Virginia Craft Beer is both a print magazine and website focused entirely on beer and ciders brewed within the Commonwealth of Virginia. In addition to serving as a guide to all the breweries and beers they brew, Virginia Craft Beer will also include beer events, beer reviews, business updates and feature length articles penned by award-wining journalists and beer experts.
(O’Connor Brewing Company’s El Guapo is one of the best-selling craft beers in Virginia)
By Jeff Maisey
Forbes recently posted an article by contributing writer Tara Nurin headlined “A New #FlagshipFebruary Campaign Aims to Save Core Beer Brands Before They Disappear.”
In the article, Stephen Beaumont, the journalist who is credited with creating the #FlagshipFebruary awareness campaign, is quoted as saying, “A lot of beer drinkers have developed a sort of ADD with respect to the beers they drink, so going for a glass of beer at the bar or pub becomes less a pleasant distraction and more a relentless search for what’s new and exciting. In this mad rush towards the unusual and unknown, we tend to forget the great, familiar and still-wonderful beers that guided us all along the path to the craft beer renaissance.”
Craft beer is constantly evolving and with this revolutionary evolution comes a variety of new business models that highlights the innovative and imaginative process independent beer-makers are known for.
In less than a decade the number of craft breweries operating in Virginia has grown from 20-some to over 300. For those who got in the game early — either before SB604’s passage in 2012 or just after it — developing and identifying the core, flagship beers was the first order of business.
Today, the retail market is saturated with craft beer and grocery store shelves are at capacity, and so for new startups the ability to crack into a chain store is limited by the leveraging strength of a major distributor that may not be interested in adding a new brand to its already beefy portfolio.
This, in part, has led to satellite models such as that of Three Notch’d as well as those breweries like The Veil who seem to unveil a new, must-have beer weekly from an ever-thirsty cut-like following.
For the establish craft breweries, keeping the flagship brand fresh as Starr Hill did with new packaging redesigns is key along with balancing those tried-and-true beers like The Love with seasonal and limited releases — plus one-off taproom only brews.
Still, flagships remain the strong foundation that allows the company’s brewers to experiment for the consumers obsessed with checking-off another new brew.
“El Guapo, our #1 brand, makes up a generous percentage of our business,” said O’Connor Brewing Company founding president Kevin O’Connor. “As you know, most of our beers would be considered flagship status, as they are available in the grocery and convenience outlets. A few of our flagships are more flat than down, but El Guapo is steadily growing, which is amazing in the ‘flavor of the week’ period we are in.”
“I will say that there is definitely something of a mixed bag out there with flagships and limited releases,” said Porter Hardy IV, president of Smartmouth Brewing Co. “We all love limited releases; they are exciting and fun for both consumers and brewers. I will say, however, that to me there is a different level of difficulty for the brewer in being able to repeat a beer consistently. Smartmouth is a little bit of an anomaly as we have several beers that can compete for flagship status. Alter Ego, Game On, Safety Dance and Notch 9 all make up a significant portion of our sales. This is great in that we are able to showcase a broad array of styles.”
Now, dear readers, show your support and raise a bottled (or canned) flagship this February and beyond. Reach for a Blue Mountain, St. George, Starr Hill, O’Connor, Port City, Legend, Alewerks, Hardywood Park, Parkway, Smartmouth, Center of the Universe, Strangeways, Wild Wolf, and so many more.
Arlingtonians tend to be highly educated, well-to-do (median family income over $110,000) and, judging from the burgeoning bar scene, perennially thirsty.
So why is Arlington County such a desert for breweries?
Nearby Loudoun County has over 30 breweries serving a population of 398,000. If breweries were parceled out according to population, Arlington ought to have 17 or 18.
In fact, it has an infinitesimal one.
That honor goes to New District Brewing Co. in South Arlington. When it opened in 2016, New District became the first production brewery to operate in the county since Arlington Brewing Co. (also known as Consumers Brewing Co.) gave up the ghost exactly a century earlier.
Situated in Rosslyn near the shores of the Potomac, Arlington Brewing operated out of a towering, red-brick, Gothic-style building with a 150-foot-high smokestack and had a capacity of 100,000 barrels a year. By contrast, New District turned out 550 barrels in 2017, according to Brewers Association figures.
Founder Mike Katrivanos was out of the country when I called, but his father Harry was happy to give “the Reader’s Digest version” of the brewery’s origins. The name “New District” commemorates the fact that Arlington was originally part of the District of Columbia; Congress retroceded the land back to Virginia in 1846, believing the federal government would never need that much land. The brewery’s logo is the Key Bridge, which links Arlington with Georgetown.
Mainstays include 1821, a golden saison brewed with a spice that Mike Katrivanos discovered on a trip to the family’s ancestral home in Greece. The secret spice is also used in New District’s other flagship, 1821 Dark, a strong (8.5% ABV) lager with notes of coffee and chocolate. Recent releases include a ginger saison, a honeysuckle hefeweizen, and a pumpkin ale dubbed Fashionably Late because they waited until the cusp of Halloween to release it.
Besides the brewery taproom, New District beers are available at a handful of accounts in northern Virginia. Growlers (32-ounce and 64-ounce) are currently the only option for takeout, but the brewery is exploring bottling or canning.
When it opened, New District shared Arlington with several brewpubs. The Rock Bottom Brewery in the Ballston Mall elected to pull up stakes in 2016 after most of the mall closed for renovation. Sehkraft, an ambitious brewpub/entertainment venue/butcher shop in Clarendon, shut down after barely a year of brewing. Capitol City Brewing Co. in Shirlington, following a 20-year run, closed abruptly in March.
Preceding these were Blue-n-Gold Brewing Co. in Clarendon (named after the owner’s pet macaw), which operated between 1996 and 1998 at what’s now Mister Days Sports Rock Cafe in Clarendon; and Bardo Rodeo, which became Arlington’s first modern craft brewery in 1993 when it opened in a cavernous former Oldsmobile dealership near the county courthouse.
Bardo morphed into a multitap called Dr. Dremo’s, closing in 2008. Brothers Bill and Andrew Stewart reopened Bardo in 2012 in Washington, DC; the outdoor brewery and beer garden, now shuttered for the winter, is just south of the Nationals Stadium. Asked about their exodus from Arlington, Andrew cites the high commercial lease rates.
