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Photo by Ash Daniel
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Standing by their beer: (from left) Brian Nelson, Patrick Murtaugh and Eric McKay of Hardywood. Photo by James Dickinson
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Sedona Taphouse touts its large selection of craft beers. Photo by Ash Daniel
Those who find great food intoxicating appreciate the glory of variety; even if a meal is stellar, you wouldn't want it every day. The same can be said for beer — a variety of flavors keeps the experience fresh. Today's craft beers make that diversity easier to achieve, with a breadth of flavors that stand on their own or complement a meal. In greater Richmond, such quality beers are now easily accessible, rivaling the wine lists at some restaurants and filling shelves at retailers.
The options, ranging from mild traditional lagers and pilsners to powerful imperial IPAs and stouts, from sweeter lambics and wheat beers to ciders and Belgian sours, can excite every taste bud.
"I have learned you can pair beer with just about any food," says Edmond Medina, beer enthusiast and blogger at VACraftBeer.com. His website has been promoting beer news and events throughout the commonwealth since 2009, focusing on Central Virginia. "The growth in Richmond's craft beer scene has been remarkable."
The craft beer movement in the United States has been growing steadily since the federal government eased restrictions on brewing; the number of breweries has expanded from 42 in 1978 to nearly 2,000 in 2011, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association.
Though beer sales fell overall in 2010, sales of craft beer appear to be on the rise. In Richmond, the number of craft beer taps increased nearly 11 percent in the first six months of 2011, says Jacob Brunow, craft and import manager for Brown Distributing in Richmond. The Virginia legislature's recent passage of a bill allowing on-premises sales of beer at breweries that don't operate full-service restaurants promises to further stimulate the industry's growth.
By definition, craft beer is produced by breweries that are small and independent, not by industry giants. It's made with traditional ingredients: barley, hops, water and yeast. Though the breweries may add nontraditional ingredients — such as rye, oats, honey, coffee, cocoa nibs, pumpkin, spices and fruit — they do so for creative purposes, not to keep costs low.
The spread of quality brews in Richmond flows naturally from other popular movements that emphasize support for independent businesses, locally sourced ingredients and artisanal products.
Craft Beer Community
The founders of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery chose Richmond because the people who live here embrace these philosophies, which are bolstered by passionate support for quality beers. "I don't know if I've seen anything quite like Richmond for building community within craft beer lovers," says president and co-founder Eric McKay.
Locally, the sudsy trail traces back 250 years, from small Colonial brewers to David Yuengling's James River Steam Brewery and Home Brewing Co. in the 1800s, and then loses steam with Prohibition. In recent decades, Richmond bars such as Penny Lane Pub and the Commercial Taphouse and Grill arose to offer beers beyond mass-marketed standards. Some brewpubs have come and gone, but Extra Billy's and Legend Brewing Co. remain.
Legend introduced its beers to Richmonders in 1994. "We had the right formula for the place, the right formulation of particular beers — not off-the-chart hoppy and not off-the-chart strong," says Dave Gott, vice president of operations.
In 2002, Capital Ale House built upon the growing popularity of microbrews. The company's Midlothian location offers a locally unprecedented 80 draft and 250 bottled beers. The company is celebrating its 10th anniversary at all five locations — three in and around Richmond, one in Fredericksburg and their newest in Harrisonburg. Draft Magazine recently named Capital Ale one of America's 100 best beer bars, calling it a "Virginia powerhouse."
In addition to beer-centric bars, more restaurants are providing a well-rounded beer selection.
Among the first to adopt this philosophy in Richmond was An Bui, co-owner and "chief beer officer" at Mekong. Bui's restaurant boasts more than 100 beers, pairing primarily Belgians with the restaurant's Vietnamese dishes. Craft beer landed on the menu about five years ago.
In Carytown, New York Deli has added a temperature-controlled keg room for an expanded draft line system. Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream has added craft beer to its beverage selection. And TJ's at The Jefferson Hotel offers regular beer dinners as well as ongoing craft options.
New restaurants feature Virginia brews
New restaurants often include craft beer from the start. To build on their local sourcing emphasis, the Blue Goat and Pasture offer Virginia beer. Burger specialist Station 2 in Shockoe Bottom features several commonwealth brews among its dozen craft beer taps.
Chef Jimmy Sneed, owner of BlowToad, doesn't drink alcoholic beverages, but he says that pairing food with beer is "the new rage." For the coal-fired-oven pizza that is BlowToad's specialty, beer is an easy pairing, so Sneed hired a beer buyer and expanded the original idea of four to six taps up to 24, featuring a range of carefully chosen styles and providing knowledgeable behind-the-bar guidance.
Hardywood Park's decision to locate in Richmond is quickly paying off. When the brewery launched in October, about 1,400 people attended the grand opening. Though they are limiting distribution to the Richmond area, 90 restaurants already serve Hardywood's draft beers.
"We've had to cap new draft lines while we anxiously anticipate the arrival of new fermenting tanks in April, which will double our capacity, to about 2,800 barrels per year," McKay says. "Needless to say, we're thrilled to be in such a craft-beer enthusiastic city."
Hardywood Park's flagship Singel is a classic Belgian-style beer, mild enough for craft-beer neophytes. Reserve beers include the RVA IPA, using hops grown by small local growers; gingerbread stout with baby ginger from Powhatan and wildflower honey from Louisa County; and Mocha Belgique, a Belgian chocolate porter using Richmond's Black Hand Coffee.
Distributors play key role
Another notable area newcomer is Midlothian's Sedona Taphouse in Westchester Commons, boasting one of the largest craft beer selections on the East Coast. Sedona founder Dennis Barbaro likewise recognizes the strength of the regional beer culture. "There are very few other areas that are as passionate about craft beer," he says, "especially the local focus." With a craft beer specialist on staff and weekly beer training for servers and the public, Sedona is aiming to appeal to enthusiasts and novices.
Distributors are essential players in encouraging local restaurants to feature more diverse beverage selections and in bringing noteworthy beers to the market. New Belgium's arrival in the commonwealth, hosted locally by Specialty Beverage of Virginia, prompted a big buzz in 2011. Though many beer lovers had enjoyed the Colorado craft brewer's Fat Tire or Ranger IPA outside of the state, it had previously been unavailable locally.
Brown Distributing has diversified its portfolio to include craft beer, focusing on Virginia breweries. Brown began promoting and distributing Legend beers in 2009 and can now boast more Legend tap handles than Sam Adams around town. In 2011, Brown introduced a "Taste the Local" campaign, sponsoring events, engaging restaurants, and bringing regional brews to Richmond. Brown's Virginia beers come from Abingdon, Norfolk and in between: Wolf Hills, Roanoke Railhouse, Starr Hill, Bull and Bones, O'Connor and, most recently, Devil's Backbone.
Breweries that are still in development in Scottsville and Lynchburg have indicated an interest in distributing here, joining Richmond's Haxall Brewing Co. (soon to open in Shockoe Bottom) and Goochland's new Midnight Brewery.
"We've got the makings of an Asheville [N.C.] here in Richmond," says Matthew Simmons, president of Capital Ale House, "the same young, eclectic lifestyle-type people, students and outdoor activities." And the same thirst for great beer.
More About Beer
For additional information about Richmond's craft beer scene, check out:
Richmond Beer-Elite on Facebook
Richmond Beer Lovers Meetup
Follow on Twitter: @va_beergeek, @RVAbeers, @rvabeermeister