Silver Branch Brewing celebrated its one-year anniversary with almost an entire week of events – those things, in case you’ve forgotten, where people gathered in close proximity to talk and imbibe and generally socialize without much more concern than when their next beer would be arriving.
Festivities kicked off with a very special episode of the brewery’s Beer 101 lecture series, which had previously explored broad topics like European style origins and the dichotomy of ales and lagers. This edition looked inward, though, to the history of Silver Branch itself – a business opened by Christian Layke and Brett Robison in the waning days of the previous winter, following more than two years of business planning, investor courtship, and a laborious buildout.
As they explained that Monday night, the pair of Takoma Park residents had met back in 2015, when Layke was in the midst of his six-year tenure as head brewer at Gordon Biersch’s Rockville brewpub and Robison was running Republic’s beverage program. (He would subsequently become the restaurant’s General Manager.) A seasoned brewer with experience working under Barrett Lauer and Kevin Blodger, not to a mention a prodigious and decorated homebrewing career, Layke had already begun formulating the concept for what would become Silver Branch: a brewery that celebrated the storied brewing legacies of Europe – namely, the British Isles, Belgium, Germany, and Bohemia – while still honoring the Americas’ newer contributions.
“The idea was to brew traditional styles well, and to then present them in a way that harkens to how they’re presented in Europe, where they have nice glassware and décor, and places feel bright and airy and cheerful,” the professorial brewer shares on an afternoon in late July. “That’s something that was missing from a lot of the American craft beer scene, especially in more recent days. Having been a brewer at Gordon Biersch for a while, I knew that there are a lot of people out there who really love those European styles. But we also knew that people love American styles, too. So, when people came to our door, they would find something here that they like.”
Silver Branch’s initial quartet of flagships each drew from an international pillar: a Czech-style pilsner, a rotating-hop Northeast American IPA, a Belgian-indebted witbier, and, in a mildly esoteric twist, a tropical stout. (A sweeter, fruitier offshoot of Irish export stout, this dark ale emerged during the 1800s in warm-climate British colonies, where sugar was often plentiful and roasted barley was not.)
Full pours of these staples, along with every other Silver Branch beer, were priced at a mere $5 for the anniversary week’s second night. As usual, all offerings were displayed on planks made from chalkboard and wood hanging behind the bar in the brewery’s taproom, which is indeed bright, airy, and cheerful. Tucked into a nondescript Silver Spring office complex, this space had been designed to conjure gemütlichkeit – a German term for the “camaraderie, coziness, and a sense of belonging one gets when enjoying time with good friends,” as the brewery has explained.
To facilitate this conviviality, Layke and Robison had filled the taproom with picnic tables (which could be moved to an outdoor biergarten when weather permitted), high tops, and coffee lounge-style seating. They operated a full bar program – complete with craft cocktails, locally roasted coffee, and house-made soda – to welcome those who didn’t like beer. Those who did had the opportunity to order imperial pints of ale served in British tradition – that is, from beer engines pumped to dispense cask-conditioned “real ale” – or plump mugs of pilsner drawn hladinka style from a side-pull faucet on one of Silver Branch’s two authentic Czech towers.
On occasion, patrons could also lap up lager poured directly from a gravity cask – no draft line needed. Such was the case on the fourth evening of the anniversary week, following a night of trivia, when Silver Branch tapped a cask of a new pilsner called Power Boots. (Like all the brewery’s events, this gathering was organized by Marketing Manager Erin Young, whom the brewery lovingly refers to as their hype woman.) Brewed five weeks earlier “with assistance from the women of Silver Branch,” Power Boots was dry-hopped with this year’s Pink Boots Blend, a mélange of proprietary hops produced annually by Yakima Chief Hops to benefit the Pink Boots Society scholarship funds.
Those Silver Branch women, reimagined as popular superheroes, would appear on the labels for Power Boots cans, which went on sale Friday that week. Layke and Robison had commemorative glassware made for the release – tall, slender, footed pilsner glasses emblazoned with pink logos for Silver Branch and Power Boots. But a minor wrinkle would emerge: The hoppy lager sold so quickly that soon enough Silver Branch was left with Power Boots glassware and no Power Boots to fill it.
