WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia – On the cusp of its first anniversary, The Virginia Beer Company was recently recognized as one of the top new breweries in the country by BeerAdvocate magazine. As part of BeerAdvocate’s annual “Class Of” honors, 34 breweries out of the 861 new breweries that opened across the country in 2016 were selected as the best in their class. Virginia Beer Co. was one of two Virginia breweries selected for last year’s honors.
One of the biggest draws to me for opening a brewery was doing so with one of my best friends. Who doesn't like the idea of working together with someone you know you get along with, and someone who shares similar ideals to you on Day 1 in the workplace? And that dream is about to become a reality as we get ready to open The Virginia Beer Company in Williamsburg, VA in Spring 2016! For Chris, Jonathan, and I it has been a long, amazing, arduous, and fulfilling journey to build this brewery and finally, in 2016, begin brewing! For Chris and I in particular, the conversation to open a brewery started as far back as 2007 and really ramped up in 2010, before Chris & Erin quit their jobs in 2012 to move back to Williamsburg. As you can see from the very first press we ever received about The Virginia Beer Co. in this 2013 article from The Flat Hat, it took us a bit longer than expected to get up and brewing. Not for lack of planning and trying (we tell ourselves), but sometimes that's the way opening a new business goes. Preparedness and dedication will eventually win the day, and we've had a number of amazing experiences since returning to Williamsburg (I following suit full time in 2014).
One of the things that kept us going was our fondness for the Greater Williamsburg area. A big reason for returning to Williamsburg to open a business was because it's where our story as partners began. While we looked at many different areas up & down the East Coast that could have been interesting places to open a brewery, at the end of the day we knew we were coming together over our love of beer in the state where we met, and doing so in the place that brought us together just made sense. It didn't hurt that Chris's wife, Erin, was also a William & Mary alum. Or that Chris and I volunteered for a board for the College and co-chaired our respective 5-year reunion gifts, both bringing us back to campus on a regular basis. Or that Chris's youngest brother, Will, was set to graduate from the same university in 2014. Whatever the reasons, we had a continued appreciatioin for our time at W&M, for the lessons learned while there, and for the personal connections we had maintained since graduating. One thing was for certain: when the time came to start our adventure in 2012, we had no doubt that Williamsburg was the place to do so. It was the home to a community that had already given much to us and our friends and our families. We were already giving back to the college community part-time, so why not make it a full time endeavour and give back to the Greater Williamsburg area community on a full time basis? The passion to create something that could foster community engagement and be philanthropy focused was there and we simply needed the place and the mechanism to bring it all together.
It has taken us longer than we thought. It's been more expensive and more frustrating than ever imagined. But recently, Chris and I were afforded opportunities to reflect on our stories. Chris was even asked by his high school alma mater (Westminster School), a high school that his wife and all of his brothers also attended, to reflect way back about what then and what now tied together to push him down an entrepreneurial path. I recently had the opportunity to reflect on my relationship with my collegiate alma mater, an alma mater shared with Chris and his wife and Chris's youngest brother, about where my experiences have led me. All of this reflection reminded us about the authenticity of our place and plan, and why we've continued to forge down the road of uncertainty to open a brand new brewery amid a booming brewing landscape. Long story short: here, in Williamsburg, it's personal. It's why we're here. It's why we're still here. And it's why we love being here!
All of this nostalgia came about as we approached the eve of our first brew day, when we had the recent fortune to reconnect with William & Mary's newspaper, The Flat Hat, to provide an update on our plans. This time, we actually had a facility to tour, a brewmaster to introduce, and ingredients waiting to be turned into beer! So while we may have missed the mark by about two years between interviews with The Flat Hat, needless to say we were pretty excited to see where our story had taken us when we finally had a chance to read the new article...
So what's in a story? Well, to us, just about everything. And we hope that you'll agree when you have the chance to sample The Virginia Beer Co.'s rotation of beers at 401 Second Street this spring!
Editor's Note: Part 8 of our Better Know A Beer City series is the fine wordsmithing of one Kevin "Papa Bear" Hyde. Kevin was the college supervisor of co-founders Robby & Chris during their time working at the College of William & Mary's Student Phonathon, where the pair first met. So in a way, Kevin is the papa of The Virginia Beer Co. But his nickname has nothing to do with that... It's an understatement to say that Kevin is a gifted writer and in addition he is a fellow entrepreneur. From his control center in California, Kevin spends his free time designing 100% corduroy athletic wear and running Yorktown's own Virginia Beet Co.
