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(Enlarge) Heavy Seas Beer managing partner Hugh Sisson shows off a fresh pour Nov. 24 at the company's Halethorpe brewery. Formerly Clipper City, the company is celebrating its 15th year in business. (Staff photo by Nicole Martyn)

In Hugh Sisson's office, about 10 feet from a bar with four taps dispensing his company's beer, are two sheets of Clipper City beer bottle labels in a frame.

Those labels are like baby pictures for Sisson, who started the microbrewery in Halethorpe 15 years ago this month.

Like a child, the company, which has nearly 30 employees after hiring six more this past year, has grown.

That growth, however, has meant some subractions. Where it once sold beer labeled Clipper City, Oxford and Heavy Sea, now the company produces only beer with a Heavy Seas label.

Sisson, general partner of the company, said it re-branded all its products to become more efficient.

"Because we had all these different things, we were confusing people," Sisson said.

The Oxford brand was eliminated because of slow sales.

The Clipper City line sold well but only in Maryland and a small portion of Virginia.

Meanwhile, Heavy Seas' success was in about 18 states, the sixth-generation Baltimorean said.

Now, the 24 beers in the line are in three categories based on alcohol by volume (ABV): the Clipper Fleet (4-6 percent), the Pyrate Fleet (7-8 percent) and the Mutiny Fleet (8 percent and more).

Coors Banquet, for example, is 5 percent, according to a Coors spokesman.

Three in the Heavy Seas line won medals during the 2010 World Beer Cup Awards, a contest that featured more than 3,300 beers.

Heavy Seas Gold Ale took first in the Golden or Blonde Ale category and Heavy Seas Marzen and Pale Ale won bronzes in the Vienna Style Lager and Classic English Style Pale Ale categories, respectively.

The awards join numerous others on the walls in the foyer of the brewery on 4615 Hollins Ferry Road.

Heavy Seas has a strong following in the Baltimore metro area.

"There are those locally who think it's important to support local, and we are enormously grateful for their support," Sisson said.

Sisson said the company, which sells beer in 20 states, isn't looking to add markets.

"Our goal at this stage is to do a better job where we already are," Sisson said. "Obviously, the greater Baltimore market (will continue) to be a major thrust of our efforts."

Coming a long way

When the company opened, the brewery would produce between 8,500 and 12,000 barrels of beer each year. Each barrel holds 31 gallons.

This year, it will produce about 20,000 barrels.

Sisson said sales and production have increased 30 percent since 2009, and the brewery can't fill all the orders it receives.

The addition of four 150-barrel tanks, which cost about $65,000 apiece and are expected to arrive early next summer, should increase that total by about 25 percent to 25,000 barrels, Sisson estimated.

The new tanks are not the only improvements scheduled for the new year.

Sisson is currently putting a new floor in the brewery after 15 years because it has gone into slight disrepair. The new floor will cost $75,000.

The company also plans to expand its headquarters. Sisson said once M&T Bank vacates the area next door, his company will move in. There is no date set for that.

While the brewery is increasing output nearly threefold from its earliest days, Sisson said the company still has not carved out a niche as the local beer, which he had hoped to do when he opened the brewery.

"We are probably around a one or two share of this market, maybe," Sisson said. "While we are the most successful beer in Baltimore, I don't know that we've been able to get to the ubiquitous level."

Sisson notes that National Bohemian had a 70 share of the local market in the late 1960s and early 1970s and that sort of dominance would qualify it as the local beer at that time.

Ubiquity may not be possible now with the dominance of Budweiser, Miller and Coors nationally and in the local market, Sisson said.

To commemorate the 15th anniversary and show gratitude to its customers, Sisson said Heavy Seas is releasing a limited-edition beer called Thank You, Thank You Very Much.

Like the rest of the Heavy Seas line, the label features a skull and crossbones. But for this brew, the skull and crossbones is in Elvis Presley garb.

Sisson compared it to one of the company's most popular beers when he said it's "Loose Cannon on steroids."

A Dec. 8 tour celebrating the anniversary of the brewery, which is open to the public, sold out weeks in advance.

Those who missed out can attend one of the company's three tours run each Saturday, except on holidays.

Sisson once acted as a guide for each of the tours, but estimated he does only about a third of them now because his schedule is filled.

He's not complaining.

"To have been able to do this for 15 years is something I'm grateful for," Sisson said. "We've worked our fannies off."

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