about we make our own beer?”
“Why would we wanna make our own beer?” comes Munch’s sensible reply. It’s a good question. When the episode aired in 1995, the brewpub craze was really starting to heat up, as Aaron Goldfarb’s piece on ‘90s brewpubs details. Baltimore at that time was home to only a handful of other brewpub operations, so McGonnigal’s suggestion was arguably a timely one, at least.
“The largest growing segment of the beer drinking population is buying boutique beers from little bars like this one,” he explains. “Raspberry chili porter. Black Shadow. Chinook Pale. Brimstone Blueberry Ale.” It’s unclear whether this list is meant to represent proposed brands, sample styles, or generic examples of contemporary brewpub beers. McGonnigal can get the whole thing off the ground, he says, for a “couple hundred.”
For his couple hundred, Det. Munch and the Waterfront Bar get a multi-keggle brewing system that would be familiar to most homebrewers today, as well as a smattering of homebrew accoutrements that wouldn’t seem to make much sense in the context of a draught-only brewpub: bottles and caps, for instance.
McGonnigal pours a draught of “Waterfront Gold Premium,” and Munch, in one of the “triple takes” that was a signature of the show’s production style, spits it out forcefully. McGonnigal gulps some down: “Needs work,” he concludes. “Until we perfect our recipe, we can sell Heineken for a dollar a glass under our own Waterfront Gold Premium label.”
There was a lot of mediocre beer being made in the late ‘90s... Just like we’re seeing a lot of mediocre beer being made now.”
Despite his pragmatism, McGonnigal and the brewpub scheme are never heard of again, and the Waterfront becomes a fairly standard tavern for the rest of the series.
Munch would have been better off if he’d hired Hugh Sisson. Sisson knows a thing or two about brewpubs: the Maryland native and founder of venerable Clipper City Brewing Company (brewer of Heavy Seas Beer) opened Baltimore’s first brewpub in 1989. “Sisson’s” was his family’s bar, first opened in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore in 1979, and with 150+ beers (mostly imports), it was well ahead of the curve in the 1980s – the concept of “beer bar” barely existed at that point.
Much like Munch, Sisson was a rank novice: “I didn’t know shit about the bar business,” he told me recently, “but I did know that with seven other bars on our block, you needed to do something to differentiate yourself. We turned it into a beer joint in ’81 or ’82.”
As proprietor of a beer joint, Sisson set out to deepen his beer knowledge, guiding educational tastings at the bar and taking up homebrewing. “Around ’84 my father and I started thinking ‘what would happen if we could actually make beer here?’ At that point there were maybe two brewpubs in the country – there was no template to follow, no ready-to-order breweries.”
Sisson and his father began to research how to source the equipment they needed, which would ultimately come from all over the country and the world. “By ’86 we figured out it was doable – the only problem at that point was that it wasn’t legal. So in ’87 we put a bill into the Maryland legislature to legalize brewpubs, fully expecting it to fail. It passed.”
In August of 1989, Sisson’s became the first brewpub in the state of Maryland. Several other brewpubs opened around Baltimore soon after: “The first wave wasn’t huge. Between ’89 and ’94 there were two or three, but a bunch more jumped in in the mid-to-late ‘90s.” As the trend grew, beer quality often suffered. “There was a lot of mediocre beer being made in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Just like we’re seeing a lot of mediocre beer being made now.”
I asked Sisson what, in his seasoned opinion, makes Baltimore unique as a beer city. “Baltimore is in some respects very similar to Cleveland. Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, if you dig a little deeper, it’s all the same city: you have older cities with maritime heritage and industrial bases that have lost a lot of industry and are in the process of reinventing themselves. So Baltimore was always a good beer town, but it was historically very centered around German styles and ‘big’ beers. It’s evolved a lot in the last ten years, and the beer culture has come a long way – in a similar way to how it has in Cleveland and, to a slightly lesser extent, Pittsburgh.”
Regarding Homicide, Sisson remembers it fondly. “Phenomenal show. If you ever make it to town, go down to Fell’s Point – the building they used for exterior shots of the police station is now a really high end hotel. But across the street is a bar called Cooper’s, where a lot of the regulars on Homicide used to go and drink. Hanging on a wall in that bar is the last whiteboard from the last broadcast.” The whiteboards on which the Baltimore Homicide unit tracked open and closed cases were a constant presence on Homicide, as they later were in The Wire.
Unlike Munch, Sisson’s brewpub flourished. Sisson left the business that bore his family name in 1995 to open Clipper City Brewing Company, and Sisson’s went through several ownership changes and permutations, eventually becoming Ryleigh’s Oyster in 2002.
The brewpub scene today seems markedly different than it was in the ‘90s, though many speculate that the model is on the brink of a national resurgence, as growth slows in the craft segment and new brewers (and their investors) increasingly look to the taproom/brewpub/zero distribution model to keep their profits close and avoid the competitive slugfest that the wider beer market has become.
“You can never get to any kind of scale without getting into wholesale distribution,” Sisson said. “Unless you’re doing something truly extraordinary with the taproom model, once you’re no longer the new kid on the block, it becomes really challenging.”
The brewpub game’s the same, you might say. It just got more fierce.