Beer and Richmond, Richmond and beer — they go together like the James River and water. The English who came up from Jamestown in April of 1607 brought “beere” with them and practically from the time an enduring settlement was made by Europeans on the banks of the James, brewing of some kind was undertaken. Later, Thomas Jefferson opened a small brewery and championed beer production to alleviate drunkenness from other distilled spirits.
The full-bodied, clean-finishing history of our town’s sudsy side is brewed up by writer Lee Graves, who has freelanced for this publication, but is known by many as “The Beer Guy” for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
His Richmond Beer: A History of Brewing in the River City, published by the History Press of Charleston, South Carolina., is hitting the stores now. Some happy hour-related events are coming up; the first is at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5, sponsored by Fountain Bookstore at the nearby Southern Railway Taphouse. On Friday, Nov. 7, from noon to 2 p.m., you can find him and the book at the Library of Virginia’s Museum Shoppers Fair, in the Valentine booth. Graves comes to Carytown’s Chop Suey Books and Portrait House from 5 to 7 p.m. on Nov. 14. You can also keep track of where Graves will be going via Facebook.
Once Graves got down to his research, he was surprised, first, by how far back Richmond’s relationship with brewed beverages goes, and how interwoven it is within the region’s history. Like kudzu, the more one pulls at it, the more there seems to be. “Taking the long view,” Graves says, “that the beer scene here is now crazy good, that relationship makes sense.”
One of the reasons that breweries flourished here in the 19th and pre-Prohibition 20th centuries was the presence of a strong and active German community. The families of Alfred von Rosenegk, Peter Stumpf and Fritz Sitterding introduced professional brewing and diversified into bars and hotels.
Graves says of these late 19th-century brew masters, “They established beer gardens, their breweries became destinations and they had multiple businesses, lumber mills and construction. They were astute businessmen.”
A heady era of local brewing came to a full stop when Virginia passed Prohibition nearly three years ahead of the rest of the nation, on Halloween, 1916. If you were friendly with your local saloon keeper, or distributor, you might’ve hauled bottles and kegs home to your backroom or basement. The production, distribution and consumption of ardent spirits went underground.
Home Brewing, which produced Richbrau, converted to soft drinks. The Climax Ginger Ale animated neon sign, with its bursting bubbles, stood on Belle Isle by the Lee Bridge from about 1932 to around 1965. Its passing deprived a selfie-crazy culture of some great photographs.
After the repeal of Prohibition, Richbrau resumed. Though local, it wasn’t a high-end purchase — college kids sifted through the front seats for spare change to buy the stuff. It didn’t taste that great — Pabst doesn’t, either — but it was national competition that put Richbrau out of business in 1969.
After false starts and failures came the inception of Legend, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. The modern era of Richmond’s craft brewing is marked by Graves from early 1994 when Legend delivered its first keg to the Commercial Taphouse on Robinson Street.
Another important passage is May 2012, when House Bill 359, sponsored by Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-71st District) was signed into law. It allowed beer makers to lease space to smaller breweries. Coupled with Senate Bill 604, sponsored by Jeff McWaters (R-Virginia Beach), which allowed retail sales and tasting on brewers' premises, a new era of craft brewing began.
These days, Richmond’s brews and pubs are gaining national attention. Mekong’s recognition by the national CraftBrew.com — the site for the Craft Brew Alliance‚ gives the region some clout as a beer town. At the recent Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery's Raspberry Stout earned a Gold Medal; Lickinghole Creek’s Rosemary Saison won Festival’s Best recognition. Lickinghole and Strangeways booths ran out of beer, and lines were long at Hardywood's booth. “From these indications, Richmond’s brewers are holding their own, or better,” Graves says.
So raise a frothy glass to Lee Graves for a well-made book about a subject that is near to us. We may not be able to agree on much in Richmond, but we like what tastes good, and these days, it’s often made right here.