“You can see the patterns if you look closely. A business’s lease expires after 20+ years, they do not feel their business plan is suited for $50-per-square-foot lease expense, and they simply close up shop.” Others, like Capitol City, “end up closing a few years into the new lease because what was once a solid business plan has now become untenable.”
Historian Garrett Peck (author of Capital Beer, Prohibition in Washington, DC and other works) is of a similar opinion. “Out in the suburbs and exurbs, there is plenty of space and rents are much lower. Rent is one of the biggest expenses for any brewery, and Fairfax and Loudoun have a big advantage in low rents vs. Arlington. It’s just too pricey to operate here.”
(Depending on whom you talk to, Sehkraft was paying between $45,000 and $60,000 monthly for its prime real estate in Clarendon.)
According to Katrivanos, however, “zoning is the big inhibitor” for production breweries.
Back in the 1890s when Consumers’ Brewing Co. was pumping out beer, ale and porter, what’s now Arlington County was largely rural, with a little over 6,000 residents scatted over a couple unincorporated villages and nearly 400 small farms.
Today, Arlington is an urban community densely packed into 26 square miles. (Trivia buffs might want to take note that it is the smallest self-governing county in the whole nation.) Very little space is zoned for industrial use. It doesn’t help either that the federal government owns 4.6 square miles, about 17% of all the land!
Yet, “Arlington was always the place that Mike wanted to set up his business in,” his father noted, and he spent a considerable amount of time researching neighborhoods in his home town, networking with county officials and pounding the pavement before he acquired his current digs at 2709 South Oakland Street. New District occupies the bottom floor of a facility owned by Henderson’s Moving and Storage Services. “We share a back wall with the Arlington Food Assistance Center,” adds Katrivanos.
It’s not a neighborhood filled with condo dwellers apt to complain about the smell of cooked grain wafting through the air. But it’s not that remote either, adjacent to a dog park (the brewery hosts a Wednesday Dog Club that welcomes canines) and a 5-10 minute walk from the shops at the Village at Shirlington. New District is in the vicinity of both Signature Theatre and Arlington Theatre on the Run. The owners have played up the arts connection by hosting an annual ValleyFest, a street festival showcasing community artists and musicians.
Arlington’s indifference to craft brewing might be changing: this year the Arlington Chamber of Commerce granted New District a Best Business Awards for 2018 Retail Small Business of the Year.
(A proud Lee Graves celebrates the arrival of his third book on the history of beer in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Graves.)
By Jeff Maisey
The history of brewing beer in the Commonwealth — the land of Washington, Jefferson and other notable Founding Fathers — comes to life in a well-researched book from writer Lee Graves titled Virginia Beer: A Guide from Colonial Days to Craft’s Golden Age.
For Graves, the former RVA Beer Guy columnist for the Times-Dispatch and a frequent contributor to this magazine, the book is the third in a series that began with Richmond Beer: A History of Brewing in the River City (2014) and followed by Charlottesville Beer: Brewing in Jefferson’s Shadow (2017).
The title of the new book provides an instant mental snapshot of it’s contents. Graves takes us on a complex and fascinating journey from Roanoke to Richmond, Charlottesville to Tidewater, Northern Virginia and Loudoun County. It reminds us of where and why it all began. He delves into the unexpected role of women and slaves in the brewing of beer, and that of newly arriving immigrants — from Europe.
I recently caught up with Lee Graves to discuss his new work, which is to be released on October 2 to the public. Here’s our Q&A session.
How does it feel to be Virginia’s Beer Historian?
Ha! I wouldn’t know. I do find the “historian” tag being applied to me a lot now, which is an honor. But I’ve simply built on the work of Garrett Peck, Danny Morris, Tanya Birch, Annie Tobey and other fine writers. I think of myself more as a journalist who has followed his nose into interesting places, and the history of beer is loaded with great stories. I’m content with being just a Virginia Beer Guy.
How much did your experience in researching and writing Richmond Beer and Charlottesville Beer help you in developing Virginia Beer?
My first two books helped immensely by revving up my research and building on one another. With this new book, I was able to include high points of some of that history and expand on efforts elsewhere, such as John Mercer’s failed attempts at Marlborough in 1766, the importance of Robert Portner’s brewery in Alexandria in the late 1800s, the post-Prohibition efforts of Virginia Brewing Company in Roanoke and the advent of microbrewing in the state with Chesapeake Bay Brewing Company in Virginia Beach.
As an overview, what are some of the key takeaways from the Commonwealth’s history with beer making?
Virginia claims a unique place in the country’s beer history. The first English settlers brought beer with them in 1607, and brewing has been a constant ever since (even homebrewing during Prohibition). Virginia can trace its hop industry to the early 1600s and was the top hops producing state in the South up to the Civil War. The first canned beer in the world debuted in Richmond in 1935. Charlie Papazian, the “godfather” of the modern craft era, started homebrewing while a student at the University of Virginia. There’s plenty more! And we have such an incredible scene right now—it’s great!
What did you find most interesting about Virginia’s past with regard to making beer?
I’m fascinated by the roles of women and slaves in early Virginia brewing history. Women supervised brewing beer on plantations and improvised with numerous ingredients, everything from persimmons to corn stalks. Slaves grew hops in their own gardens and sold them to plantation owners and brewers for a profit—this occurred at Monticello, Mount Vernon, in Williamsburg and elsewhere. Plus I have immense admiration for Peter Hemings, Thomas Jefferson’s slave who was trained by a professional brewer at Monticello.
Why is it important for both today’s craft brewers and enthusiasts/consumers to look at the industry from a historical perspective?
Every time you hoist a glass of beer you are connecting with human history, back to the dawn of civilization. Plus so many beer styles have amazing histories. Drink a pilsner, and you’re instantly connected with 1842 and the birth of a beer style. Many of today’s brewers are exploring historic recipes to offer new interpretations of old beers, which is exciting. I think there’s a growing awareness of how the history of beer is part of a larger tapestry, our sense of culture and who we are as a society.
What aspects and developments of today’s Craft Golden Age do you find most interesting and why?
