Salisbury Rising: Evolution Brewing helps form community identity, feeds entrepreneurship

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Evolution Craft Brewing Co. is a local favorite as well as destination for out-of-town beer enthusiasts. (Special To Salisbury Independent/Todd Dudek)

In the April print edition of The Atlantic magazine, and article headlined “Can America Put Itself Back Together?” included a report from journalist/authors James and Deb Fallows concerning their 54,000-mile journey around America in a single-engine plane.

While touring dozens and dozens of cities, the couple was able to see trends in what makes a particular city a success or suggests the potential for success exists.

“If you tell us how a town measures up based on these standards,” they wrote, “we can guess a lot of other things about it.”

The final item on their list: craft breweries.

“One final marker, perhaps the most reliable,” they wrote. “A city on the way back will have one or more craft breweries, and probably some small distilleries too. A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young customers.”

Salisbury has a craft brewery — and it’s a big one.

It’s been five years already that Evolution Brewing Co. has been operating out of the old Reedy Ice Plant off Eastern Shore Drive. Producing nearly 1,000 barrels of craft beer each week, the brewery and attached restaurant employ about 100 people.

Evo and its Public House are not only treasured by locals — the brewery has become a destination stop for people who love sampling beers. It has helped to put Salisbury on a cultural map; Evo stands to do for Salisbury what Dogfish Head did for Milton.  

Purchased Red Roost

Evo is owned by a company called Southern Boys Concepts, which is headed by brothers John and Tommy Knorr. The pair arrived in the community in 1996, when the purchased the venerable Red Roost crab house down in Whitehaven.

The brothers have their own sets of expertise: John is regarded as the Food Guy, given his deep restaurant experience; Tommy is the Beer Guy, and was the creative influence behind their decision to enter the craft brews business.

Said John Knorr: “It really started at the Red Roost. We were pouring craft beer on tap there in the mid-’90s, and that was unheard of in Wicomico County. You were supposed to have a selection of good domestics, led by Natural Light.”

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John Knorr first arrived in Salisbury in 1996 as a new owner of the Red Roost. (Special To Salisbury Independent/Todd Dudek)

The Knorrs wanted to build a brewery/restaurant in Salisbury’s historic but dilapidated train station in the Church Street neighborhood. While proposal was lauded by many as an opportunity to help revitalize a troubled neighborhood, the Knoors and city leaders couldn’t agree on water impact fees.

Frustrated, in 2009 the brothers built a small brewery in an old convenience store just over the state line in Delmar. Quickly and surprisingly, their roster of Evolution became a success: People would line up several evenings each week to have growlers filled with an array of unusual brews.

With just a 3,500 barrels per year capacity, expansion was again necessary. Driving down Salisbury Boulevard one day, John Knorr noticed the old ice plant for sale across from Peninsula Regional Medical Center.

“I saw the sign and it hit me,” Knorr recalled. “I called Tommy and then we called (the commercial Realtor) Brent Miller (of SVN|Miller Commercial Real Estate). We were able to get the deal done very fast.”

Knorr is proud to point out that all of his company’s locations are former businesses that had been shut down and awaiting their renovation hand.

“We’ve never had to build anything new,” he said. “We have gone in and revived shut-down businesses.”

At 22,000 square feet, the building was essentially one giant freezer — and ideal facility for conversion to a production brewery. Because it made ice, it already had all of the access to quality water that it needed.

Knorr gives credit to state and local elected officials who recognized their business’ potential and wanted Evo based in Maryland.

“Tommy and I really really pushed on it, and the local and state folks were fast to understand,” he said. “We worked the local and state people to help figure out what to do.

“They changed the laws to allow us to move back into Maryland. We had restaurants here and state law would not allow us to own the restaurants and manufacture. So there were able to add some exceptions. It’s all been positive and great.”

Just this year, the General Assembly adjusted some prohibitions that will now allow Evo to produce up to 45,000 barrels of beer each year.

Changing laws to accommodate craft breweries is not at all unusual nationwide. Conservative Mississippi recently overturned restrictions that effectively outlawed craft beers, and that state now has 10 craft breweries. Even more-conservative and once-restrictive Utah now has more than a dozen breweries.

The Delmar location is now owned by Salisbury dentist Susan Vickers, and brews the increasingly popular 3rd Wave craft beers.

Economic development

John Knorr is a featured spokesman in a video that’s part of the Salisbury-Wicomico Economic Development Corp.’s latest marketing efforts. Knorr discusses at length the many assets the Lower Shore offers as a place to live, and is complimentary of the supportive business culture.

