The rise of a local startup business like Union Craft Brewing is a sight to see. When they first opened their doors in 2012 as a small, 20-barrel brewhouse along the Jones Falls River in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, they were one of the first new breweries to pop up in Baltimore in nearly 50 years. Their operation quickly grew, but their core belief remained the same – good beer brings good people together.Union’s owners and founders, Adam Benesch, Kevin Blodger, and John Zerivitz, soon began to look for opportunities to expand their taproom and production space. But the Union crew wasn’t only concerned with the expansion of their own operations; they also envisioned a facility that would create space and retail opportunities for other local makers. In 2015, a 150,000-square-foot former Sears warehouse in Hampden came up for sale, and the Union Craft team honed in on the location as a place they knew could be their new home and fulfill their larger vision for other makers. Since they knew very little about real estate, they asked us to come alongside them in the development process to help bring this dream to life. In 2016, we broke ground as the development partner to Union Craft Brewing on an innovative new project, known as the Union Collective – a manufacturing, retail, and community gathering space anchored by Union’s new taproom and production facility. We knew repurposing this unused warehouse campus to empower Baltimore entrepreneurs and unite people aligns perfectly with Seawall’s purpose. Union Collective opened in 2018 and now houses a range of unique and important local small businesses – Vent Coffee Roasters, The Charmery, Earth Treks climbing gym, Well Crafted Kitchen, and Baltimore Spirits Company. Looking back on it, the Union Craft team could have easily found a 50,000-square-foot warehouse, fit out a new space for themselves, and continued on as a successful brewery. But, their vision to lift up other local businesses and makers was so strong that it created a movement to revitalize Baltimore manufacturing in one of its former hubs – and movement-makers are people we will always get behind. Cheers to you, Union Craft.
This shop [and production space] is really our ability to say yes to opportunities. Whereas before this, we would have to say no to so many fun, interesting opportunities because we just couldn’t produce enough...And, to be paired with a bunch of other businesses at the Collective, that also has been really powerful.
Coming from somewhere where I was roasting on the side and as an in-house roaster in Baltimore, this space means growth and and a completed vision of what I’ve wanted for the past 15 years. The people and other businesses have become like family, and we work together, improve each other, and get to share our visions as business owners.
Founding Partner of Union Craft Brewing
Jon Zerivitz (right) is one of the three founding partners of Union Craft Brewing, a leader in the craft beer movement in Baltimore City. Jon and his partners Adam Benesch (left) and Kevin Blodger (center), opened their first production space and tasting room in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood in 2012. They have always known that their craft and the beer they make has a way of bringing people together, and from the minute they started looking for more space for their business to grow, they knew that they wanted to use their draw to help other local entrepreneurs succeed.
Union was really one of the first craft breweries in Baltimore City, right? How did you find and grow your first space?
One of the things that had always guided us from the beginning, is that if a brewery moves into an unused space or neighborhood that has fallen on tough times, it can be a great anchor to help bring vibrancy back to that area. We had seen case studies of that even before we opened our first space. We knew that our first brewery would be a great launchpad, and everyone there really supported us from day one. It was a great addition to what was already happening in the area, but we also knew that it wasn’t going to be permanent.
Why was that?
When we opened that space in 2012, our tasting room was this space we scrapped together at the end of building the brewery. Me, Adam, and Kevin [Union’s founders] would go there on the weekends to lead the tours and pour the samples. At the time, there was no such as ‘taprooms;’ they were illegal. You could only have a ‘tasting room’ where you could give out up to six, three ounce samples [of beer] if people took a tour. We had heard about a bill in Annapolis [Maryland’s capitol] that would allow manufacturing facilities to actually have taprooms, and so we found ourselves testifying in huge hearings and committees. Thankfully, it passed, and we were the first Baltimore City taproom license granted. Our taproom was less than a thousand square feet, but the experience was super popular, and we were packed every weekend. It became something really special. It was intimate and organic, and we were able to do a lot with a little bit of space. But as the years went by, I started to notice that there were unhappy customers who couldn’t even get to the bar to get a drink. We were bursting at the seams.
So you guys were ready to grow. How did you approach that process?
Originally, we were looking for 40-50,000 square feet of space to grow the business into. We spent almost a year and a half looking at nearly any available space in Baltimore City. But nothing was right. Throughout that time, we knew that this building [at 1700 W. 41st St.] was about to come available just down the road from our first brewery. We came down and looked at the building in the beginning of the process and said it’s way too big; we wouldn’t know what to do with all that space. But it was this huge building sitting here offering nothing to the community. So we kept coming back to it when everything else we looked at just felt wrong.
How did the idea for the Union Collective come out of that process?
At the same time that we were thinking about this building, we had also really reaffirmed our commitment to keep our business in Baltimore City. We believe that we can help make this city a more livable, better place. Suddenly, we had this idea that we could get other businesses who were in the same place as us - looking to grow but needing a push to stay in the city instead of go to the outskirts where rent is cheaper - and all come together to create this unique manufacturing, retail, and community experience. In craft beer, we’re just lucky that people want to come to the manufacturing facility, see the product being made, sample it, and hang out to connect with you and your brand. We thought, what if we could bring all those people who want to come see beer being made to also see ice cream being produced, coffee being roasted, or whiskey being distilled? That was the birth of the Union Collective idea.
It’s a big vision and a huge building; why did you ask Seawall to come alongside you as the development partner on it?
It was such a big project, and we’re just brewers that have never dealt with real estate on this scale. We had followed along with what Seawall had done in the city, and we knew that if we were going to partner with anyone on this [project], it had to be someone with the vision and the heart to match what we were going for. So it was an obvious choice.
Tell us about the businesses that joined the Union Collective and what you hope they get out of being part of this project.
We have brought in an amazing first group of businesses. We continue to see them collaborate, share resources, and help each other grow. We really want this place to not only be a launchpad for these businesses - but that they’re even so successful that they need to move out again and we bring in another round of partners.