It might be reassuring for those involved in the recent trials and tribulations of a local brewer who has waged a serious campaign to update town and state regulations in order to open a microbrewery in Chestertown, to know that conflicts over beer in small communities go back centuries.
One of the first known cases was in 1355, when two Oxford students insulted the community by complaining about the quality of the local lager. Things got a bit out of hand, and, by the end of the what was to be called the St. Scholastica Day riot, 63 academics and 30 townies had given their lives for their particular point of view.
While this statistical victory of town over gown might give certain college faculty a moment of pause before uttering negative opinions about things local, the central point with this case, and certainly with the town’s current challenge with Chester River Brewing Company, is that the whole issue of beer is universally very near and dear to a community.
If there is a considerable amount of passion, and sometimes harsh language found in the Spy comment section as well, regarding recent zoning decisions on the Chester River Brewing’s proposal, it is because almost everyone in town, as well as many living elsewhere, desperately wants a microbrewery for Chestertown. And the fact that the town lacks one is very disappointing for most, and just a tad bit embarrassing for others.
This feeling is compounded by the fact that Washington College, in its wonderfully quirky way, has produced some of the best brewmasters and beer executives in the United States today, from such highly-regarded breweries as 16 Mile, Fordham, Evolution, Dogfish, and New Belgium.
In short, the town longs for a microbrewery in the worst possible way, and with that comes a disproportionately high level of frustration and finger pointing when it came so close to getting one last week and failed.
In the recent case, Kevin Shertz, a local architect and award-winning brewmaster has spent a considerable amount of time and effort to develop a workable business model for a brewery for Chestertown. After years of conferences, lobbying for state law changes, data collection, and financial modelling, Mr. Shertz concluded that the best chance for a brewery to be sustainable was to have it located in the Chestertown Business Park, just off High Street Extension.
In order to make this possible, Chestertown zoning ordinances and regulations needed to be amended to permit such a business to exist. He therefore asked the Town Council for support in late October.
To the credit of the Town Council and the town manager, Mr. Shertz’s request received an exceptionally speedy response – a testament to how popular this amenity would be for Chestertown and the town’s renewed desire to support local entrepreneurs. Within weeks, the Planning and Zoning Commission, as well as Town Council itself, had discussed the ordinance changes and had formally responded to his request.
It was unfortunate, however, after all this extraordinary support and encouragement, that the town’s changes still did not meet Mr. Shertz’s criteria for the use of the building.
While The town’s Planning and Zoning Commission confirmed that a microbrewery located in the Chestertown Business Park could indeed house a brewery, as well as have a tasting room and a retail licence to sell beer to visitors, it could not accommodate Mr. Shertz’s more significant wish that onsite consumption for beer be set at 4,000 barrels per year. As correctly noted by commission chair Chris Cerino, this condition would have made the brewery, in essence, a bar.
In the end, the Town made the right, if painful, call. The concept that Mr. Shertz envisioned would have added extraordinary burdens on the nearby tenants and the town.
It also seems that such an enterprise, given the kind of product sold, and its potential to help renewal efforts in downtown or in north Chestertown, is far better for the community to be located in commercial zones that exist now and might benefit from a microbrewery as Mr. Shertz has envisioned it.
Mr. Shertz has taken to Facebook to outline his disappointment at the Town’s decision. It is understandable that this recent chapter would be particularly disheartening to him given the kind of intensive work he has done on the project. Nonetheless, it is hoped that he also recognizes the kind of support he has received from the greater Chestertown community for his efforts. He should not retreat from his vision due to this setback. There are many other options to explore before giving up.