A similar phenomenon had occurred when the brewery released its Tmavé Special Obsidian Castle in January. Despite being a somewhat archaic style, the Czech dark lager was gone in a matter of weeks. Robison says staff still laments not being allowed to properly enjoy the beer before it was too late.
“It sold like a hazy IPA,” the co-founder shares. “We brewed Obsidian Castle, and it was gone – almost instantly. And then we brewed Power Boots, and it was gone.”
This is notable because lagers, with their nuanced and subtle flavors, do not typically sell like brash IPAs. And while Silver Branch makes those too – to wit, its official anniversary beer was a hazy IPA called Deus Ex Machina – the brewery proved in its first year that lagers could be a formidable component of a young brewery’s business if it was willing to dedicate the time and tank space to making them.
It also helps to have a brewer with a cavernous depth of brewing knowledge and a deft hand on the production floor, and very few area brewers can execute lagers at Layke’s level. For proof, one needs look no further than Glass Castle.
Thought has been poured into every component of the flagship pilsner’s construction. Czech malts and hops. Water filtered by reverse osmosis and then reconstituted to capture the “special pillowy malt character and essential assertive yet soft hop bitterness” associated with the style. A tedious decoction mash, resulting in a vibrancy of malt character unmatched by melanoidin malt. Traditional first wort hopping. Five weeks of lagering.
Whether consumers can detect these particular ingredients or processes is secondary to the fact that they love the beer. Since debuting in April last year, Glass Castle has been Silver Branch’s most consistent performer. Chronicle stout surges in cooler months and a new Quantum Shift IPA may spike in a given week, but Glass Castle just continues to sell more and more.
“Glass Castle has been the slow and steady march for this brewery since its inception,” says Robison. “It’s fitting for a pilsner to be gradually and consistently going up in sales over time. From the beginning, I had a strong feeling that it was going to be a really, really important beer for us, but I had drank many a beer made by Christian, so I had a very good sense of what he was capable of.”
Of course, a cost comes with everything that makes Glass Castle what it is. The same came be said for how the pilsner is presented in the brewery’s taproom: Those Czech towers, along with the training required to operate and maintain them, represent a not insignificant investment of resources.
But in the larger context of opening Silver Branch, the towers are merely a speck of krausen in the blowoff bucket. Before a glass of Ruby Dragon or My Alien Robot had been sold on premise, a staggering $3 million had been sunk into building out the brewery and its taproom.
Much of that money went towards “wedging a brewery into an office tower,” as Robison puts it. Silver Branch’s ground floor, located above a bank and a Dunkin’ Donuts, had to be raised three feet, allowing a construction team to structurally reinforce the space with massive steel I-beams. Upon its production floor, the brewery plopped two 30-barrel fermenters, two 45-barrel fermenters, one 45-barrel brite tank, and a 15-barrel brewhouse – a scale that the co-founders believed would ease the growing pains that many breweries feel when they realize they’d thought too small at the outset. Likewise, the taproom would open as a polished, fully actualized establishment, the kind of place you wouldn’t hesitate to bring your parents or an occupied baby stroller.
And this set-up, all 10,000 square feet of it, could be found less than one-tenth of a mile from a Washington Metro and MARC Train station. To state the obvious, such size and such proximity to public transportation comes at a premium.
“Before we did all of this, I joked, ‘People are either going to look back and say we were really smart or really dumb,” says Robison with a chuckle. “When I say it out loud, I feel like we were crazy: Simultaneously, we built a 5,000-square-foot taproom, we built a production brewery, and we launched a wholesale business. We didn’t start with a smaller operation and grow naturally; we started with a huge operation. I think we swung for the fences on our first pass. It was like, ‘Well, we’re either going to succeed or we’re going to go out in a giant ball of fire.’ My investors would probably not be happy to hear it that way, but that’s how I framed it in my mind. Truthfully.”
Silver Branch did catch a break in the initial terms of its lease. Located off Colesville Road, its concrete cove was both highly trafficked – people walking to the Metro, people picking up dry-cleaning, people grabbing a sandwich or coffee – and overlooked. According to Layke, many nearby inhabitants and office dwellers saw it as “a walkthrough.” Robison says those people had “mentally checked out on this zone.” The property’s landlord, therefore, was excited by the prospect of landing a cool, young business that would help change that perception among locals, in addition to luring visitors from outside the 20910 zip code. But in order for Silver Branch to take root, the brewery would need some leeway in paying its pricey rent.
