From Quenching Fires To Quenching Thirst

beer flight at Smoketown Brewing in a converted firehouse
beer flight at Smoketown Brewing in a converted firehouse

All photos by Phil Galewitz.

When David Blackmon bought the shuttered Brunswick, Md. fire station, he thought the 1948 building would make a great storage facility for his business of selling salvage from old homes and businesses.

Then he had a better idea.

Blackmon knew the craft beer business was booming in nearby Loudon County, Va. and Frederick, Md., and Brunswick was right in between without a brewery. He figured downtown Brunswick, located just above the Potomac River and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, would serve as a perfect bridge between the two areas for area beer lovers.

Brewer Mitch Pilchuck (L) and owner David Blackmon
Brewer Mitch Pilchuck (L) and owner David Blackmon

The two-story brick volunteer fire station, which had ceased operation in 2012, had everything Blackmon needed to become a craft brewery--- tall ceilings to handle 10-foot high fermentation tanks, large bay doors for bringing in big equipment and large pallets of ingredients, two-inch water lines and cement floors with built in drainage system. “Physically speaking, it was designed perfectly for a brewery,” Blackmon said. “Like a brewery, a fire house is a space that can take a beating…It’s a very cool re use of the space.”

Less than 18 months after buying the fire station, Blackmon opened Smoketown Brewing Station in April to rave reviews from local residents and has attracted beer lovers from as far as Washington, D.C, 45 miles away.

Brunswick is one of a growing number of U.S. cities that have turned their retired fire stations into a craft breweries and brewpubs. At least a dozen have made the switch in the past decade, including seven just in the past year alone. Among the latest to open include Commonwealth Brewing in Virginia Beach, Va., Municipal Brew Works in Hamilton, Ohio, Oakbrook Brewing in Reading, Pa., Brew House No. 16 in Baltimore, Oval Brewing in Plattsburgh and Tenacity Brewing in Flint, Mich.

The move seems logical since water is such an integral part of fighting fires (and cleaning fire trucks) and that about 95 percent of beer is water.

Another reason so many fire stations have become homes for craft breweries is their central locations, typically in the heart of downtowns, where they can attract thirsty patrons. Besides, who doesn’t like visiting a fire house?


In fact, Brunswick city officials hope Smoketown becomes inspiration for a downtown renaissance. Today, the downtown street has almost as many empty storefronts as operating businesses. “Some people in town look to us a game changer,” Blackmon said. “We are more realistic in that we alone can’t change the town but it’s a start and what I wanted to prove all along is that this is a viable town and people would be willing to come if there was something of interest.”

Blackmon, along with head brewer Mitch Pilchuk who previously worked at Mad Horse Brewpub in nearby Lovettsville, Va, offer a broad array of beer styles at Smoketown, which produces on a seven barrel system.

One sign of its popularity: Smoketown, which was nickname of the city because of all the smoke from nearby the rail yard, is now open every day.

While the downstairs tap room at Smoketown is colorful and lively, the upstairs of the 16,000 square foot building holds a giant auditorium where iconic entertainers such as Patsy Cline, Guy Lombardo and Jimmy Dean used to perform to packed houses in the late 1940s and 1950s. The money from such concerts and other events helped support the local fire station. Blackmon said he is working to restore the space to hold special events.

While all the Smoketown beers are named for the town’s history and location such as their Potomac IPA, none of yet honored their building. But that changes this fall when it debut’s Walter’s Spirit, a bourbon barrel aged porter. Walter was a fireman and caretaker of the building for many years who operated the siren and trucks. He died of natural causes at the station many years back.

In Plattsburgh, N.Y., just 30 miles from the Canadian border, another fire station turned brewery is aiding a town’s rejuvenation.

Plattsburgh has been trying to recover economically since its giant Air Force base closed in 1996. The base, which once had more than 10,000 people working on it, has a long military history first as an Army installation dating back to the War of 1812.

In May, Oval Craft Brewing opened in the former Air Force Base fire station originally constructed by the Army in 1890.

Jessy Jolicoeur, owner and brewer of Oval Craft Brewing, in front of his 10 bbl brewhouse inside the former military base fire station
Jessy Jolicoeur, owner and brewer of Oval Craft Brewing, in front of his 10 bbl brewhouse inside the former military base fire station

Jessy Jolicoeur, owner of Oval, said he looked at several sites for his brewery, but kept coming back to the firehouse. “This one always stuck in my mind and is what I compared everything to.”

Indeed, it wasn’t just the building’s long history or that it was situated in the now historical part of the city not far from a War of 1812 museum. The building had the good floor drainage system and large overhead doors and its brick and masonry was built to be really durable. “It really lent itself to the industrial feel to a brewery,” he said.

The former army and air force base has slowly transitioned into residential and commercial uses over the years. Valcour Brewing also recently opened in the former Army barracks built in 1838 and the two craft beer makers seem to feed off each other to build public interest.

From the tap room, visitors can peer right into the brewery. Just out the front door, they can see what the brewery is named for: The 40-acre oval parade route where soldiers used to march during drills.

Jolicoeur’s latest beer, a honey lager, he named Rescue Hose 5, in honor of the last fire crew to work there.

Some of the former firefighters who used to the work in the building have visited Oval and were excited to see the location live on. “People come back and see the work we do in the building and take pride in where they used to be. It’s a positive step for the building,” he said.