Harford County Libation Trail Adventures

Fiore Winery fall colors - At Fiore. Lands with grapes are referred to as “under vine.” The Harford County Libation Trail.
Fiore Winery fall colors – At Fiore. Lands with grapes are referred to as “under vine.”

Maryland’s Harford County Has a Lot of Great Beers and a Libation Trail to Sample Them All

By David Perry

Have you ever been felt up by a goat? I crossed that off my bucket list when I met Li’l Steve, the undeclared mascot of the Falling Branch Brewery (also a farm).

Wine time with Tony Fiore at the Fiory Winery in Harford County.
Wine time with Tony Fiore at the Fiory Winery in Harford County.

I had been told beforehand that he would lick anything with a pulse, but when he went and helped himself to my nipple, well, that was just fresh.

It was the story of my life — all the right moves, all the wrong species. I consoled myself in the taproom with a Black Market Java, the brewery’s signature coffee stout.

It was rich, dark, chocolatey, and with just enough of a Colombian kick to make Juan Valdez jealous. But a goat with a fast tongue is a tough act to follow.

Top of the Bay in Harford

Falling Branch is one of the 11 stops on the Harford County Libation Trail, a necklace of amber brews and ruby wines lacing the Maryland landscape where the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay. And yes, “booze travel” is a thing.

I took on Blue-Eyed Blondes and Cereal Killers, the signature Belgian blonde ale and breakfast stout at Independent Brewing Company, Tyrants and Dictators (more stouts) at Slate Farm Brewery and even braved Gargamel’s Revenge (a blueberry sour) at Battery Island Brewing.

The latter was a standout; not only had I never had a blueberry sour, I retro-fanboyed with owner Kyle Hurst over the Smurfs, not the first thing I’d expect to do with a 16-year Army man.

The Harford Libation Trail is by Marylanders, for Marylanders.
The Harford Libation Trail is by Marylanders, for Marylanders.

Slate takes no prisoners; the “high gravity” Tequilow blonde ale is brewed with agave, aged in Mexican Reposado tequila barrels, and carries a whopping 11 percent ABV.

They even have Putin Huylo, AKA “Putin Is A Dickhead” beer;  it was invented by a Ukrainian brewery that then broadcasted the recipe all over cyberspace for breweries to disseminate willy-nilly.

 Taking flight at the Slate Farm Brewery
Taking flight at the Slate Farm Brewery

So far, so good. Beer has always been a mixed bag for my palate. It’s either too bitter or liquid bread. The craft brewmasters of Maryland are on the same page; the subtleties and complexities of flavor are the one-two punch of the Harford County experience.

The heavy-metal inspired Double Grove Brewing Co. — their rock album wall is awesome! — went all in with their flagship Gimme 3 Hops imperial IPA, a flavorful, clean-tasting brew that pushed the hops forward without knocking me off the chair.

More New-Agey is AleCraft, whose even more flavorful Dos Bayas sour combines the tartness of strawberry and pineapple, which I balanced with the hefty Big Fly Amber Ale, named with local Ironbirds baseball team in mind.

Where the Beers Are

All the colors of the Falling Branch Brewery in Harford
All the colors of the Falling Branch Brewery in Harford

It was a tour de force of Harford’s beers, and also Harford.

Battery Island and the nearby Market Street Brewery are in Havre de Grace on the Chesapeake, Independent Brewing is in Bel Air 13 miles west, and Double Groove is in Forest Hill on the other side of the county on the Mason-Dixon line. Covering all that real estate makes a man hungry.

Any brewery in Maryland worth its hops is going to have a food truck — Independent is famous for them — but fish tacos go only so far.

Near Battery Island Brewing is MacGregor’s Kelli, the most knowledgeable server I’ve yet met who steered me to the tender Tuna Poke Stack with Crab and succulent Shrimp Remick (this is Chesapeake country; get used to seafood), topped off by the Mac’s 75, a champagne-gin-elderflower concoction that deserves its own article.

The afternoon crowd begins at the Independent Brewery in Bel Air
The afternoon crowd begins at the Independent Brewery in Bel Air

But if MacGregor’s is where I went for the surf, the Venetian Italian Eatery is where I went for the turf. A true success for Harford County, the space had been in a tailspin before it was bought two years ago, refurb’ed from the bottom up, and became the “Impress Them” eatery.

The C’est Le Harve is the flagship of Mt. Felix
The C’est Le Harve is the flagship of Mt. Felix

It’s not hyperbole; not only is the Venetian a top dining experience, it, along with the Libation Trail, is part of Harford’s aim to pull tourist dollars up from Baltimore. Certainly, the locally-sourced porterhouse steak does a good job, and you know what goes great with a really good Maryland porterhouse? A really good Maryland wine.

Wine Time in Harford County

Fifty years ago, wine growers bushed the state off as too humid — the perfect set-up for vine-killing fungus. But then came grape varieties like Tannat and new hybrids like Chambourcin, able to battle mycelial evil-doers with new and exciting mutant powers. Hellooo, Maryland wine country!

Harford Winery owner Kevin Mooney with his best sellers.
Harford Winery owner Kevin Mooney with his best sellers.

Three wineries dot the Libation Trail: Fiore, Mt. Felix, and Harford. Wine in the Old Line State runs the spectrum, from the sweet crowd-pleasers to fairly sophisticated mid-range vintages…but it’s not just vino on the shelves.

While Harford is most known for its summery Peach Kissed fruit-white blend, owner Kevin Mooney clued me that it was actually his taste-rich pink pepper gin that was the real star.

Fiore had brandy(!), moonshine(!!) and, in a proud nod to its Italian heritage, limoncello(!!!). The chardonnays and Cabernet Francs were icing on the torta.

However, it was at Mt. Felix, complete with a manor house atop a hill, that I had the true Maryland wine experience. Looking out over the vineyards, and overlooked by old-timey paintings of ancestors gone by,

At Hopkins, Friday night starts at 5 PM sharp
At Hopkins, Friday night starts at 5 PM sharp

I had the C’est Le Havre, a semi-sweet white hailed by owners Mary and Peter Ianniello emblematic of the entire region. Want something with more punch? Try the Emigranti, filled with notes of dark fruits.

Named for progenitor Luigi Ianniello who came to America in 1923 with wine on his mind; this deep, dark red is in his honor and other immigrants from the Old Country.

One More For The Road

My last stop on the Libation Trail was the Hopkins Farm Brewery, where they “grow it, malt it, brew it, drink it.” By pure luck, I managed to have the first beer out of a brand new keg of their flagship, the Susquehanna Flats IPA.

Falling Branch Brewery grows its hops on-site along the Harford Libation Trail
Falling Branch Brewery grows its hops on-site

The hops were front and center, with no bitterness — a winner. It was a popular brew in a popular place; the taproom was packed and the food truck outside was doing a brisk business. Like the rest of the Trail, it is very “Maryland,” for locals, by locals, with locals on their minds. If the county succeeded in becoming the state’s placemaker (and it really could) would anything be lost?

Hopefully not. At the same time, when it comes to Harford County, get there before the tourists do.

Some Tips

With 11 stops flung all over Harford County, the Libation Trail needs three days to cover it at least, plus a car (a designated driver would help, too). The Fairfield Inn in Aberdeen is an excellent HQ and has a great breakfast.

David PerryWith work in the BBC and Travelsquire, David Perry has danced with the dead in Japan, raced across the deserts in Egypt, and gotten into snowball fights with Siberians. That last one is a fool’s game…

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