“We were like, ‘We think we can pull this off, but we’re not going to be able to do it the day we walk through the door. It’s going to take time,’” shares Robison. “We knew that we needed to establish ourselves, to get our name out there, to build the brand, to get people to come in.”
For its first sixth months of operation, Silver Branch had to pay only half its rent. In the following six months, it escalated to three-quarters of that figure. Then, at the one-year mark, full rent came due. The arrangement was surely better than the alternative, but it also imbued the brewery’s approaching first anniversary with a sense of dread. Once the training wheels were off, would the brewery be cash positive?
“For the whole first year, it felt like I had a gun to the back of my head,” Robison shares. “It was: grow the taproom, grow the wholesale, grow grow grow. When you’re writing a business plan, all your numbers and math are basically BS until you can prove it.”
Layke and Robison had considered building the brewery a Sisyphean task – accordingly, the first beer brewed on its system was named Sisyphus – but the challenges didn’t relent when the doors opened. They were repeatedly forced to deviate from the initial plan. They thought taproom patrons would be satiated by popcorn, cured sausage, and other snacks, and when that turned out to not be the case, they installed a full-service kitchen, mitigating costs by purchasing equipment at auction. On the branding side, Silver Branch overhauled its approach to one-off releases at just six months, abandoning the templated architectural imagery also displayed on their core beers (and developed by an agency) in favor of artist Chris Bonnell’s personalized, colorful, often idiosyncratic drawings.
“We hadn’t embraced one-offs as a really important part of our branding; they were more of an afterthought,” explains Layke. “What we realized is that they were actually something that people see more of, in a way, because the core brands are the same thing every time, whereas one-offs could be a new way to engage with our brand every time we came out with a new beer.”
The biggest single stressor was the roller coaster of seasonal sales – something all area breweries must endure to some extent. An especially hot July, complicated by DC’s typical summer exodus, hit hard in 2019, but all bumps were acutely felt. Not helping matters, Silver Branch had no historical data to which it could refer.
“The fluctuations from month to month were a little more than anticipated,” says Layke. “That gave us anxiety, because we didn’t know if it was the beginning of a new trend or just a periodic change for some unknown reason.”
Despite this fretting, the aggregate numbers were unquestionably headed in the right direction. By the time of the anniversary, taproom sales had almost doubled since opening, from $22,000 per week to nearly $37,000. The brewery had produced 2,200 barrels of beer, and it was primed to produce more with two 45-barrel fermenters and another 45-barrel brite tank on the way. It would need that capacity in the coming spring and summer, when Silver Branch was set to be one of only two Maryland breweries to pour at Nationals Park. (The other, Denizens Brewing, could be found up the street in Silver Spring.)
On the Saturday evening of Silver Branch’s big birthday party, after Robison and Layke had delivered emotional speeches to the crowd, the co-founders found themselves alone for a moment in the brewery’s barrel room – a corridor that connects the taproom to the production floor. After 370 days of working relentlessly, the two stopped to savor the moment.
“For the first time, Christian and I took a deep breath and said, ‘It looks like this crazy idea might work. What we conceived is working. The business is succeeding,’” remember Robison. “We were able to have a beer and tell each other, ‘Hey, I’m really glad we did this together. I appreciate you as a business partner. Clearly, you are working your ass off.’”
“I felt like we were going like gangbusters,” adds Layke. “We were feeling great about things. The taproom business was getting better month after month. We were on course for how we imagined the business going: It would be hopping in here, and then over time we would begin to expand the other pieces of the business.”
The date was March 7.
Four days later, President Trump would deliver an address from the Oval Office on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another five days later, all Maryland breweries, bars, and restaurants would be ordered closed by Governor Larry Hogan.
What do we do? Robison recalls thinking at the time. Oh my god, literally, what are we going to do?
Silver Branch employed 40 people. The aforementioned trio of 45-barrel vessels were being constructed in Milwaukee, and, once shipped and installed, the brewery would be looking at a $100,000 tab. Meanwhile, its overwhelmingly largest source of revenue – draft beer and keg sales – had just evaporated.