Spokesman in the new video for SWED.

“(SWED Executive Director) Dave Ryan really helped us when we were moving back into Maryland,” Knorr said. “He helped us with some financing that was there through some programs. He’s just been a real advocate for us.

“The video is designed to drive more interest in Wicomico County. And we want that — we want more people to live here.”

Knorr is also complimentary of the city’s leadership.

“We had administration changes that helped,” he said. “I think (former mayor) Jim Ireton made a big difference. He was a real advocate for us. Obviously, (current mayor) Jake Day has been. I think they realized that we needed to change some stuff. It had been a real mess around here.”

It was then-mayor Barrie Parsons Tilghman who balked at reducing water impact fees to allow the Knorrs to redevelop the train station, but nearly eight years later, Knorr said he better understands the city’s position back then.

“The city had been struggling,” he said. “It would have been hard to give two guys with a reputation for a successful business a break — that wouldn’t have gone over well.

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Evo’s Tommy Knorr is acknowledged as the mastermind who creates the individual craft brews. (SWED Photo)

“But it was something we knew we needed to get started. The people in Delmar were so supportive; the whole town there was great.”

Evo now has distribution territories extending north into Pennsylvania and south to Richmond and the Tidewater area.

Perhaps demonstrating the growing acceptance of crafts beers in a competitive market, Evo just recently signed a deal with Eastern Shore Distributing, whose dominant product is Budweiser and its brands.

Explained Knorr: “The laws when you’re distributing beer are governed by franchise laws. In the beginning we really didn’t know what we were doing. Eastern Shore Distributing purchased the distribution rights to our brands for the three counties of the Lower Shore, which is a big win for us to have a local businessman driving our brand.”

Suggesting that even a mammoth business like Budweiser appreciates what’s happening in the craft market, Eastern Shore Distributing President Rob Burke said he was excited by the distribution deal.

“For us, Evolution’s quality portfolio is a huge addition,” Burke said. “Together, we will continue to build the entire portfolio to lead the craft beer industry.”

Community ‘getting there”

As a successful local entrepreneur, John Knorr has many beliefs and opinions. He recognizes the community has many challenges, but appreciates that work is under way to improve things.

A real problem is the Brain Drain here,” he said. “You’ve got  great university, but too many people leave.

“Part of the problem for a long time is the city hadn’t evolved. There wasn’t a lot to do. There weren’t cool places to go. When Tom and I got here and we purchased the Red Roost, we wished we had great resturants around to go to. We wished we had better grocery stores.

“There are things the town just hasn’t done — that it hasn’t put all together — to get people to come here, to attract people to come and stay,” he said. “But it’s getting better, I think we’re getting there.”

He added: “It’s a neat town, we all live here and love it — and it’s fun.”

Southern Boys Concepts own seven restaurants, including two in Baltimore. In Salisbury they own The Public House, Sobo’s and Specific Gravity; Red Root and Boonies are in southwestern Wicomico County. The Public House is a top draw.

“People love it. We’ve got a great local following and we got people coming here from all around,” he said. “They come to the brewery for the experience, as well as for the quality of our beer and our national reputation. It’s been a great thing.”

The company’s workforce is predominantly local.

“We have some people who have worked in the brewing industry, but it’s a very small handful,” he said. “Most of these guys got their start working in the kitchen of the Red Roost, or at Boonies or at Sobo’s somehow. These guys have worked their way up.

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John Know in front of a brewery tank inside his Salisbury facility. (Special To Salisbury Independent/Todd Dudek)

“It’s a rag-tag group — they were restaurant guys — but they’re passionate about the beer.”

Company-wide, there are about 500 employees; their top-line revue grows every year, he said.

“Tommy and I can only do so much in a 24-hour period. So we need phenomenal people and we have them. And they stay. When you look around the company and look at the tenure that we have, especially for our industry, it’s mind boggling.”

Farmers Market next

The train station remains part of the Knorrs’ business holdings and its the next project on their long list of ideas.

Their idea right now is to convert the old station into a Wednesday and Saturday Farmer’s Market.

“We’ll use the synergies from the restaurants to drive people there,” he said, and get products from farmers for (our) restaurants in a central place.”

The brothers had hoped to get the market going for this season, but didn’t.

“It’s something to focus on next year — too busy this year. We need to get it done, it’s just a matter of finding the time.”

Knorr said the building is in good shape overall. Some renovations were done when they first purchased the building, but the work was put on hold and can resume anytime.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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