In my lifetime, the U.S. has gone from basically a one-trick pony—mainstream lagers—to the most diverse, interesting and creative brewing nation in the world. Old styles are being revived and new ones are evolving—IPAs are a great example of this. American brewers brought IPAs back to life, and now they dominate the market. Craft brewers honor tradition but are not handcuffed to it, and the emphasis on “taste of place”–on being local–invites exploration. Plus I love that tasting rooms have become community centers, where families and friends can share good times and flavorful beers. We have truly witnessed a cultural shift in that regard. Finally, craft breweries have been an economic engine and revitalized otherwise blighted urban areas.
Where can folks purchase Virginia Beer: A Guide from Colonial Days to Craft’s Golden Age?
It is available through University of Virginia Press, at bookstores, online and other familiar places. I hope that some of the breweries around the state will carry it in their taprooms. I also have nearly 20 book-signing events lined up this fall, if anybody wants to add my scrawl to the text (details at www.upress.virginia.edu/title/5068).
Does your new Virginia Beer complete the series? Is there anything else to historically document from the past?
I love history, and there’s plenty to dig into. I’ve been continuing to research Virginia’s hops history and the role of slaves in brewing and growing hops. I’m passionate about the latter because it’s largely an untold story and it’s an important and inspiring facet of African-American history. Whether this leads to another book, we’ll see!
(Gina and Mark Thompson are at home in The Brewing Tree Beer Company tasting room in rural Afton, VA)
By Jeff Maisey
After announcing his return in an exclusive interview with Virginia Craft Beer Magazine on New Year’s Day, pioneering Virginia craft brewer Mark Thompson now has his Brewing Tree Beer Company is up and running.
The charismatic Thompson is brewing again after three-year contractual hiatus. Before his “retirement,” Thompson spent 23 years in the craft beer industry.
Thompson earned his Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology from James Madison University, and then moved to Portland, Oregon where he worked in the craft beer industry during the mid-1990s.
Thompson returned to his native Charlottesville, in 1999, and co-founded Starr Hill Brewery with Kristin Dolan. The brewery was named for the C-Ville neighborhood in which it was originally located. Starr Hill moved to its current location in Crozet in 2005.
Thompson was indeed a pioneer in Virginia’s new Renaissance of craft beer and was instrumental in creating the Brew Ridge Trail (Virginia’s original beer trail) as well as the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild. It was the combined work of Thompson and a small group of Virginia breweries that garnered the introduction and passage of SB604, in 2012, that allowed for the successful explosion of the craft brewery industry today.
Thompson lamented late in his Starr Hill career that the success and growth of the award-winning brewery caused him to miss the days when he was just a small-time brewer, tossing kegs in the back of his pickup truck. He wanted one day to return to his modest roots. Now, that time has come.
On January 2, Thompson acquired the Blue Toad Hard Cider Pub & Tasting Room property in Afton, Virginia, located on the famed Route 151 in Nelson County – yep, Brew Ridge Trail.
Thompson’s new micro-brewery is called The Brewing Tree. His focus will be on creativity and innovation, producing four core beers to be consumed only onsite, with no plans to package or mass distribute. Thompson also plans to invite brewers from all over to collaborate on special, unique one-off beers.
(A new sight on Nelson County’s famous Route 151 — Brew Ridge Trail)
Mark Thompson’s Chapter 2 in Virginia brewing is enhanced with the help of his wife Gina. Mark and Gina, both age 52, met in Virginia Beach when restauranteur Laura Habr of Croc’s 19th Street Bistro encouraged the two dynamic personalities to star in a unique 5-course dinner event. Gina was a regional sales rep for a wine and beer distributor at the time. The “He Said, She Said” dinner was like Paul McCartney’s “Venus & Mars” rock show, full of fun and excitement. During the dinner, as each course was served, Gina would passionately explain why the wine pairing was a better fit than one of Thompson’s craft beers. Thompson, of course, gave an over-the-top rebuttal. Whoever said beer and wine don’t mix certainly didn’t know Mark and Gina.
In mid-July I drove out to see my blissful friends, Mark and Gina Thompson, to share a beer or two, many laughs, and to tour their beautiful facility and surrounding 5-acre property.
As you will read in the following interview, the key ingredients of The Brewing Tree are to remain small, contract brew down the street rather than possess a large brewhouse, develop true-to-style beers, benefit local non-profits, and put the spotlight on the experience of the natural beauty, rural, outdoor setting.
VCB: You have returned from a nearly 3-year hiatus. What did you do during that time? Why have you returned to brewing?
Mark Thompson: I started Starr Hill Brewing Company in September of 1999, after a local kid from Charlottesville went out west to Portland, Oregon, where he learned to make beer in the early ‘90s, then Denver, Colorado in the mid-90s. I came back to start Starr Hill when there were seven breweries in the state.
I grew Starr Hill to be the largest craft brewery in the state, and in many ways felt we had accomplished all that I could and all I needed to accomplish. I decided to retire and sell my equity back to my business partner, and take a couple years off. I had a non-compete, so I couldn’t work in the beer industry for two years.
So, I took two years off; got married to my lovely wife, Gina. I was living in Virginia Beach for a year or so and then we moved up here.
This property became available on Nelson’s 151. It made such logical sense to parlay the little bit of retirement money I had gotten from Starr Hill and buy this piece of property.
VCB: Did you miss the craft beer business during your time away, or did it feel good to take a step back after so many years of brewing?
MT: Well, yes and no.
At first, your ego overrides things. I missed it early on. But having three years to reflect upon by retirement from Starr Hill, I was not enjoying myself nearly as much as when I first started. I realized that I like small. I like creative. I like talking to consumers who come in.
As a company grows, some people thrive on that and that’s what they want to do. Others, like myself, decide that’s not where I want to be. The larger the company got the more miserable I became.
In some ways it’s ironic. When I talk to some of the other successful brewers along the corridor here you can really see some of that same evolution. The reason we all got into the craft beer world was for passion. It wasn’t about getting rich. It was the creativity and the passion.
Now it’s like the Talking Heads song: “This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife.” It changes and becomes something else. For certain personality types, I would argue, it’s not quite as fun when the creativity decreases and the scope and the scale get larger and larger as the ferris wheel just keeps spinning around faster and faster. For me it was time to get off the ferris wheel.
I took a few years off, gardened, fished, and now I’m back.
VCB: Why did you call the new business The Brewing Tree Beer Company?
