Home » Smoketown Vibes: Brunswick firehouse gets renewed life as quintessential brewery

Smoketown Vibes: Brunswick firehouse gets renewed life as quintessential brewery

by Gabby

Smoketown Brewing Station, a brewery and tasting room housed in a renovated 1948 firehouse, offers a wide variety of its own beers, along with fun food options, at a location convenient to both Brunswick residents and recreational users of the Potomac River, the C&O Canal and the Appalachian Trail. 

Open for more than eight years in downtown Brunswick, Smoketown now has an 8,000- square-foot events space opened by owner David Blackmon on the building’s upper level.

Smoketown’s welcoming and cozy ambiance make it unique. 

“A lot of the locals come in on the same night every week for meetups or trivia nights. We know their names, what beers they like, and often have their beer waiting for them before they even sit down,” said Karen Naylor, who has greeted customers and tended bar at Smoketown for four years.

Hikers, cyclists and water sport enthusiasts, as well as people just passing through the city comprise the rest of the clientele. 

“If it’s their first time at Smoketown, I tell them what we’re about,” Naylor said. “Both groups are willing to talk to each other, and the regulars are happy to suggest beers to the newcomers.”  

Blackmon, a Vermont native, was the owner of three bookstores in downtown Albuquerque and also an import-export business. After visiting friends in Frederick County in 2001, Blackmon and his wife, Lauren, decided to move back east with their two young children. 

They landed in Rosemont, a small municipality next to Brunswick. Lauren has taught kindergarten at Brunswick Elementary School ever since; their elder son Jake is Smoketown’s director of operations; their younger child, River, recently left Smoketown to pursue an interest in animals.

Blackmon said he acquired construction skills by trial and error, as well as watching one of his six brothers who is a contractor. After a decade of “challenges to finding period materials” for renovating old homes and businesses in downtown Frederick, he bought Brunswick’s abandoned fire station in 2014. His intention was to “start a reclamation business in the space — like Baltimore’s Second Chance,” he said. “I began accumulating salvaged usable materials, like doors and windows, for reuse by designers and contractors.”

An alternative idea – to use the space as a taproom — occurred to Blackmon while having a beer at the Milkhouse Brewery in Mount Airy. When Milkhouse owner Tom Barse checked out the Brunswick space at Blackmon’s invitation, Barse told him, “This has to be a brewery – you have the space, the power, and I have a brewer.” 

Although Barse withdrew from the project six months later, Blackmon was undeterred. “I had already promised the city, applied for licenses, and built it out myself from the ground up.” 

He chose the name “Smoketown” as a nod to the nickname the former railroad town earned in the early 1900s when coal trains filled its valleys with smoke.

In his design, Blackmon deliberately left traces of the building’s origins. 

“There’s value in keeping history,” he said. He replaced the white letters that spelled out “Brunswick Vol Fire Co” across the side of the building facing West Potomac Street with black letters that say, “Smoketown Brewing.” The bay doors are new, “but still look like firehouse doors,” he noted. And inside, the bays where the firetrucks parked remain as do the the original scuffed-up tile floor that retains the Company No. 5 big form, and the ceiling’s exposed piping.

The remodeled ground level houses the brewery on one side, and a 150-person capacity taproom and a newly expanded kitchen on the other. Outside, a covered patio has eight picnic tables and a view of the city and the Brunswick Bridge that spans the Potomac River; the patio is dog friendly.

Guests can choose from 24 beers on tap, as well as wine cocktails, along with a menu of “apps n’ snacks” such as Bavarian pretzels and buffalo chicken bites, and a selection of paninis, flatbreads and hot dogs. 

“We opened with six beers on tap, one of each popular style to hit everyone’s palate,” Blackmon said. His own current favorites, “neck in neck,” he said, are the light and refreshing “Couchboy” Pilsner and The Patsy Hazy IPA, an homage to Patsy Cline, described as having “a striking resemblance to the legend herself: smooth, silky and classic.” Now, Blackmon said, “we have some 500 recipes for beers we have produced.” 

On the side of the building, beneath the gold letters that say “Cannon’s” is a separate entrance that leads to the newly renovated cavernous space upstairs. Initially used for storage, it is now home to Cannon’s Events, which can accommodate 600 people. 

“We want to restore it to its old glory,” Blackmon said, referring to the space’s heyday as the site of fire chief “Sonny” Cannon’s fundraising events such as boxing and bingo, as well as concerts by stars including country singers Patsy Cline and Jimmy Dean, bandleader Guy Lombardo, guitarist Roy Clark, and jazz legend Duke Ellington. Its historic stage still has the piano Ellington played. 

“From the ‘50s through the ‘70s, Brunswick was the place to party,” he added. In the 1980s, the roster included Bob Seeger, and Kix, the last band to perform there.

The path to opening the brewery had obstacles, Blackmon recalled. With Brunswick Mayor Nathan Brown’s help, Smoketown received a state grant for “historical buildings in economically needing areas” in 2016. 

“The city recognized the potential for not only [Blackmon’s] business, but the historic structure to help provide an ‘anchor’ in downtown Brunswick and our revitalization efforts,” Brown said. “Dave’s business model also helps provide an attraction for downtown for not only our current residents, but many of the tourists who visit Brunswick. His business will help bring additional foot traffic to downtown Brunswick – which will, in turn, help other business owners.”

Opening Cannon’s Events was no easier. “It took five years of battles,” Blackmon said, noting that a law had to be changed and the sprinkler system replaced. “We’re getting things hopping again,” he said. “We’re hosting bands – we’ve had a huge amount of interest from the music world – and we’ll do weddings and community events. We just had a 450-person event, and we’re about to hire an events coordinator.”

Local officials have embraced Smoketown’s ambience. “I can always count on a friendly face being there when I drop in. I am a big fan of trivia night (Thursdays), the new flatbreads and paninis, and the ‘Omar’s Comin’ West Coast Double IPA,” said City Councilman Andrew St. John. “We also see every show that we can at the Cannon event space.” 

Smoketown’s footprint continues to evolve. Having sold his Frederick Smoketown location on Aug. 1, Blackmon has moved on to a new project: creating a cidery-winery-distillery with 32,000-square-feet in two buildings on a three-acre lot in Hagerstown that was once a farmer’s market. 

“At first, I was looking only for production — which we’re expanding for Smoketown’s outside sales,” he said. “Smoketown brews and cans beers are distributed throughout Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. And we have a foot in the door at the WVU [West Virginia University] stadium.” There’s no telling what’s next for this hometown watering hole and its multiskilled proprietor.

By Ellyn Wexler

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