“As soon as we felt like the coast was clear, that Silver Branch was going to make it,” Robison says, “bam – COVID came in.”
During the months that followed, Robison and Layke would take decisive action to put Silver Branch in what they believe is the best position possible to survive the ongoing pandemic. They would reimagine the brewery’s business model. They would make significant investments on the production floor and, in doing so, hit fast forward on a carefully considered timeline. The first few weeks of this effort would be crucial – more than the co-founders would even realize in the moment.
At the outset, however, there was concern within Silver Branch that the business would be closed entirely. The state of Maryland had yet to provide guidance about what breweries would and wouldn’t be allowed to do during the shutdown.
“They might tell us not to brew essentially,” says Layke, describing his worst fear. “We weren’t sure if we would be able to come into work. So, we were relieved when we found out that we were considered essential and we could keep making beer. For a period of time, that was not certain at all.”
The brewer had his work cut out for him. Silver Branch’s demand had been surging in 2020, and following a week of anniversary events, its inventory had dwindled. Robison says they were looking at a three-to-four-week production deficit.
“We had to play catch up, and we knew that,” he observes. “We were already barely able to keep up with how fast we had grown.”
The big difference was that now, with the taproom and other bars closed, essentially all beer was going into cans. Thankfully, the brewery had it own canning line. In fact, Silver Branch, inspired by how DC Brau established its brand with cans almost a decade ago, opened with a canning line on hand and had started using just six weeks after brewing its first batch. Possession of a canning line meant being able to package beer on their own schedule, and without the shrinking profit margins associated with mobile canning.
The hitch was that Silver Branch’s canning line was slow and required a steady application of manpower. It filled cans three at a time, and then those cans had to be manually pushed forward. Over and over and over again. To be fair, the co-founders had never considered this their “forever” canning line. Layke had long coveted Codi Manufacturing’s Craft Canning System, but the machinery was deemed cost prohibitive when Silver Branch launched. Plus, the brewery needed time to build its overall demand before it would be canning enough beer to warrant a top-of-the-line system.
Suddenly, with the arrival of COVID-19, Silver Branch was canning over three times as much beer as it had been before. And packaging 45 barrels of beer into 12oz aluminum receptacles resembled a production on the scale of “Ben-Hur”. Each run would stretch two whole days, with a morning shift and another in the afternoon, all to produce those 400 cases.
Off the production floor, Robison was scrambling to get these cans into consumers’ hands. Not long after Silver Branch shut down its taproom, he decamped to Vermont – where the family of his then-girlfriend, now-fiancé lives – and focused for two weeks on adapting the brewery’s model to do so. In his stead, the Silver Spring storefront would be overseen by Taproom Manager Malinda Inthavong. (Inthavong, who started at Silver Branch as a server, near the bottom of the totem pole, is now the brewery’s General Manager, assuming a title formerly held by Robison.)
An immediate priority for Robison was revamping the brewery’s online presence. Businesses across the economy were moving their transactions online, and the Silver Branch website didn’t offer as much as a gift card for sale. That needed to change. Working with Digital Ink, Robison built out and redesigned the website’s infrastructure, not just so customers could order beer, food, and merchandise for pick-up, but for home delivery, too.
By the end of March, Silver Branch’s delivery service would be up and running within surrounding neighborhoods. Five months later, the brewery’s freshly wrapped van is delivering to homes across Montgomery County, DC’s uppermost corner, and the western edge of Prince George’s County. To oversee this operation, it elevated a part-time delivery driver, Ray Simmons (recently enshrined by Bonnell on the label for the IPA Heart of Gold), to full-time Distribution Manager. Robison says the effects of Simmons’ work have been felt throughout the business.
“In-home delivery has had this weird doubling down effect,” he explains. “I can’t exactly draw a line from one thing to the next, but I have a hunch that our retail sales have gone up because of our delivery sales. People find our beer online, and then they find it in the store. They sort of feed into each other. Collectively, they’ve worked to grow the overall brand.”