The town of Oakland sits right across the Bay from the city of San Francisco, and it’s probably best known by most people as the home of the Raiders and A’s and Warriors. It’s also known, perhaps by lingering (but untrue) reputation, as a place with a lot of crime. It’s near Berkeley though apart from Berkeley, and it is, in some ways, a subtle urban echo of the better known and more expensive SF. But Oakland is its own thing: a proud town, at once simple and complex like many communities, and in feel very much unlike the increasingly inaccessible city across the Bay. And the beer scene here is fun and thriving and intriguing, like a lot of things in Oakland.
There are breweries in and around Oakland and there are more than a few beer-specific bars. Breweries first. In Oakland proper, there’s Linden Street Brewery (LSB)—the oldest Oakland brewery, Line 51, Oakland Brewing Company, Independent Brewing, and Ale Industries.
Linden Street is a sort of archetypal craft brewery—small, charming, and run by nice folks who love making, drinking, and talking about beer. And there are major chops in the beer-making at Linden Street: their beers are pretty superlative, and they have an American pale ale, Hop Candi, that’s delicious and not as forward or hop-hot as a lot of pale ales (which I like; I’m not super into the hop brinkmanship that seems to come and go in the craft beer world). They do a nice pilsner with their New Oakland Glow and their Urban People’s Common Lager is fun, refreshing, and friendly. When I last visited, they also had their Can’t Fail Cream Ale (which has some rice in the brew, I was told), which had good flavors, and their Russian Imperial Stout (a seasonal), also a highlight.
Line 51 operates a little differently than Linden Street. For one, it doesn’t have a taproom or physical location quite like LSB, but it distributes its beers to select bars throughout Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda (the little island that sits close to Oakland). Line 51’s tight connection to Oakland’s beer bars is no accident—the brewery is named after the Oakland bus line that owners P.T. Lovern and his wife, Leti, used when they were (responsibly) doing their market research at bars around town. So what Line 51 may lack in physical presence, it more than makes up for in the quality of its beers and its support of great local bars. The brewery’s Red Death imperial red (below, right) is sort of bonkers—totally delicious and totally intense, this beer is a treat and it has some bold malt flavors. Their One Inch Punch IPA (below, left) has a subtly sweet beginning and exceptional hop flavors like LSB’s Hop Candi (again, without overdoing it) and it’s a nice beer to have with a pub dinner. One of my favorites of Line 51’s beers is Leadoff, a blonde IPA that’s also a baseball-season seasonal; the tap has the green and gold of the A’s, the beer itself is awesome, so, you know, it doesn’t really get much better.
Independent Brewing, which is primarily owned by Stephen McDaniel, is sort of an offshoot of Oakland Brewing Company, inasmuch as McDaniel is an owner and brewer at OBC. Independent has a very nice space in Oakland’s Jack London Square—a recently revitalized area of the town that’s seen a big influx of cool restaurants, bars, art galleries, and the like. Independent’s taproom is laid back, family friendly, and comfortable; more importantly, their beers are amazing. The day my girlfriend and I visited, they were pouring a couple small-batch beers and we sampled their Strawberry Blonde Ale and the T ‘n H Wheat Ale, both of which were wonderful. The Strawberry Blonde was delicious—dangerously drinkable—and had wild transitory flavors. The T & H wheat was also really impressive, sweet and bready taste at the start, then gently bitter, with another change towards a smooth finish. McDaniel reportedly uses Independent to produce more experimental beers (there was a spicy stout on tap when I visited, which is apparently truly hot, and there were a few sours too).
Although I’ve tried and loved Independent’s beers, I haven’t yet had the pleasure of sampling any of OBC’s beers, and that is mostly due to the sheer number of new and new-ish places here that cater to beer lovers. In the past few months, there’s been a few more additions to the Oakland/Berkeley/Alameda beer scene, and it seems as if breweries and beer bars here open in clusters of two and threes (not a bad thing):
- Fieldwork Brewing in Berkeley is new and awesome--they have a nice space and the beers I’ve had from them have been exceptional too (though it was only a quick tasting and I didn’t take notes so I can’t offer any kind of nuanced opinion except Fieldwork’s beers = delicious).