MT: The Brewing Tree name came from the coaching analogy of coaching tree, where the head coach has a lot of assistant coaches that go on to become head coaches on their own.
As you know, I’ve done craft beer since 1992. I feel I have worked with, mentored, trained and helped so many.
One of our missions is that our brewery will always have a collaboration beer on tap and we’ll always have a guest tap. I have accomplished enough in the craft beer world that my ego isn’t so big. If I find a couple kegs from a brewery that I think are phenomenal, I’m going to buy a couple of those kegs for our guest tap.
Our first collaboration here at The Brewing Tree was with Levi Duncan, who is now the head brewer at Champion Brewing Company in Charlottesville. He worked under my tutelage at Starr Hill for six years. He’s now a judge at the Great American Beer Festival. Levy Duncan is a prime example of what The Brewing Tree stands for — that collaboration, working together so a tide rises all boats. We did a Helles lager, which translates in German to “friendship.”
VCB: And not always the easiest beer style to get right.
MT: No, but Champion does lagers extremely well. Their Shower Beer is one of the flagships. They have a standard of high quality.
I’m working on my second collaboration project now, which will probably be with PRN (Pro Re Nata Farm Brewery). I have a couple more in the works, so again the collaborative aspect for me and where I am in my brewing career is what we’re doing.
The business model for what we’re going is we’re doing some contract brewing with Seven Arrows. Craft beer demand is softening and flattening a little bit. There is now so much brewing capacity in the market — in Virginia — it didn’t make any sense to add more.
Here at The Brewing Tree we wanted to spend our money on the environment and the setting, but I didn’t feel as a business owner any need to add an additional 10,000 barrels of brewing capacity to a market that is already flooded with capacity. So were doing contract brewing with our core beers.
We are starting the process of introducing our small house beers. We have a Dogfish Head model of a Sabco Brew-Magic half-barrel, 15-gallon pilot system with two fermentors. That allows Gina and I the ability to play and create, but not have to be a slave to the machine.
(Mark Thompson’s brew kitchen is for recipe development and test batching)
VCB: And you don’t need the dry and cold storage space on-site, right?
MT: With the new generation of brewers coming into the market, there’s so much demand. You’re the new brewery. People love your beer.
That initial million dollars you scraped together to get your brewery open, then you’ve got to come up with two million dollars because people love your beers.
You’re like, “Yeah, man. They love me — woo.”
Then that two million becomes four million, and that becomes eight, then 16. The next thing you know you’re in a scenario where the debt far outweighs the benefit. It’s very expensive to grow in a capital intensive industry like beer with the packaging, manufacturing, stainless steel.
So there’s a real dual-edge sword to the growth curve, and I thing part of what you’re seeing — without mentioning any names — is this contraction.
Green Flash at the Beach is a great example. They sunk a pretty penny and then all of a sudden…
Craft beer, with the wholesalers, retailers, it’s a low margin, high volume game. Just because you get bigger because there’s demand for your product doesn’t mean you’re going to become rich. You can grow all you want, but if the debt keeps rising you’re dead.
I read recently was big grocery chains like Publix in Florida said, “You know what? What matters to us as a big grocery chain is we hate out-of-stock. We like on-time delivery. We want merchandisers to come into our stores seven days a week. We’re not going to chase the flavor of the month. It doesn’t help our business because beer is 10 percent of the total alcohol sold.”
Then you have large conglomerate wholesalers coming in with this whole portfolio, saying, “Let me take care of your needs.”
That is the trend that is blossoming now that is particularly dangerous to independent craft beer and breweries trying to grow their business through chain grocery in the south.
The growth in craft is happening in the small tasting room model.
When I was doing the business model for The Brewing Tree, the irony is that I can make more profit selling 500 barrels of beer in my tasting room than I could sell in 25,000 barrels of beer at a large production facility through wholesalers. You keep your expenses low; your staff low; equipment costs low.
VCB: Let’s talk about your core beers. Vienna lager is a popular style here on Route151. Why did you include Philinda Vienna Lager as one of your first four cores?
MT: I used to make a beer called Jomo Lager, which in many ways was very similar to the Vienna Lager. Vienna Lagers are very popular. Devils Backbone does make the best, most award-winning Vienna Lager ever made.
Consumers like the lighter style beers. It’s very drinkable and approachable. It has just enough mouth-feel, body, Carmel toastiness. It’s not an easy beer to make, but it’s a beer consumers recognize by style and are very likely to purchase one of those.
VCB: You were also known for making an excellent hefeweizen in your Starr Hill days. Can you talk about your new version, Twice as Weiss?
MT: My original brewmaster in Portland, Oregon, in 1992, taught me his mission. He called it Beer Minimalism — three malts, two hops and one yeast. If you stick to that principle you can make the most award-winning, world class beer in any style. My mentor taught me that philosophy.
With our choice of making four core beers, we are a brewery that will focus on style and making beers that are true to style. I will leave the 12 percent, bearded lady and midget coco pebble beers to other people.
So, we chose a Vienna Lager, a Weiss beer, a Golden Ale and an IPA as being our four core beers. What we want to impress is with our environment; a welcoming, kind, outdoor, music on the weekends, access to the Rockfish River.
The beer quality has to be spot-on, I’m not denying that. At this point in my brewing career I don’t have to impress anybody with things that are out there on the margins.
When I counsel other small breweries, if your flagship beer becomes a 12 percent double-this or something-that, and you’re margins are so slim on that beer, it’s not the way you want to set up your game.
I had a long conversation with Brian Shanks from Bold Rock Cider. He’s like, “We like the Virginia Apple Draft Cider we make because it’s like a baseline beer.”
VCB: Chapter 2 IPA is a symbolic name. The Brewing Tree represents your second coming as a brewery owner in Virginia. You and Gina have both been married in the past. Now, Chapter 2 begins. I understand the recipe is throwback to your early days. What can you share about this?
MT: I was very determined to make what I call a throwback old school style of IPA. When I first started brewing in Portland, Oregon the new, sexy hops of the day were a variety called Cascade and Willamette. They were bred by Oregon State University. Those hops were the hop dejour in 1992 through the mid-90s.
Obviously, the world has passed those hops by. Now you have Falconers Flight, Citra, Centennial, and on down the list.