Perhaps because of that gradual consumer migration back to retail stores, deliveries have dipped since the peak of the shutdown, when the brewery could receive upward of 75 orders in a single day. Now, 20 orders in 24 hours is considered a win. But those bumper sales helped sustain the brewery when it was at its most vulnerable. And Layke confesses that, on the whole, the operation has vastly exceeded expectations.
“I didn’t have great hopes for it as a particularly lucrative line of business, but the whole idea behind PPP was to keep people employed,” he says. “We thought, ‘Well, even it’s not super-duper lucrative, we’re still sending people out, we’re giving them a reason to have a job,’ That was one of the reasons that we embraced it, and it just turned out to be much better for us as a financial decision, as well.”
PPP is the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal government’s $669-billion initiative to keep workers off unemployment rolls by giving small businesses low-interest private loans. That money could then be used to bring back furloughed staff, keep the lights on, and help pay rent or the interest on existing loans. Like all craft breweries, Silver Branch was keen to land the assistance, and Robison was quick to apply when the program went online during his Vermont stay. And while the brewery did eventually secure a PPP loan – allowing it to employ a staff of 12, which is now up to 30 – Robison was already thinking bigger.
“I just put just my head down and zoned in on one goal: getting enough cash on hand to be able to make some critical decisions,” he says. “There was just enough time for us to pause and think critically about a strategy emerging out of this.”
If Silver Branch was putting nearly all of its beer into cans and then sending most of those cans to stores, the co-founders determined that the brewery needed to be producing more beer. Much more beer. Close to double what Silver Branch had brewed its first year.
“Wholesale beer is a volume game,” Layke says. “With retail beer, the margins are high enough that you can do relatively well at lower volumes. Once you’re in the wholesale game, you have to sell a certain amount, otherwise it really doesn’t make a ton of sense. It’s a much more volume-based approach.”
Set to arrive in early April, the three new tanks would help, but they wouldn’t be enough. The vessels had been needed prior to COVID-19, when the brewery was struggling to balance the demand for its core offerings with the production of one-off beers.
With the increased volume, Silver Branch also needed to improve the efficiency of its canning.
“Filling cans was just such a labor-intensive and inefficient process, but we were able to take some of our servers and use them in the brewery with PPP money,” says Layke. “It worked out in a lot of different ways – it gave us beer to sell, people were employed – but we knew in the longer term it wasn’t sustainable. Once we got the sales volume in cans up, it wasn’t going to go back down. Kegs might come up again, hopefully, but I don’t think the cans are going to go back down. So, we had to figure out something.”
Robison, who had worked in finance before entering the beverage industry, was closely monitoring other government assistance programs. After Congressional passage of the monumental CARES Act, those programs seemed to be coming online rapidly. If Silver Branch could act fast enough, one just might present the opportunity the brewery needed to figure out that something.
“The information was coming very fast, and it was changing very fast,” Robison shares. “The entire business landscape in craft beer and hospitality felt like the ground underneath our feet was shifting. It still does.”
Something that might help stabilize Silver Branch was the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, a long-standing Small Business Administration initiative that received a $50 billion infusion through the CARES Act. In the past, this program had been reserved for businesses devastated by natural disasters, like hurricanes and floods, but in these extraordinary times Congress opted to open it to companies grappling with the pandemic.
Unlike the PPP, which was more or less designed to keep businesses sufficiently above water to employ staff, the EIDL program could give businesses larger loans for investments and operational expenses that would set the stage for a profitable model going forward. Regardless of the loan’s size, the terms were exceedingly generous: a paltry 3.75% interest rate, a protracted 30-year maturity, and an automatic deferment of one year. By contrast, a typical commercial loan would come packaged with double the interest rate, while requiring repayment in 7-to-10 years. That’s a squeeze that would be felt by a company like Silver Branch every month.
“It’s as cheap as money gets, at least in a commercial world,” Robison says of an EIDL. “The additive cost to your monthly operations is so low.”
The SBA didn’t make these loans available to all of country at once. Instead, they rolled them out first in urban centers around the country. DC was one such hub, and Montgomery County, like Prince George’s Country and much of North Virginia, fell inside its radius. Within days, Robison was applying on behalf of Silver Branch. More than anything else, this would become his focus while in Vermont.