- Faction Brewing in Alameda seems like it’s blowing up—and with good reason, since their beers are fantastic. I’ve had both their Anomaly Milk Stout—one of the only beers that’s made me say “Wow” aloud as it’s settling after the pour and then again after the first sip—and their Oatmeal Stout, which was balanced and nicely sweet and somehow felt restorative as well. Faction has an emphasis on variety too—they brew what seems like a thousand different small-batch beers, which is pretty incredible.
- Ale Industries in Oakland has wonderful beers too and I know this mostly from word of mouth, though I have had their Cherry Kush beer a few times and fell in love with it—it’s light, fruity, and pleasant. I’m looking forward to visiting their tasting room and trying more of their stuff.
- Ghost Town Brewing in Oakland is super-new and seems to be building out their presence, much like VBC. The brewery offers three beers, all of which sound really cool, and I hope I get the chance to sample them soon.
This is all to say that there is a lot of brewery-related activity in Oakland, like there is in most of the U.S., I suppose, and that means that there are a lot of great options for anyone looking for new beers to try and new tasting rooms to loiter around.
As for beer bars, I have a couple favorites here, and while some of them are on my list for both objective and sentimental reasons, all of these places serve good beers and you will have fun while within or even while merely adjacent to their premises.
The Trappist, which is the first beer bar I heard about when I moved to Oakland in 2013 and the first one I visited, has an extensive draft menu, with a front bar, a back bar, and a patio bar. It’s situated in Old Oakland, which is turning into one of the most beer-centric areas of the city. This place offers an astounding range of Belgian and Belgian-style beers, plus some others that you won’t see at many other places. It’s got a great atmosphere—very quiet, for the most part, or quiet enough that you can have a good conversation—and the bartenders are always courteous and knowledgeable. My girlfriend and I had our first date at the Trappist and so I harbor a deep love for this place, though I have had zero luck in convincing them to install a bronze plaque at the back bar in our honor—such is life. The Trappist is simply one of the best bars in Oakland and so a necessary stop if you come here and want to drink good beer. (There’s another location called The Trappist Provisions in a different neighborhood in Oakland, but I’ve never been there so I cannot vouch for it, though it’s supposed to be great too.)
Beer Revolution is about four blocks from the Trappist and it is a little beer library. Beer Revolution serves beers that are, to put it weirdly, Brigadoon-esque: beers that you have never encountered and may never encounter again. Beers that come from every municipality and village and unincorporated area in California and beyond. I have had beers here that I did not think were physically possible to brew, and beers that frightened me with their fine style and powerful power. I exaggerate, of course, but just barely. Beer Revolution is the place to go for hardcore beer lovers--anyone who’s added and reviewed, like, 30,000 distinct beers on Untappd or who has a jaded palate that can only be roused to wonder by the most sublime or extreme flavors. It’s a fun place! It’s got a sweet porch out front and limited seating inside, and it’s a little loud, but you go to Beer Revolution mostly to drink insane beers, not to discuss the finer points of German expressionist poetry (for instance).
Perdition, in Berkeley, is a barbecue place with a great beer list. It only opened a year or so ago but has made itself a reputation as not only a great restaurant but a great beer bar too. Perdition serves transcendent barbecue, let me get that out of the way first; it is so good that you will want to eat it forever, which is probably medically inadvisable. It may not be the best barbecue in all of America—I will leave that judgment to men and women who are more comically serious about their chewables and comestibles than I—but it is really very good and excellent and outstanding. Plus Perdition is like a mini-Beer Revolution in its approach to keeping a long list of all-star CA beers (and out-of-state beers too) on draft. You can’t go wrong at this place. I promise that you will enjoy Perdition. It’s right in the heart of Berkeley too, so you can go walk around and take in Berkeley in all of its sweet lovely Berkeleyness.
Come visit Oakland! Without overselling it, let me just say that it is the finest town in the world, a place where you’ll find cheerful people, lusciously verdant public parks, clement weather, friendly animals, and the best beers you will probably ever drink.
