This year, for the first time in the Howard County Fair’s 70-year history, fairgoers of legal age could sample craft beer produced in the county.

It was a significant decision, acknowledging beer’s legitimate role as an agricultural product.

“The Fair Board was understandably a little apprehensive when they approached us because they had never allowed alcoholic beverages in the past,” said Randy Marriner, whose Ellicott City-based Manor Hill Brewing was selected to represent the county’s growing reputation as a craft beer destination at this year’s County Fair.

Nevertheless, Marriner’s own interest in operating a concession that would protect his own reputation and license, along with a mutual agreement to proceed with minimal fanfare, allayed those fears and cleared the way for a beer garden behind the Main Exhibit Hall.

The point, Marriner said, was not beer for beer’s sake, but to highlight a quality product with ties to local agriculture: At present, Manor Hill is raising four varieties of hops on two acres next to the brewery, with plans to expand the acreage in the future.

Tap the App

There are other signs of craft beer’s emergence as a tourism asset throughout the county. The most recent and obvious is Howard County Tourism’s HowardOnTap smartphone application, currently available as a free iPhone download and soon to be available for Android devices as well.

The app features quick access to the tap offerings, addresses, hours and web sites of county breweries and the unique restaurants that carry locally-produced beer.

Designed with tourism in mind, the app goes a step further with a collection of links to partners providing lodging, tour services, taxi service and public transportation.

“We’ve tried to make it fun, giving users the ability to win a souvenir beer glass prize for checking in at all of the stops on our beer trail,” said Amanda Hof, partnership and promotions manager for Howard County Tourism.

The app also lists two breweries outside the county that have ongoing promotional partnership arrangements with Howard County Tourism: Heavy Seas Beer, of Halethorpe, in Baltimore County; and the Red Shedman Farm Brewery, of Mount Airy, in Frederick County.

“The idea for the app came from recognition that the craft beer industry in Maryland is booming right now,” said Hof. “Growthwise, it’s outperforming the domestic beer market by 18% and the import market by 6%.”

Even though craft brewers go to great lengths to distribute their products to bars, restaurants and sales outlets, there seems to be an inherent voyeuristic aspect to being a craft beer lover that translates to tourism.

“People just like to see where it’s made,” Hof said.

Bulk Head Expanding

One brewery not yet listed on the app, but expected to make an appearance in coming months, is Bulk Head Brewing Co. Launched in Clarksville last October by Josh Matthews, the operation started small, brewing 31 gallons at a time and marketing the single barrel batches to restaurants and taverns.

Matthews has since signed a lease for three suites in the Oakland Center industrial park off Old Annapolis Road in Columbia. The 7,200-square-foot space includes 4,200 square feet for a microbrewery and 3,000 square feet for Bulk Head’s tasting room.

“Build-out [started] around the beginning of September, and we hope to open for business by late October,” Matthews said.

Bulk Head will start with a three-barrel brewing system, which was delivered in late August, and plans to expand to a seven-barrel system within six months.

The beers on offer will be somewhat different, to say the least, than the typical lineup found in mainstream brewpubs, owing to Matthews’s passion for unusual ingredients and flavor profiles.

Among the five beers that will be produced year round are Macker, a hoppy brown ale; He’enalu Honey, a red ale; Guava Porter, flavored with guava jam; Peachy Paul Wit beer; and the double-hopped Amacitra India Pale Ale.

“I’m pushing the envelope with ingredients, focusing on beer drinkers who want something so unusual that they won’t find it anywhere else,” Matthews said in an earlier interview with this publication. “That’s who I’m reaching out to.”

Tourism Tie-In

The craft brewing movement in Howard County started in 1997 with the opening of Ellicott Mills Brewing Company in Ellicott City. Since then, a handful of dining establishments with small-scale, on-site brewing systems entered the fray, but most were short-lived.

The tipping point, however, can be traced to the establishment of Frisco’s Tap House and the Columbia Ale House, two Columbia restaurants that feature an extensive selection of craft beers.

The county’s first commercial brewery, Jailbreak Brewing Co., opened in North Laurel in 2014 and has developed an extensive distribution network throughout the mid-Atlantic Region.

It was followed by Manor Hill, the county’s first farm brewery, earlier this year. Manor Hill’s beers are available at Victoria Gastro Pub, owned by Marriner and his wife, Mary, and are also distributed to more than 100 bars, restaurants and outlets in the region.

According to Hof, more Howard County breweries are in the planning stage.

With the exception of Manor Hill, most county breweries have decided to or will incorporate brewery tours as part of their marketing plan.

“When you look at Maryland’s brewing industry, it’s obvious that a lot of surrounding counties have breweries that have become tourism destinations,” Hof said. “We’re proud of the industry that’s evolving here. If we don’t tell that story or do something to help our breweries tell that story, we lose an opportunity to introduce more tourists to something special.”