The co-founder posits that Silver Branch was one of the earlier applicants to the program. As the voices on the other side of his phone calls with the SBA changed from employees to contractors, he surmised that the word had gotten out and the EIDL initiative was flooded with submissions from other businesses in need.
This would turn out to be true. By early May, the SBA had capped individual disaster loans, if a business was lucky enough to get one, at $150,000 – down from a reported $2 million. According to the Washington Post, the agency was staring down a backlog millions of applications deep.
By this point, thankfully, Silver Branch had been approved for an EIDL. But Robison wouldn’t crack a celebratory beer until the money had been deposited in the brewery’s bank account. He allocated time every week to calling the SBA. He was, admittedly, a pest. And it paid off. By the end of May, the loan had come through.
I ask Robison if he’ll share how much Silver Branch received.
“$500,000,” he responds. Then, lest there be any confusion, he adds: “That’s a half million.”
Robison says Silver Branch got lucky. He breaks the word into two smaller words to emphasize the point. Luh. Key. But it wasn’t completely about being lucky. It was also about being early.
“Our circumstances would be incredibly different if I had applied for the loan a week later,” he shares. “I probably would have gotten the $150,000 version of it, and then I wouldn’t have a new kickass canning line.”
Over half of the EIDL cash – $280,000 – would go towards the Codi Manufacturing Craft Canning System that Layke had already purchased in his mind years ago. The sprawling multicomponent machine, which is being installed on one of my visits in late July, cans over three times faster than the brewery’s old model. Now, aided by a depalletizer, Silver Branch can package 45 barrels in a single day, immediately freeing up that tank for cleaning and a new beer the next morning.
The system also purges each can with CO2 before depositing beer from a counterpressure filler. This results in less dissolved oxygen, which translates to more stable beer – something that takes on increased importance as Silver Branch begins sending more beer to grocery stores, where cans might sit unrefrigerated on shelves for months.
“The rudimentary canning line was pretty good, but we knew that our beer would start to fall off after about eight weeks,” Layke admits. “It was like, ‘OK, we need to do better than that.’ We want our beer to be as good the day its canned as it is four months from now.”
Silver Branch had been striving to improve quality long before COVID-19. This winter, it promoted James Shellhammer – who holds a PhD in pharmacology and a BS in biochemistry, and had worked for Silver Branch as a “brewery hand” since last September – to Quality Control Program Manager. As detailed in a recent blog post, Shellhammer has been developing and refining best practices for “cleaning and sanitation procedures, microbe handling, and fermentation protocols.” He’s also helped build a sensory panel, and is beginning to expand microbiological testing capabilities.
“We’re trying to take all of the steps necessary to do what essentially a bigger, more widely distributed brewery would do,” says Layke. “We put a lot of focus on managing our quality so that we can support that kind of business.”
Enabling Silver Branch to become a bigger, more widely distributed brewery itself is the addition of three more 45-barrel fermenters and another 45-barrel brite tank. These vessels, which the brewery took possession of in late August, were purchased with the remainder of the EIDL monetary influx.
Taken together with the canning line, they represent a bold bet by Layke and Robison at a time of great uncertainty. The terms of the loan may have been favorable, and the co-founders may not have had to collateralize their homes, but it’s ultimately their names listed as guarantors.
“We swung for the fences to get this place open, and now we have another opportunity and we’re swinging for the fences again,” Robison shares. “I don’t see how else to do it. We weren’t going to go into a defensive crouch and just wait until the taproom comes back and hope that it’s close enough to the situation before COVID. I don’t know what the world will look like when this over.”
When Silver Branch looks at the future, it sees cans. A lot of cans. 85% of the brewery’s beer is currently going into aluminum, and it’s producing beer a rate of 3,000 barrels annually – up from 2,200 its first year. Even so, Layke says it needs to be closer to 4,000 barrels for a “wholesale-dominated” model to be viable.
His logic extends beyond the consideration of profit margins. Selling to supermarkets and big box chains – such as the 24 Montgomery County ABS stores that Silver Branch recently entered – means committing to delivering significant volume with consistency and, often, in massive installments. Under the brewery’s original model, where big taproom sales (about 80% of its revenue prior to COVID-19) were only supplemented by wholesale keg and can sales, Layke and Robison didn’t believe the brewery was able to follow through with such commitments. But, for the moment, taproom business is a shadow of itself, and keg sales aren’t much better – and that’s while the weather is hospitable to outdoor seating. What happens when the temperature drops in November? What if a vaccine is a year away?
