Baltimore Beer Legend, Hugh J. Sisson
A sixth generation Baltimorean, Hugh Sisson found himself thrust into the bar business in 1980 by his father. His original intent was to be an actor/director (which is what he did his college and graduate work in), but as the romance of poverty had worn thin by the end of grad school, he accepted a position running the family bar, Sisson’s.
His first challenge was to find a way to attract patrons to the bar. Knowing very little about business, but a fair amount about beer from both theatre studies in London and grad school in Charlottesville, his first real business move was to turn Sisson’s into a beer bar. That doesn’t seem like much today, but in 1981/82 a bar that focused on good beer was a radical concept. By 1983 Sisson’s featured over 140 different beers (largely imports) and was definitely Baltimore’s “go to” spot for beer.
By 1985 Hugh and his father decided it might be interesting to see if they could actually make beer at the bar – ie a brewpub. At that time there were no templates to follow, very few sources for equipment and brewing knowledge, and above all, it was illegal in MD. However, after two years of diligent “research”, the Sissons determined that indeed it would be possible to brew beer in their tavern, as long as they could find a way to make it legal.
A bill to legalize brewpubs in MD was introduced by the Sissons and Sen. George Della in the 1987 MD legislative session. Hugh fully expected the bill to fail, but surprisingly it passed easily. Now they had to get the damn thing done!
August of 1989 saw the first brewpub beer in MD being served over the bar at Sisson’s, and Hugh was now the brewer.
There would be many other legislative initiatives put forth by Hugh over the years – bills to allow for beer festivals, growler sales, brewery special events, homebrew events – all ultimately successful at the legislative level.
The first and oldest homebrew club in the state – the Cross Street Irregulars – was founded at Sisson’s in the eighties and still exists today. Also, the Brewer’s Association of Maryland was founded by Hugh and another local beer character, Jamie Fineran, in the mid nineties.
Hugh left Sisson’s at the end of 1994 to found Clipper City Brewing Co. – brewers of Heavy Seas Beer and Baltimore’s largest craft beer production facility – which began operations in December of 1995.
“If I ever make enough money,” Hugh once said, “I keep threatening to go back to the theatre. But I think, truly, beer has been my life’s work. And since I don’t think I’ll ever be very rich, I think the theatre is safe for the time being.”