Our IPA is a blend of hops — Cascade and Willamette. It’s what I was weened on in the early ‘90s, and I still to this day think the blend is the best blend for any IPA of all time. They are the roots of The Brewing Tree.
(PINTS WITH PURPOSE: Place a wooden token in the Mason jar to benefit the non-profit of your choice each month)
VCB: You mentioned the environment at The Brewing Tree. You’ve got an outdoor deck overlooking a large gravel-surface patio with a fire-pit, tables and chairs. There’s a scenic view of a mountain peak and rolling green pastures bordered by trees and an old barn. It’s so rural Virginia at its finest. What experience do you want people to have when they visit The Brewing Tree?
Gina Thompson: We want it to be extremely welcoming, comfortable and family-friendly. We want a place where people can come, sit and enjoy themselves while listening to some great music on the weekends. We are dog-friendly, too.
One thing that was very important to Mark and I is that we give back to the community. We have a program called Pints with Purpose. Every three months we rotate four local non-profits. Ten percent of each beer purchased goes to one of the four non-profits. We give the consumer the power to choose. As they purchase a beer they get a wooden nickel and place it in a jar for the charity of their choice.
We’ll always have some sort of animal non-profit benefit from sales. This month it’s the Humane Society/SPCA of Nelson County.
VCB: Mark, you played such an important role with the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild in the past. Will The Brewing Tree become a member?
MT: In fact, I already have rejoined as a brewery-in-planning.
Part of what still interests me having been the Chairman of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild is the political side of the Guild.
As I said, The Brewing Tree will not can, keg or distribute, but we are going to do the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest because they are able to do a brewery-to-brewery transfer.
I truly believe the timing is right for the breweries of Virginia to be allowed to do what the wineries already do which is to operate under the non-profit distributors license the wineries operate under. I think the wholesalers are ready for that. Wholesalers will put some limitations on that.
Large wholesalers are continuing to consolidate and the number are getting smaller and smaller. They do not want a Brewing Tree-type brewery to approach them and say, “I want you to sell my beer across the state.”
The wholesalers will support allowing a small brewery producing up to 500 barrels of beer doing direct distribution. I’m very interested and very passionate about trying to get another bill passed like I did with SB604 long ago — allowing small breweries to sell their product to the local pub down the street one or two kegs at a time and bypass the 3-tier system in a way the Virginia wineries are already doing. So it’s a proven model that works, and it does not disrupt the 3-tier system. It’s not aggravating the wholesale tier.
Wholesalers have more suppliers, more breweries than they have warehouse space and sales people to be able to sell all of that product.
(Port City Brewing Company’s (pictured) overall performance tied that of Brothers Craft Brewers)
Each year the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild holds its Virginia Craft Beer Cup competition. The top award — a cut-and-welded keg resembling the NHL Stanley Cup — is given to the Best in Show winning beer.
Each of the past three years we at Virginia Craft Beer Magazine have sought to determine which brewery actually had the best overall performance. We award 3 points to gold medal winners, 2 for silver, and one point for bronze in each of the categories, including Best in Show.
The Best in Show winner for 2018 went to Brothers Craft Brewers’ Lil’ Hellion. But did Brothers have the best overall outing?
Here’s the Top Best Performing Virginia Craft Breweries for 2018:
1-(Tie) Brothers Craft Brewers (9 points)
1-(Tie) Port City Brewing Company (9 points)
3) Blue Mountain Barrel House & Brewery (7 points)
Most of Team Smartmouth’s starting lineup is batting like champs. There’s Alter Ego Saison, the team’s home run leader. Murphy’s Law Amber is good for an on-base hit every time at bat. Notch 9 Double IPA always scores with RBIs (and IPUs). Then there’s last season’s Rookie of the Year — Safety Dance Pilsner.
Rule G IPA, a one-time fan favorite, seems to have hit a slump of late. Not striking out, mind you, but smacking more deep pop outs than singles.
“Rule G is beloved by many people and is a staple for several draft accounts but we weren’t seeing it growing much beyond where it is,” said Smartmouth spokeswoman, Chris “SheChris” Neikirk.
Neikirk believes West Coast style IPAs, like Rule G, are loosing steam compared to more fruity, New England-style versions. This resulted in a change to Smartmouth’s core lineup. Rule G has been benched and replaced by Game On, a citrusy, slightly hazy IPA with an ultra smooth finish.
Smartmouth fans can easily identify the newcomer — its neon green can is an attention grabber.
So why the name Game On?
“Game On was chosen as the name for a few reasons,” Neikirk said. “First was our love for gaming and sports of all types – video games, board games, golf, tennis, quidditch, etc. Second, we felt the name was a mantra we felt after our decision to replace an existing brand with a new one. The tastes of IPA-lovers, including us at Smartmouth, had shifted to the fruitier, juicier IPAs and Game On was a motivator for us after we made the decision to start fresh with a new brand.
The lime green is a nod to the original green can of Rule G but with a more energetic, more modern feel to it. We wanted a color that was consistent with our flagship brands but still made a pop.”
(VCB writer Diane Catanzaro explores the beer menu at LockN’. Photo by James Reis)
By Diane Catanzaro and Chris Jones
Beer and music festivals go together like yin and yang. However, it’s a bona fide buzzkill when your festival beer choices are limited to domestic lagers, and a search for the “craft beer tent” leads you to Blue Moon or Shocktop but no beers brewed nearby when there are dozens of fine breweries within a 75-mile radius. How about something local thatyou don’t see at every grocery store back home?
Problem solved. With a little dead reckoning, you can set your sights on the sixth annual incarnation of the LockN’ Music Festival at Infinity Downs and Oak Ridge Farm in Arrington, Virginia, halfway between Charlottesville and Lynchburg. From August 23 to 26, 2018, Lockn’ celebrates music, Virginia craft beer, local food, and most of all the good vibes that happen when the above elements synergize with thousands of kind and friendly people who are there to have a good time with kindred spirits.
The festival will feature a bevy of Virginia breweries offering a wide array of choices to wet your whistle as you soak up the sun dancing to Sheryl Crow, Dead & Company (including a set with Branford Marsalis), Widespread Panic, Tedeschi Trucks Band, George Clinton and P-Funk, Blues Traveler, Lettuce, Umphrey’s McGee, Matisyahu, Toots and the Maytels, Foundations of Funk (celebrating New Orleans’ venerable Meters), Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, and twenty-three other bands including Virginia’s homegrown winners of the Rockn’ to Lockn’ local band contest, the FUZZ BAND, Disco Risque, Firecracker Jam, and the Judy Chops. The schedule features Dead & Company playing two sets on both Saturday and Sunday nights, to close out their summer tour! As you can tell, this entire festival will be one hell of a dance party.