“We’re afraid that a lot of restaurants and bars aren’t going to be able to reopen,” says Layke. “Even once our taproom is fully back online, our wholesale is going to be dominated by cans. And then, hopefully, the distribution that we used to do in kegs will slowly come back online.”
To deepen its distribution in Maryland, Silver Branch teamed with The Craft Coalition earlier this year. Founded by Jason Gotcher, formerly of Manor Hill Brewing, The Craft Coalition provides sales representation and marketing assistance to smaller Free State breweries, particularly those that self-distribute like Silver Branch. As Robison explains it: The Craft Coalition sells the beer, but Silver Branch is responsible for driving the truck that delivers it.
The co-founder credits the partnership, along with the work of the brewery’s Sales Manager Kortney Rivard, with growing Silver Branch’s brand during the pandemic, especially in Baltimore and its suburbs. While not available throughout the entirety of Maryland – the Eastern Shore has yet to be broached – Silver Branch can generally be found from Hagerstown in the east to Annapolis in the west, and from Price George’s County up to Baltimore. It’s an impressive stretch of terrain for a brewery still handling its own distribution.
“We’re practically a logistics company at this point,” says Robison, who rented and personally drove U-Haul trucks for the six months before Silver Branch bought a van. “We have route planning software to stay on top of what drivers are going where on what days and how long it’s going to take them and integrating that with our website.”
With the increased production set to accompany the new tanks, Silver Branch is exploring the possibility of distribution in Northern Virginia. But the lessons from the beginning of the year, when the brewery’s demand skyrocketed past its supply, have made its co-founders more cautious. Robison admits that the fallout of the pandemic – which hit pause on that demand, allowing the brewery to catch up and take possession of its new tanks, and then enabled the brewery to expand further via the EIDL program – has been “a weird blessing in disguise.”
“I don’t think we even understood how far behind we were from a supply and demand standpoint,” he says. “I feel like we dodged a bullet. Had our tanks not come in, I think we legitimately would have run out of beer. We wouldn’t have been able to sustain. It’s a major bummer that we didn’t get to sell in Nats Park, but in hindsight I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what if we had?’”
The new tanks likely bring Silver Branch to terminal capacity on the production floor. In other words, unless the brewery were to move its cold storage to a second location (which seems unlikely), it has maxed out the number of vessels it can fit inside its Silver Spring office space. This doesn’t come as a huge surprise to Robison or Layke – they had identified exactly how many tanks the brewery could house before they moved into it, and the business plan included designs for added fermentation capacity. They just thought it would take four or five years to get to this point.
“We’re hoping this will be enough capacity for a good while,” says Layke.
“At least a year and a half,” Robison chips in.
The additional tanks will help alleviate a creative bottleneck of sorts that emerged towards the end of last year. While certainly a positive in the big picture, the success of Glass Castle inhibited Layke’s ability to churn out one-off beers as much as he would have liked. A five-week lager, produced in quantity, has a way of tying up tank space. Now, he has the wiggle room for those new projects.
Still, it’s perhaps not as much wiggle room as you might think. As the brewery moves forward, Glass Castle is projected to take up approximately 50% of its output. In order to make space for the pilsner, along with Chronicle, Quantum Shift, and those one-offs, Silver Branch has relegated its Belgian core beer to a rotating offering from that Western European tradition. (The brewery had already swapped out Paper Lantern, an excellent witbier in a market that’s oddly saturated with excellent witbiers, for its Belgian-style singel Sacred Table, but that too failed to connect with consumers like its other three flagships.)
Silver Branch has also had to carve out space in the production schedule for its fruited gose series Squeegee Master, which has been a top performer for the brewery in warmer months. Release to release, the fruits in the series have varied, but the titular squeegee master, pictured cleaning a flooded production floor following a sprinkler mishap, remains the same on Bonnell’s label art. This literally dashing figure is head brewer Chris Broome, who developed the tart, salty ale’s recipe earlier in his time at Silver Branch. (Layke, who is technically Silver Branch’s CEO, credits Broome with helping to “pull us through all the challenging days of long canning and keeping up with production” during the initial months of COVID-19.)
