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Russo explores “heady history” of local beer

(Dec. 26, 2014) “Beer is a part of life,” says the Doug Griffith-penned foreword in author Tony Russo’s new book “Eastern Shore Beer: The Heady History of Chesapeake Brewing.”

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Russo, a former writer at the Bayside Gazette, turned “the occasional story” about the problematic opening of Burley Oak Brewing Company in Berlin into an in-depth examination of just how much life went into the local craft beer boom.

Beginning with Peter Underwood’s tavern in the 1660s, Russo explores the timeline all the way to the most recent batch of breweries, including Fin City, Realerevival and Tall Tales.

“You don’t need any excuse to cover opening a brewery,” Russo said. “So I hung around, and I hung around for a couple of years and ended up writing a book about Burley Oak.”

He shopped the book around, sending sample chapters and proposal outlines, eventually drawing interest from the History Press.

“In June they sent me an email and they said, ‘Hey, we’d like to talk to you about this Burley book.’ So I called a friend of mine who had published with them before and said, ‘What do you think?’”

His friend correctly predicted the publisher would pass – it wasn’t exactly their style. Instead, she offered some sage advice.

“She said, ‘You don’t often get to talk to a publisher on the phone, so why don’t you have a counter proposal ready?’” Russo said.

Russo had already written a book about Maryland taverns while in college. He used his prior research to develop a quick pitch about the history of brewing in the state. Russo presented it, and History Press asked for a proposal.

“I knocked it out that day and sent it along and they said, ‘Alright, cool. You can write the book. Can you have it done by August?’ I said, ‘There’s only one way to find out,’” Russo said.

Russo signed a contract on July 2.

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Drawing mostly from his notes on the Burley book, including hours of interviews with Evolution Craft Brewing Co. co-founder Tom Knorr, Russo worked feverishly in the sweltering summer heat of his attic for just over a month. New research took about three weeks and Russo spent just four days writing the actual book.

After sending individual chapters to brewers and breweries for fact checking, and correcting a spelling mistake here and there, Russo delivered the final draft to the publisher on Aug. 22.

“No one asked me to change anything and fortunately I didn’t have to find out what would have happened if they did,” he said. “Everyone was, for the most part, cool. Everybody had a chance to look at their chapter and they were all very generous with their time.”

What makes brewers on the Eastern Shore unique, according to Russo, is the way they support one another. Knorr and Doug Griffith, owner of Xtreme Brewing, mentored Brushmiller, passing on years of experience and knowledge, trial and error, successes and failures. Brushmiller then passed what he had learned onto Vince Wright at Fin City.

“The quality of the beer is a statement about how responsible those guys feel for another, like, ‘I can’t be the weak link in the chain,’” Russo said. “It’s a competitive responsibility. Everybody has to be as good as Burley. Everybody has to be as good as Evo. Everybody has to be as good as Eastern Shore Brewing, who had a really rocky start, but their beers are quite good now. It’s all about pushing one another to make a region where, if you walk in and you get a beer from this region, you’re going to enjoy it.”

Russo hopes to publish a few more nonfiction books with small, regional presses before setting his sights higher.

“I have a couple more in my head, but I want to pitch them one at a time,” he said. “And I don’t want people to get sick of me.

“In the meantime, this is always going to be part-time unless I can pump it up to the next level,” Russo continued. “I would have to have something less regional. I have a couple of books in my head that I think have national appeal, but I figure maybe three books. If they’ll print three more books for me I’ll write three more books for them.”

Copies of “Eastern Shore Beer” are available now in paperback and e-book on Amazon.com.

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