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(Illustration: Maximilian Franz)

The state of Old Bay

From craft beers to cupcakes, new life for McCormick’s old seasoning

A skipjack, the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, the Maryland state slogan.

And, of course, a can of Old Bay.

They’re all symbols of Maryland, said Owen Stalter, a lifelong resident of Parkville, so they’re all part of his ode to the state — a mural tattoo across his shoulder and chest.

The collage would be incomplete without its yellow, blue and red centerpiece, which stands out from the rest of the art. It’s the can that has become a staple in Maryland crab houses and family kitchens alike: Old Bay.

“I wanted to pick out the most iconic symbols of not only Maryland but specifically Baltimore,” said Stalter of his body art. “I can speak for everyone else in Baltimore I think when I say Old Bay is almost a part of a family tradition. It was always around growing up, and it still is.”

Old Bay seasoning is turning 75 this year, and the state where it was born has only grown fonder of the red-orange substance over the decades.

McCormick & Co. Inc., which bought the spice in 1990, isn’t letting the anniversary go unknown. The company has been promoting it heavily and opened an Old Bay “Baytique” within the McCormick World of Flavors store in the Inner Harbor on May 30.

“Old Bay is such an iconic brand to Baltimore and Maryland, and it does so well in the store that we thought, ‘You know what — we should dedicate a section to Old Bay in the store,’” said Kim Hart, McCormick’s assistant manager of corporate branding and communications.

The company is also hosting Old Bay Day, on June 28 at Power Plant Live. The event will include an Old Bay beer deck, bloody Mary bar and a crab feast, among other activities to celebrate the seasoning.

But it’s not just McCormick that’s celebrating. As the spice maker says on its website, there are two things to know about Old Bay — “it’s great on seafood” and “it’s great on everything else.”

Quite a few companies have taken that to heart, creating their own zesty concoctions. From potato chips and beer, to hummus and even cupcakes, Old Bay has taken over Maryland’s taste buds.

Herr branches out

Herr Foods Inc., based in Nottingham, Pennsylvania, just north of the Maryland state border, has a long-standing relationship with McCormick and has been using Old Bay on potato chips for more than 30 years.

Last year, Herr’s debuted a redesigned Old Bay chip bag that more prominently displays the seasoning’s logo. In some markets, the redesign led to a 100 percent increase in sales, said Herr President Ed Herr. And just last month, the brand launched two new Old Bay products: popcorn and cheese curls.

“I’m amazed myself at how good Old Bay is on these products. … It’s amazing how it’s selling everywhere,” said Herr.

Megan Smedley, a Philadelphia resident in Baltimore for a baseball game, checks out the Old Bay ‘Baytique’ display within the McCormick World of Flavors store in the Inner Harbor. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Megan Smedley, a Philadelphia resident in Baltimore for a baseball game, checks out the Old Bay ‘Baytique’ display within the McCormick World of Flavors store in the Inner Harbor. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

But, he said, “it definitely sells better where people are used to eating Old Bay,” such as Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.

Herr’s was only the beginning of non-seafood uses for McCormick’s seasoning. Now chefs, brewers and bakers across the state are showing that Old Bay isn’t just for crabs anymore.

Hopping on the bandwagon

The Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick approached McCormick about a year ago, with a mind to create some Old Bay-inspired suds. It was then that the brewery learned about the seasoning’s 75th anniversary.

“It was serendipitous for us to be able to develop this beer with them together, then launch it as a commemorative piece for their 75th anniversary,” said Erin Weston, Flying Dog’s communications director.

Flying Dog piloted the beer for more than six months to get it right. The result was a citrus-forward brew with a lot of hops and a zesty aftertaste — the Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale.

“The goal for us was balance,” said Weston. “We wanted the Old Bay to be present, but not overpowering.”

The beer has been flying off the shelves, she said. Some fans have even waited outside liquor stores for wholesaler trucks to arrive so they could make sure they got Dead Rise before the bottles ran out.

Not everyone is fully satisfied. Weston said that some customers have said there should be more Old Bay flavor in the ale.

Her response: “Rim the glass. We’ve been doing that with bloody marys for years.”

From crab cake to cupcake

Alyssa Jeffers is a die-hard fan of all things Baltimore. So the independent cupcake baker thought it was only fair that she pay homage to Charm City’s spice of choice

That’s right. She made an Old Bay cupcake.

Jeffers, who founded the Bite-Size Cupcakery business about one year ago, began experimenting with Old Bay out of her own affection.

“I’m a true Baltimoron,” she said. “I love Old Bay. I’ve always loved Old Bay.”

Jeffers started with a sweet version of the Old Bay cupcake. She liked it, but it wasn’t a hit with family and friends, so she developed a savory version with a corn-based cake.

Bite-Size Cupcakery hasn’t sold a lot of Old Bay cupcakes, Jeffers said, but “the savory cupcake is definitely getting more of a positive reception”

The best way to enjoy it?

With a Flying Dog Dead Rise Old Bay Summer Ale, she said, for a “quintessential Maryland” snack.

Going Wild

At The Wild Pea Hummous, owner Blake Wollman’s key ingredient is chickpeas.

But another staple is Old Bay. He goes through as much as 6 pounds per week.

“I always have to make more Old Bay” hummus, Wollman said.

The flavor is available in all locations that sell his brand. That includes Whole Foods, Wegmans, Graul’s Markets, MOM’s Organic Markets, Eddies Markets and more.

Wollman started making hummus with Old Bay at his restaurant, the Desert Cafe, which he recently sold. It took him about four or five tries to get the recipe right, balancing the saltiness and texture.

McCormick contacted Wollman in 2011 upon discovering that Wild Pea was selling the product. The company requested that he reword the title to say “with Old Bay” and that he add a trademark symbol following the seasoning’s name.

“They said, ‘We love that you’re using our spice,’” said Wollman. ‘“So here’s what you need to do to use it.”’

Now, Old Bay is one of Wild Pea’s top-selling flavors. The company makes 400 to 500 pounds of it per week — up to 1,000 eight-ounce containers.

But soon, Wollman said, that number could quadruple.

Wild Pea has been in discussions with McCormick to become a brand partner, he said. Like Herr’s and Flying Dog, the hummus maker would be allowed not only to use the seasoning in his product, but in branding and marketing.

Wollman’s vision — an ad showing a crab with hummus in one claw, and Old Bay in the other.

Wollman said he hopes the agreement will become final soon, but it’s out of his hands at this point. Ideally, he said, it will come through in time for Old Bay Day. But even if it doesn’t, he’s planning to celebrate.

“One of the few major things in Baltimore that we’re known for is Old Bay,” he said. “ Old Bay makes everything better.”

WHAT’S IN THE CAN?

Old Bay wasn’t always a McCormick seasoning. Gustav Brunn created the spice in 1939 and called it “Delicious Brand Shrimp and Crab Seasoning.” He later renamed it, long before McCormick acquired the branding and recipe in 1990.

The mixture includes a wide variety of spices, some of which may seem more appropriate for an apple pie than a bushel of crabs. Here’s what you’ll find in a can:

Celery salt, mustard, red pepper, black pepper, bay leaves, cloves, allspice, ginger, mace, cardamom, cinnamon and paprika.