LockN’ Festival founder Dave Frey believes that what makes a music festival special is the connection to the local culture. He spoke with Virginia Craft Beer Magazine by phone from Spain to explain his vision. “When you go to a festival anywhere in the world, like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, or Glastonbury Festival in England, what makes them great festivals is that they feature locality. I’ve been on a mission to bring locality to Lockn’. Last year we had twenty-four different taps from Virginia, including many of our Nelson County neighbors on Route 151. There are people who come to the festival and become fans of local beer, who weren’t before. About 30% of the food venders are local.” This year each brewery will choose one beer to serve, to allow a wide diversity of breweries to participate. You will also see craft cider, and Richmond’s Black Heath Meadery will have a couple of meads (honey wine, perhaps earth’s first fermented beverage). Sweet & Dandy is a mango-guava mead inspired by the reggae rhythms of Toots & the Maytels, and Mead & My Uncle is a passionfruit mead that celebrates summertime and the Grateful Dead. (Note to Uncles: watch your back!) And, a shout out to the kombucha folks. Gotta love that sour alcohol-free fermented tea, which combined with beer yields a refreshingly tangy drink we call the ‘kombucha radler.’
LockN’s “Participation Row” engages festival attendees with community groups raising awareness of local and national causes. Lockn’ also partners with a local Episcopal church for a WaterLockn’ shuttle to take you to a nearby river for a swim.
This embrace of “locality” is part of what makes LockN’ special. You get a taste of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains and its metaphoric microclimate, a cultural “terroir.” As about 70% of last year’s LockN’ attendees were from out of state, having that sense of locality permeate LockN’ creates a more memorable and meaningful experience, and Virginia’s craft beers are a significant part of that link.
Dave Frey and his team have made a number of changes over the years to improve the site layout and customer experience at this former racetrack and farm. For the first four years, the main stage featured two side-by-side stages, so one band could set up and be ready to go within a few minutes of the previous band. But, it meant that you might not have as good a view of the band playing on the other side of the stage. In 2017 the main stage was changed to a gigantic “lazy susan” with half exposed to the audience and half backstage where the next band can set up while the current band is playing. When the current band ends their set the stage slowly spins, and the next band is playing as the backstage revolves to face the audience. It’s a brilliant bit of technology and seemed to work beautifully. The new set-up also has an improved layout. The campground is closer to the two concert stages and you can view the main stage from the field or from grassy hills where you can set up a chair or blanket in dappled shade, lounge in a hammock, and be a short walk from the beer and food without having to stumble over people or use a navigation system to find your tribe in the dark. Food venders have been encouraged to develop efficiencies to allow meals to be delivered more quickly, so you don’t miss your favorite band while standing in line for that tasty crab cake, barbecue, grilled cheese, burrito, or pizza.
VIP tickets get you a close birds-eye view on the side of the stage for your favorite performers, a ‘backstage’ bathroom with A/C and flush toilets, freebies (last year there was tasty ice cream and iced coffee drinks), and other amenities. Super VIP has even more treats available. Check the website at for information about single-day and four-day full-festival tickets, regular, VIP, and sober camping options, glamping, lodging packages, shuttles to Charlottesville, and RV-ing.
This festival fits in well with a beercation in bucolic Nelson County. Consider adding a couple of days to your trip to enjoy the region’s natural beauty, hiking, and historic landmarks like Jefferson’s Monticello and the Walton’s Mountain Museum. Oh, and of course you’ll want to explore the many craft beverage destinations within a 30-minute drive of the festival grounds. The closest is Blue Mountain Barrel House, just three miles down the road from Lockn’. Travel up Rt 29 for about 11 miles and turn right at the sign to visit Wood Ridge Farm, where they malt their own grain and have a lovely view from the upstairs porch. About 20 miles from Lockn’ up Rt 151 you will find, in close proximity, Devils Backbone Basecamp Brewpub, Bold Rock Cidery, Wild Wolf Brewpub, Blue Toad Cidery at High View Farm, and Hilltop Berry Farm and Winery, which makes wonderful fruit meads. A little farther up the road is Blue Mountain Brewpub in Afton, about 24 miles away and a 30 minute drive, as well as Mark Thompson’s newly opened The Brewing Tree.
Farther up Rt 29, a 45-minute drive from LockN’ gets you to Crozet, with breweries Starr Hill and Pro Re Nata, and Charlottesville, with many breweries downtown, including Three-Notched, South Street, Champion, Hardywood, Random Row, and Reason. Check out the Lockn’ full-festival ticket packages that include lodging in Charlottesville and a shuttle, so you don’t have to drive anywhere and are walking (or Lyft) distance from the Charlottesville beer scene.
The website has a wealth of information about all things LockN’, and we hope to see you there! Look for the Virginia Craft Beer tent sponsored by Virginia Craft Beer Magazine!
Sen. Mark Warner (pictured center) discusses tariffs at Hardywood Park in Richmond
By Jeff Maisey
As summer was about to begin, U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) hosted Virginia craft brewers and canners for a roundtable discussion on the economic impact tariffs imposed by President Trump would have on imported aluminum and steel. The sit-down conversation was held at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond.
So what did Senator Warner hear from Virginia brewers?
“First of all, I heard a lot of confusion about how this tariff would actually affect them,” said Sen. Warner by phone. “They had some expectations they would see 10 to 20 percent increases in the cost to their cans. Many of them had 6-month forward contracts so the immediate impact wasn’t going to be as great.”
President Trump imposed the tariffs by relying on a rarely-used provision under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, claiming the imports are a threat to national security. Several of the U.S.’s closest allies have already announced retaliatory tariffs in response to President Trump’s decision.
A 25 percent tariff on steel imports and 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports went into effect on March 23.
According to the Brewers Association, aluminum cans now represent 28.5 percent of packaged production for brewers. And for newly opened breweries, cans are the top packaging method used.