Looking at the market, Layke partly attributes Silver Branch’s success in recent months – a time when many breweries have been struggling mightily – to its willingness to produce a broad swath of styles. While many breweries have doubled down (and, assuredly, found success) sticking almost exclusively to hazy IPA, fruited sours, and pastry stouts, the Silver Spring brewery provides some much needed counter-programming for area beer buyers.
“I think out reputation for making good, quality beer is helpful, but it’s also the fact that a lot of our styles are not hazies,” the brewer shares. “Customers want hazies right now, but a lot of customers also want approachable beers that you can drink two of. The fact that those beers are our sweet spot has actually worked out for us. The Lazy Dayz and Umlaut Loves of the world are actually quite welcome in stores to round out the overall portfolio of craft beer they’re selling.”
According to Robison, the goal is to release a new beer every week. Many of those will be lagers. Following the success of Obsidian Castle, Power Boots, and the maibock Electric Goat, Silver Branch has grown increasingly confident in its ability to present and sell lager styles unfamiliar to many consumers. Layke shares that he’d like to brew a rauchbier, a smoked lager that’s native to Bamberg and is often viewed as the third rail of lager production on account of its distinctively bacony taste. I joke that rauchbier might be too much of a challenge. Robison, who does not lack for confidence in general, gently pushes back.
“At this point, I’m like, ‘If we make a rauchbier, we will sell it,’” he says. “It’s a weird phenomenon that we enjoy as a brewery. We’re feeling like we can make a further-afield beer and receive support for it and get people to engage in the conversation around the style. It’s fun.”
With the new canning line, Silver Branch will be packaging limited-release lagers, like this summer’s Gold Line and a forthcoming series of rotating-hop Italian-style pilsners, in 16oz cans. For now, other styles will be kept in 12oz cans. (Eventually, the brewery will look to introduce tall boys of nitrogenized low-ABV British ales, too.)
When I meet with Robison a second time in mid-August, he explains that the larger can is an attempt to “meet people where they are.” Consumers are now accustomed to buying indulgently hopped hazy IPA and maximal stouts in 16oz cans, and he wants to Silver Branch’s lagers – made with an indulgent amount of patience and maximal attention to detail – sitting on the shelf next to them, at a slightly higher price than a run-of-the-mill lager.
“There’s something to be said about certain types of beers in certain types of formats to signal to people, ‘Hey, this is where we’re at,’” Robison explains from behind a navy blue mask. “I think we can make a damn good lager. I think that we can put our brand and our stamp on a multitude of beers across that category in a really effective way.”
At the time of this conversation, Silver Branch has just recently released the latest batch of Sisyphus – its first hazy IPA and the first beer produced within the walls of the brewery. Bonnell’s label for the beer depicted Robison and Layke pushing the mythical boulder up a mountain themselves. For this August’s rerelease, the brewery had t-shirts made with that art, albeit with one twist: The boulder had been replaced with a model of the spiky COVID-19 particle.
After pushing to get the brewery open, after pushing through the ups and downs of its first year, Silver Branch’s co-founders are still pushing. But they’re quick to note they’re not doing it alone.
“Brett and I have mentioned to each other that the single most important thing we have probably done in our first year was to identify good people who are the right fit and do a great job of making Silver Branch what we want it to be,” says Layke. “The folks we have are the embodiment of that effort.”
And the hope is that the co-founders have now put the brewery in the best position possible to lighten the load for everyone.
“We hardwired into our culture this flexibility and readiness to adjust when necessary,” Robison observes. “We have strong opinions, but we’re very quick to recognize when our opinions are wrong. We see this expansion as the right path forward, and we’re turning on a dime to try to do it. This is the lane that is open right now, and it’s the one that we believe the most in. Behavior for beer buying is going to be more centered around cans for a long time.”
Just behind the co-founder is the Silver Branch barrel room, where he and his partner shared a blissfully ignorant moment of relief six months ago. Now, it’s an overflow space, littered with pallets of unmarked cans and bags of malt. The brewery is bursting at the seams. A mess has never looked so good.