In just over two years, Chuck Blessing Jr. and his staff turned an aging Gaithersburg institution into an award-winning microbrewery.
Blessing is the general manager of Growlers Brew Pub, which opened in February 2011 in a building that dates to 1906. In recent times, the building housed Summit Station Restaurant and Brewery, then Olde Towne Tavern.
When a storm ripped the roof off the building in 2010, the owners were faced with closing. Blessing said the owners were about to auction off the furniture and equipment when he stepped in to make an offer.
“We had tried to buy the business earlier, but we couldn’t agree on a price,” he said. Once they had a deal, Blessing set to work on repairing storm damage and giving it a new name.
Before getting involved with the building at 227 E. Diamond Ave., he owned a New York-style pizza restaurant down the street, Slice of Olde Towne.
Blessing, who grew up in New Jersey, comes to the food industry from the real estate business. He worked for a national investment brokerage firm that was involved with developing a condominium at 201 E. Diamond Ave. When demand for housing fell sharply that year, the deal fell through, but he saw an opportunity.
“I decided to open a pizza shop on the first floor of the building,” he said.
Blessing said he has family and friends who were involved in restaurant ownership, and they advised him as he ran the business for about two years.
“We just kind of fell into it, and made lemonade out of lemons,” he said.
Now approaching its third year, Growlers is turning out dozens of new brews a year, with names like “Rawktoberfest Oktoberfest,” “Your Mom’s Apple Pie Ale” and “Broken Shovel Stout.”
In the first-ever Maryland Comptroller’s Cup competition on Nov. 4, “Growlers Yorkshire Porter” won “Best Overall Maryland Beer.” Growlers was up against stiff competition from local brewers Gordon Biersch in Rockville and Frederick’s Flying Dog, which took home awards of their own.
Almost 200 varieties of beer were entered in the contest.
“We’ve been working really hard to put out quality food and brew, and we’re getting recognition for that,” Blessing said.
Blessing said the microbrewery uses local hops when it can, and has already incorporated hops from Poolesville, Thurmont and Derwood in its beers.
According to Growlers’ brewmaster, Eric Gleason, Growlers has released more than 75 different beers over the past year, and averages one or two new releases per week across its 12 draft lines.
But, the business has its challenges. Blessing said he’s put in extra effort to keep up a building that’s already seen its hundredth birthday.
“We’ve got old wires, old walls and additions — things like that,” he said. “It requires a lot of attention.”
Blessing wants to focus more on the release of beers, so customers know that new varieties will appear on the menu. The most recent release was on Thursday, an India pale ale called “Hopblastard.”