The Brewers Association issued this statement regarding the tariffs:
“The Brewers Association is concerned about both the aluminum and steel tariffs and the potential implications they will have on small and independent brewers…we do not believe that can sheet aluminum or the steel used to make brewing equipment poses a threat to national security. The American craft brewing industry is a great example of strong American manufacturing. In the last year, the more than 6,000 breweries located across the United States have directly employed more than 130,000 people and contributed more than $73 million to charities. These small businesses are located in almost every congressional district in the country and the Brewers Association opposes any policy that could negatively impact this growing American industry.”
Sen. Warner said he has been working on legislation with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee that basically states, if the President is going to declare a NATO ally a national security threat, then he ought to come to Congress for approval. The notion that importing steel and aluminum from Canada is a national security threat is a bogus claim, insisted Warner.
“This kind of strategy where we’re going to take an outrageous position and then move into something that still helps America, I think it’s dangerous,” Warner said, “but if he was getting results I’d give him grudging respect. So far, at least, I’ve not seen those results.”
The strategy employed — or deployed — by President Trump, whether with regard to North Korea and nuclear weapons or high-end German cars, has been to threaten the use of forceful actions and then negotiate a better deal from a position of strength. In the case of steel and other imports, the strategy is to impose sanctions upfront and wait for the other side to plead for a new trade deal. Whether it’s a successful tactic, as Senator Warner noted, is too early to tell. What we do know is such chaos creates great anxiety in the business community, especially with small, independent entrepreneurs.
So, what to do in the meantime?
“I would probably wouldn’t make a longterm business decision in the short run because you don’t know if this is the new normal or if this a short term tactic,” said Sen. Warner. “Almost every business guy I know says ‘we may not like what Richmond or Washington does,’ but what they want the most is some level of certainty and that’s not what we have at this point.”
Commonwealth Brewing Company’s Jeramy Biggie savors a hazy NE-style IPA
By Jeremy Bender
Each summer, millions of people flock to the coast like seagulls hovering over a fish fry.
In Coastal Virginia there are some two hundred miles of varied communities ranging from the small fishing town of Chincoteague near the Maryland border on the Eastern Shore all the way down to the resort strip in Virginia Beach, and then over to the Chesapeake Bay where Shore Drive and Chicks Beach thrive.
These areas on the coast offer a sea swell of outdoor activities that include everything from deep sea fishing excursions, para-sailing, sea kayaking and surfing like a champ at the 1st Street jetty to hiking in the Spanish moss covered swampiness of First Landing State Park, riding beach cruisers up-and-down the boardwalk, enjoying free outdoor concerts at 24th and 31st Street parks and watching wild ponies in marshy wetlands.
And talk about fresh seafood and outdoor patios with clear views of coastal marinas, the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay — there are many attractive options to choose from for lunch, dinner and after hours.
The one thing this region has lacked within walking distance to the sandy coast is a craft brewery. That’s all changed within the last two years, and now there are multiple options for weeklong vacationers, weekend tourists, day-tripping Virginians, and locals who pedal a few blocks from home for growler refills.
Virginia Beach attracts an estimated 15.2 million visitors each year. There’s a lot of beer sales and branding opportunity for sure.
Following is a brief summary of Coastal Virginia independent craft breweries grouped geographically. Most will offer extended hours during the summer.
Virginia Beach Oceanfront
Home Republic Brewpub
You can read the positive reviews online stating “here on a Wednesday, great atmosphere, food, beer and staff” and “great selection of beers and simple brewpub entrees” to get a feel for what others think of Home Republic. We totally agree.
Home Republic is a much needed brewpub positioned just a block away from the Neptune/31st Street Park on the Virginia Beach oceanfront.
The super friendly staff and brew crew operate a tiny, nano scale brewery with all of the R2D2-sized shiny equipment in clear view.
The interior is dark and cozy, offering a nice break from the bright sun and heat of summer. The brewpub also has an attractive outdoor patio that’s totally covered. It’s ideal seating for people watching while offering protection from a sudden rain shower.
As you might expect, Home Republic serves both a cast of year-round flagships and some one-off seasonals. We recommend anything unique, of course, but also try the Gladiator Session IPA, Galaxy Pale Ale, King Kolsch, Salted Caramel Ale and for dessert enjoy a Cup of Joe Coffee Brown Ale.
As for eats, you’ll find plenty to satisfy during the heat of summer. Try the Fried Goat Cheese Salad, Cuban Panini, crab cakes, shrimp tacos or build your own burger.
The Pilot House is the recently opened satellite location of Norfolk’s award-winning Smartmouth Brewing Company. It’s just a 2-block stroll from the Boardwalk.
While the craft brewery is often known for its big IPAs like Notch 9 and Rule G, its perfectly brewed pilsner called Safety Dance was deemed the best in state and won the Virginia Beer Cup in 2017.
Visitors will find all of Smartmouth’s widely distributed flagship brands like Alter Ego (a saison) and Murphy’s Law (amber red ale) as well as tasty seasonals like Sommer Fling (Bavarian-inspired hefeweizen).
The primary mission, however, of The Pilot House is test batching experimental recipes brewed onsite, and that’s a real plus for vacationing beer enthusiasts.
Smartmouth’s Pilot House sports a clean, modern decor with views of the brewing equipment and both indoor and outdoor seating.
Trivia nights will be held every Thursday night. On June 23, they’ll present the Lupulin Effect IPA Festival at the brewery.
One of the more interesting tasting room experiences you’ll find is at Back Bay Brewing Company. It’s a few blocks from the main resort area in a cluster of locally-owned businesses that includes an artists’ gallery, coffee shop, and an excellent fish taco joint — all within a few yards of each other. This is where the locals hang to get away from the tourists. So, keep it quite.
The tasting room at Back Bay shows off its nano brewery setup, but the true uniqueness is the aesthetics: the bar has a secondary, beach cottage-like storefront, the walls are old vintage outbuilding inspired tin with mallard and goose decoys nicely mounted. There’s also a small room to relax in on the second floor with open interior windows for looking down upon the brewing equipment.
Among the Back Bay beers to try this summer are the Mango Hefeweizen, POG IPA (passion fruit and Guava), Lotta Colada Belgian Tripel Ale, Leishman Lager, and the newly packaged Scotchy Scotch Ale (aged four months in highly peated Scotch barrels).
