How does an aspiring actor dreaming of big lights in New York City choose the life of a brewer over a career on Broadway? For Heavy Seas founder Hugh Sisson, two things come to mind: success and passion.
In 1980, Sisson took the keys to the family pub rather than leave for an acting career. But instead of stashing cash for a few years and then heading to the city like he’d planned, the young man delayed and delayed until he realized he was already doing what he was meant to.
“I had hesitations,” Sisson says. “It’s one of those things where you’re finishing grad school and have no money, and you’re heading into a field that doesn’t lend itself to cash flow…. my first inclination for this was temporary, it would allow me to save a few dollars and pay off some debt, and then hit New York with a few bucks in my pocket.”
He never left Baltimore for New York. Instead, he ran the family tavern simply called Sisson’s until 1995, when he founded Heavy Seas Beer, a place where his brewing interests could flourish and grow.
“The process of brewing is fascinating,” Sisson says. “When I started in the brewpub it was me and a bunch of books, I was psyched about it. I’d wake up at 3 a.m., go into the office and brew a batch of beer. In those days, it was continuously fascinating and at the end of the day, you’d have a full tank of beer.”
He brewed at Sisson’s for about five years, following a successful campaign to get brewpubs legalized in Maryland.
“Now people pick up the phone and order a brewery,” Sisson says with a laugh. “We had to figure all that crap out. By 1989, the family pub had became the first brewpub in Maryland, and that was an interesting transition.”
Operating at a small scale allowed him to get his hands dirty and be creative with his recipes, but after tasting success at nearly every level, he was ready to move on to a larger operation and Heavy Seas was launched.
Sisson took what he learned, found some other like-minded individuals crazy about brewing and began pumping out more beers. This included annual options like the American IPA Loose Cannon, Pounder Pils, Gold Ale and others. Now The brewery is one of Baltimore’s most notable and has produced several popular beers since its inception.
“It changed and adapted, because as you get larger it becomes more of a business,” Sisson says. “You have to make a product for which there’s a market. You look at the market and figure out where there are holes. Since we don’t live in a world where you make one product and that’s all you do, especially in the craft segment, you’re going to have a portfolio of products.”
Though Sisson and Heavy Seas are into producing classic concoctions that will stand the test of time, they do dabble in seasonal releases that make sense. For instance, the brewery recently installed a 15-barrel pilot system which will allow them to test recipes in the tasting room without getting ahead of themselves with mass production.
“It’s not going to represent a ton of volume, but it serves purposes,” Sisson says. “It gives us a new platform and it allows us to do something crazy at a small enough format to where we’re not betting the ranch. To the extent we can produce one-offs, it helps drive business in the taproom.”
Apart from that, Sisson and his team at Heavy Seas is set to release their new Schnee Boot, a bourbon barrel-aged Eisbock. The brewery is also going to release new spring and winter beers in 2019, as well as some broader visual changes to the brand’s iconography.
“We’re working on a logo change,” Sisson says. “It both excites me and terrifies me. We’ve had the current one for eight years, and we’re changing it because we have to. In small business and beer business, you have to be willing to reinvent yourself from time to time.”
Despite the change in look, you can bet on Heavy Seas to deliver world-class beers in 2019 and beyond.
For more information about Heavy Seas Brewing, brewery tours, taproom tastings or where to find Heavy Seas beer near you, visit www.hsbeer.com.
Heavy Seas Brewing: 4615 Hollins Ferry Rd. Baltimore, MD; 410-247-7822; www.hsbeer.com