To follow Chris's wordsmithing (that's a pun, since his last name is Smith!), I'd like to take a moment to introduce myself as well. I'm the other founding member of The Virginia Beer Company. I'm from Northern Virginia and outside of a few semesters spent at the University of Rhode Island, have pretty much resided in some part of the Old Dominion for most of my life. I transferred to William & Mary in 2002 and graduated in 2005 with degrees in Finance and International Relations. Afterwards I started working for a financial consulting firm in Arlington, VA where I spent close to nine years. I have a younger sister, Aly, and a younger brother, Christopher, both of whom are eager for me to do less typing and more brewing. My family had a cat named Budweiser growing up - just proves that a career in beer was meant to be!
I had the great fortune to meet Chris and his wife Erin during my time at W&M. Chris and I worked together at the student Phonathon (yes, we were the people calling the alums to ask for money to support the school; so we've probably spoken!) and our interest in craft beer also began in Williamsburg. The story in the first post about much of our free time being spent in search of new and unusual beers was not an exaggeration. If I wasn't toiling away at the office (see: sleeping under my desk), I was trying to convince Chris to take a trip to a new city to check out the local breweries, brewpubs, and bars. Beers, BBQ, and baseball - mostly in that order - pretty much rounded out our time on the road. Erin put up with our adventures (luckily she's a craft beer aficionado) and I was eventually even the best man at Chris & Erin's wedding in 2011. Flash forward to 2012 and the two were making their way back to Williamsburg to get VBC started. I spent many miles and a lot of money on satellite radio traveling between NoVA and the Burg until early 2014 when I too relocated full time to keep this brewery moving full steam ahead!
I'd like to think of myself as the craft beer Captain Ahab and the beer world is my Moby Dick (though without the horribly tragic ending and what not). I am simply obsessed with beer and continue to scour the world for new beers, new flavors, and new ideas about how to make even more styles of the delicious ambrosia that is beer. And I'd like to think of this brewery as my craft beer Gilligan's Island. I'm sure Chris would say I'm the Gilligan to his Skipper, but really, working to build this brewery has been one of the most invigorating and challenging experiences of my life. While sometimes it has been a long, arduous journey it's been 100% worthwhile and I bet I write for Chris when I say I'm at my most fulfilled when I'm doing anything related to Virginia Beer Co. There's no escaping it and I have no desire to - building a brewery is what we've set out to do and we're thrilled to see our dream coming to fruition. So now that I've somehow mentioned Herman Melville & Bob Denver in the same space, let me close by saying thanks for taking a moment to get to know me better, and I look forward to getting to know all of you in the future (over beers, clearly)! Cheers!
The first entry on this blog mentioned that we were planning to share some information about our team. I'll go first! I’m a Connecticut native (Qui transtulit sustinet!) who graduated from The College of William & Mary in 2007 after fully mastering both economics and colonial American history (pretty sure they just forgot to print summa cum laude on my diploma?). Following graduation I joined a rather large, successful financial firm in New York City and spent two years living the fun-filled, fast-paced life of a recent graduate in the world’s greatest city. Tiny cubicles, long hours, Excel spreadsheets, etc.
I finally wised up and joined my then-girlfriend (Erin) in central Massachusetts, while continuing to work for the aforementioned financial firm in downtown Boston. We were engaged in 2009, married in 2011, and then moved to Boston so we would both be closer to our work. At least that’s what I told her - I chose an apartment on the Boston waterfront that just happened to be two blocks from the Harpoon Brewery. As previously outlined, in early 2012 we made the final decision to move forward with what has become The Virginia Beer Company. Erin and I left Boston in July 2012 and finally arrived back in Williamsburg in September 2012.
The last twenty months have been some of the most enjoyable AND frustrating months of my life. I never intended to spend over two years working to open a craft brewery! I truly had no idea about what we were getting ourselves into - the process has been much more challenging than anticipated. There is finally light at the end of the tunnel, though, and we’re ready to share details about who we are, what we intend to do, how we got this far, and how we plan to fully realize our dream. Stick with us and enjoy the journey!
VBC makes an appearance in the American Craft Beer Week video produced by CraftBeer.com! Keep your eyes peeled to the screen at the 58 second mark - you just might spot three distinguished alumni of the College of William & Mary! Check out CraftBeer.com for more information about American Craft Beer Week, including a list of events sortable by state.