Coming Soon: Young Veterans Brewing Company will open its satellite location dubbed The Bunker mid-summer, with a grand opening likely in July. The Bunker will feature all the exceptional flagship brands the brewery is known for such as Pineapple Grenade Hefeweizen, GI Pilsner, Jet Noise Double IPA and Night Vision American Stout, but its primary mission, like most satellite ventures, is to operate as an experimental laboratory for unique beers. The Bunker will also allow the brewery to have entertainment and lots of live music, something forbidden in its manufacturing home-base due to US Navy zoning (its near an air base).
Also coming to the Virginia Beach oceanfront this summer is Richmond-based Isley Brewing Company. We broke that announcement back in February, and the expectation is for Isley to open to the public in July. Isley’s location (315 Virginia Beach Blvd) is in the newly trendy Vibe District — just 3 to 4 blocks from the boardwalk — where outstanding restaurant/beer bar Esoteric operates.
Owner Mike Isley said, “Fifty percent of the beers will be the same (as in RVA),” but noted “we may do more genuine sours. We’re really loving out kettle sours and goses.”
Get ready to pucker-up to Isley come July in Virginia Beach.
Near the Oceanfront Strip
Wasserhund Brewing Company
A German admiral serving at NATO headquarters in nearby Norfolk stated the hefeweizen brewed by Wasserhund was as good as any from Bavaria. What more do you need to know before making this place a must visit?
Wasserhund specializes in German-style beers, but also delves into many interesting brewing excursions. In addition to the Shepeweizen, be sure to enjoy the Berhund Lager and Purebread Pilsner on a hot summer’s night. Also recommended are Summer Fetch Citrus Honey Wheat, Kettle Sour Gose and Sunny Dog IPA.
Wasserhund doubles as a brewpub and features top notched gourmet pizzas and salads.
Quietly, Reaver Beach has been producing some of Coastal Virginia’s finest hoppy beers for eight years, and has recently greatly enhanced its sour program. In fact, Reaver has a real cool ship — just like Belgian brewers use in Lambicland.
For hop lovers try Hoptopus Double IPA. Sour lovers will be in heaven this side of Brussels when enjoying seemingly endless sours re-fermented with everything from apricots, black currents, blueberries and even watermelon.
Reaver Beach Brewing Company, 1505 Taylor Farms RD, Virginia Beach, reaverbeach.com
Young Veterans Brewing Company
In addition to the flagship beers previously mentioned, Young Vets vintage military-themed tasting room is a nice showplace for its arsenal of sour beers like Private Plum Sour Ale, The Objector (sour IPA with hibiscus) and MOPP 4 Sour IPA.
You’ll need a vehicle to drive to this industrial zone craft brewery, but it’s a must for all veterans and active duty personnel.
Young Veterans Brewing Company, 2505 Horse Pasture RD, Virginia Beach, yvbc.com
Coming Soon: When Green Flash Brewing exited its Virginia Beach facility in January, it left behind a fully functional, large scale brewing operation. Atlanta-based New Realm Brewing Company acquired the equipment at auction and struck a deal with the city and property owner to operate this turn-key business, with the addition of a full-service kitchen. New Realm expects to open at 1209 Craft Lane later this summer.
Shore Drive/Chicks Beach/Chesapeake Bay (Virginia Beach)
Commonwealth Brewing Company
In the Chicks Beach neighborhood in close proximity to the mighty Chesapeake Bay, Commonwealth Brewing Co is housed in a former fire station. The “garage” was converted into a tasting room with the large rolling doors opened to let the bay-breeze filter in on cool summer nights.
The tasting room decor smacks of coastal vibes and is most relaxing. An outdoor patio uses barrels for barriers and lightbulbs dangle overhead for evening atmosphere.
The brewery does an exceptional job with barrel-aged beers and sours. The core lineup and hazy IPAs are equally on-par. You really can’t go wrong with any selection, but we certainly recommend whatever limited release featured the day you visit as well as There Gose Gravity (IPA), Tina Rosa (gose), Bodhisattva (tropical gose), Dysphotic (black saison), Cheval de Trait (Belgian quad), and Cheval au Soleil (Belgian wit).
These folks know their beer and have fun developing the recipes their local clientele prefers. There’s a constant rotation of new beers that keep things as fresh as they are interesting. For example, Shark Tears is a fruity gose made from chopped rhubarb and salt extracted from gallons of sea water brought to the brewery from a local fisherman who frequents the brewery. The brewers have also used rainwater collected from the nearby Brock Environmental Center to create a fine pils.
It’s a fun place just to select something described with the most unusual ingredients. We also encourage visitors to try the Ambie-Dextrous Doppelbock, Shrove Tuesday English Bitter, Light Tower Wine Barrel Aged Saison, and Glo.
The trio of owners hail from local media outlets and brand these qualities with craft beer for a fun experience. Their beers include Airline Cookie Amber, Pacer Blonde, Chocolate Porter, IPA and Pale Ale.
Coming Soon: Norfolk’s The Bold Mariner Brewing Company will open a satellite location in the Ocean View section of the city, just 2 blocks from the sandy shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Surprisingly, it’s this community’s first craft brewery.
The satellite brewery will be known as The Reserve (1901 East Ocean View Avenue) and located in an attractive two-story beach house-like structure with outdoor porches.
The brewery will serve Bold Mariner mainstays such as Frogman Lager, but the showcase will be on premium craft ales, sours, and barrel-aged beers.
Opens in the Fall of 2018.
Black Narrows Brewing Company
The first brewery to open on the Eastern Shore calls the storied fishing village of Chincoteague home. Tourists come to see the wild ponies, natural wildlife refuge and pristine beaches of Assateague Island (a US National Park) during the day, and then spend the night in the town. Black Narrows is an ideal addition to a community lacking in craft beer. It’s also a lot of fun, especially with beers like Cockle Creek (Scottish ale), Plum Wild (fruited barrel-aged wild), Salts (tart oyster wheat) and How Bout It (heirloom corn lager with grits, pear). The beers are on rotation so what you see is what you get. If you’re lucky they may have Chicken City Pale Lager on tap when you visit.
Black Narrows Brewing Company, 4522 Chick City Road, Chincoteague, VA, blacknarrowsbrewing.com