Baltimore's Heavy Seas Brewery Charts a Course

Chesapeake Family catches up with Hugh Sisson, owner of Heavy Seas Brewery in Baltimore, Maryland.

hugh candid shotWhen you talk to Hugh Sisson, you become aware of one thing right away: this is a man of boundless passion. Regardless of topic, the owner of Heavy Seas will absolutely bowl you over with enthusiasm.

“You see some CEOs behind a desk all the time. Not me,” Sisson says.

Without this driving charisma, it is likely the beer landscape in Maryland would be very different. In 1988, Sisson led a successful effort to legalize brewpubs, allowing him to install brewing equipment at his family’s Cross Street bar, Sisson’s, in Baltimore.

It wasn’t long, however, before the intricacies of beer making overtook his interest in the restaurant industry. In 1994, he left Sisson’s and started Clipper City Brewing Company, the forerunner of Heavy Seas.

“The process [of brewing] is just fascinating. There are so many subtleties and nuances,” Sisson says.

Such variety has manifested itself in the thriving company with a pirate logo. From a part-time crew that only brewed once a week, Hugh now oversees a 40,000-square-foot facility in Halethorpe. Heavy Seas makes about a half-dozen beers year-round, and another dozen specialty beers that appear at various times throughout the year.

“You are never done in the relentless pursuit of better beer,” Sisson says. “You’re never done.”

Sisson, a sixth-generation Baltimorean who embodies the city’s blue-collar mentality, lives this philosophy. In addition to developing new beers and tweaking classics, he devotes one weekend a month to personally conducting wildly popular brewery tours. Such face-to-face contact with customers is essential for everyone, Sisson says.

“You have to communicate passion for what you do, and that really benefits the company," he says. "Plus, it’s fun!” HeavySeasBrew

The ardor that drives Sisson doesn’t end with his devotion to his company. Since 1992, he has been the co-host of “Cellar Notes,” a weekly show on Baltimore’s WYPR (88.1 FM). Hugh often waxes poetic about food, wine, and, of course, beer. Never content with half-measures, he often takes trips to European wine country in search of new finds for his listeners.

Sisson spends a lot of time on American roads as well, spreading the gospel of Heavy Seas and getting to know people. By his own reckoning, he travels 25 times a year, hosting beer dinners and other events that showcase the flavors of Heavy Seas. At last count, the brand was being regularly sold in 15 states, and is doing well despite the economy. Sisson says the people working with him are responsible for the company's sucess.

“I have a tremendous group of associates, and they’re there because they’re enthusiastic about what they’re doing and plugged in [to the business]," Sisson says.

The brewery has won a slew of awards, both domestically and overseas, and is the nation’s largest maker of cask beers. These ales are sealed and matured in the brewery’s fleet of more than 600 casks, including 11 wooden barrels. This “old and once-neglected” style of beer making gives some varieties of Heavy Seas an especially aromatic, complex profile.

Sisson wasn’t a believer in cask ales at first, thinking them too much of a niche market. But at the persistent urging of a staff member to try it, Sisson gave in and pursued the idea with his trademark dedication. Such willingness to listen and adapt has made Sisson the success he is today.

“Small business is like sailing a boat,” he muses. “You set a course, but it always needs adjustment. If you’re engaged [in what you do], you should never be bored.”