Illustration by Bob Scott
History is a broken record. In 1870, five breweries operated in Richmond. All five closed by 1880. Round two of the River City’s beer boom began in 1892, and by 1906, three local breweries — Home Brewing Co., Rosenegk Brewing Co. and Alexandria’s Robert Portner Brewing Co., plus Anheuser-Busch and Pabst Brewing Co. — had hubs in Richmond. Then, Prohibition. More than 60 years later, Legend Brewing Co. and Richbrau Brewing Co. opened, and unknowingly led Richmond’s third beer wave, but in 2010, Richbrau shuttered. At the end of 2016, Richmond and its environs will boast more than 15 breweries. Four years ago, there were only two.
This time, have we come too far, too fast, with too much? Maybe so.
According to Brown Distributing Co., one of the city’s largest beer distributors, 20 percent of the city’s imbibers drink craft beer; by that estimation, the city is already oversaturated — The Brewers Association estimates national craft-beer drinkers will reach 20 percent by 2020, which means we’ve hit the number four years before the rest of the country. On the other hand, six years ago, the idea of a coffee shop on every corner was laughable. Now it’s a well-sustained reality, and the brewing industry mirrors the coffee industry, even down to basic cost per ounce. There are, of course, many other factors — legalities, overhead, etc. — and beer isn’t an accepted daily morning beverage (fingers crossed).
What’s keeping us afloat today? Trends. Couple the casual weekend buyer with new imbibers who enter the craft scene because of flashy releases (double IPAs and big barrel-aged stouts) instead of benchmark standards (pilsners, lagers, porters) and you get a majority of novice drinkers who don’t yet understand what they’re drinking; they just know that people are standing in line for it. It’s easy to counter arguments that breweries can’t keep up: How many traditional non-barrel-aged brews, pilsners and the like, aren’t meeting local demand?
In order to continue lager-ing or barrel-aging, you could always venture beyond the Richmond market. Statewide, Virginia has only a few large, regionally distributed breweries, but the hurdles — not to mention the cash — that accompany expansion are many. While these obstacles are navigated, the local populace has to soak up the excess brew. That’s a lot of beer. The question remains: Will Richmond be able to shoulder all the alcohol? If history is any indicator, probably not.
Beer historian Mike Gorman contributed to this piece.