Houses of Craft · Travel Stories

Virginia is for Beer Lovers — Falling Head over Heels for My Home State

If you’ve ever enjoyed beer from a can you can thank Richmond, Virginia. In 1935, the Gottfriend Krueger Brewing Company, in conjunction with the American Can Co., used Richmond as a test market to gauge consumer sentiment for the package. Up to that point (Prohibition aside), beer had only been available in bottles and kegs. The experiment was a resounding success. Consumers liked the portability, stackability, and more importantly, the decreased cost of beer in cans, due in no small part to the lack refundable deposit associated with their bottled counterparts.

Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond honors that moment in history with Hardywood Cream Ale, an unfiltered ale brewed in the style of the original — and of course it’s available in a can. Patrick Murtaugh and I are walking around the tasting room at one of two buildings Hardywood occupies when he says “want to see something cool?” He produces one of the original Krueger Cream Ale steel cans and puts it on the bar with a modern aluminum Hardywood Cream Ale can next to it. It’s a fascinating piece of memorabilia.  There’s no pull tab for easy opening. Instead, there are printed instructions on how to open the can. It strikes me how odd this must have seemed, opening a can of beer for the first time, needing instructions to do so. The can is not only a piece of beer history, but part of America’s innovation story as well.

So much has changed since I left Virginia after graduating from Virginia Commonweath University, both in terms of the city itself, but more recently within the craft beer scene. These days, I call New York City home — and when I visit family in Richmond, Hardywood keeps coming up in conversation. My first visit to the brewery was in the company of friends — there was a sense of pride as well, seeing my adopted hometown turn out beers I felt I could call my own. It was time I took a closer look at what’s happening here, in beer. 

When I arrive at Hardywood Park, it’s a warm afternoon typical of Richmond in June. Kate Lee, Hardywood’s Quality Assurance Director, greets me and we talk through the brewing system for a bit when it strikes me how much growth has occurred. The brewing area is awash in reflective stainless steel and there are people milling about tending to the end of a brew day. “Unfortunately you just missed the bottling line, we just finished up” Kate tells me. We go on a walk, examining two buildings: one houses the main brewing facility, the other a room that will house their expanding barrel operations — stacks of barrels rise high alongside enormous amounts of unused space with even more opportunity. Co-founder Patrick Murtaugh finds us just outside the tasting room. We chat briefly, then head upstairs to talk. “The idea for the brewery came from a sheep farm in Australia called Hardywood Park,” explains Murtaugh, unprompted, as we walk.

In 2001 Patrick was backpacking in Australia after college. Eric McKay, the other half of the Hardywood founders, was studying abroad, staying at a farm called Hardywood Park, and invited Murtaugh out to visit and help on the farm. Murtaugh agreed, headed out to Bathurst (about three hours outside of Sydney) and tended to sheep with McKay. At the end of their day’s work, they’d enjoy a glass of the farmer’s homebrewed beer, marveling at the taste. Like so many American entrepreneurs before them, after being shown a few homebrewing techniques, the inspiration to build their own brewery followed. 

But they didn’t know how to bring beer to market. They continued homebrewing, and in the interim, they both took jobs at Union Beer Distributors in New York, and after some time, McKay ended up going back to business school while Murtaugh focused on brewing by attending the Siebel Institute and Doemens Academy in Munich. They started working on a business plan and secured funds. They both saw the under-developed South as a great opportunity to launch a beer brand and did so with Hardywood in 2011.

Murtaugh talks about where Hardywood fits in, not only to the craft brew scene, but within the Richmond landscape. Richmond’s size is one of the things that he likes, and something very different from his time growing up in New York City. “Richmond’s a small town and you don’t really get that until you live here — that small, close-knit feeling is what makes everyone so supportive of local products, of local businesses,” he explains. And now that they’ve solidified their place in the Richmond scene, they’re looking to expand into new markets, having recently moved into Northern Virginia and Washington DC. Stretching further out, they recently signed on to distribute in Philadelphia, a result of them spending time there for Philly Beer Week and being inspired by the market. And that’s where the new expansion comes in — “We’ve got capacity now for upwards of 20,000 barrels, but will brew about 7,000 to 8,000 in 2014, so we’ll have a lot of room to grow, at least for the next year or two.”

Richmond’s a small town and you don’t really get that until you live here — that small, close-knit feeling is what makes everyone so supportive of local products, of local businesses

One of the things Hardywood tries to focus on is sourcing local ingredients for their beers. Their RVA IPA starts with a community hopping project where they give away hop rhizomes to home gardeners who then produce and harvest them for this wet-hopped IPA, providing a taste of the local terroir. Another example, and most likely the beer that extended their reach and brand visibility beyond Richmond and out to the country at large, is their Gingerbread Stout. It’s a giant imperial milk stout brewed with fresh local ginger and honey. Gingerbread Stout immediately garnered awards and high marks online, creating the release-day lines all too common for great beer releases these days, even in Richmond. This notoriety has recently lead to a collaboration with a regional star, Cigar City Brewing. Later this year, the two breweries will brew and release The Milk Maid and The Milk Man, a chocolate milk stout from Hardywod, and a white milk stout from Cigar City. “Our distributor has a branch in Florida and connected us. We reached out to them and they said they’d love to do something with us, which we were psyched to hear because they’re one of those powerhouse breweries.”

Like many other burgeoning craft beer cities, the path to success for Hardywood and others was cleared many years prior by a pioneer, in this case Legend Brewery, a stalwart of the city’s developing brewing scene. Opened in 1994, their site proudly proclaims “central Virginia’s oldest microbrewery” though, if you talk to the guys inside, they like to refer to it as Virginia’s “most experienced” microbrewery, playfully fending off any connotations of being old. In terms of setting, Legend is hard to beat. Located on the south bank of the James River, which snakes through the middle of Richmond, their outdoor area is one of the best places to take in the views of downtown while sipping a beer brewed merely feet away. I meet up with John Wampler, Legend’s Brewmaster, just as the brew pub is opening, making our way through the restaurant and down to the brewery before it gets packed with drinkers. 

Wampler has been with Legend for 19 of its 20 years. When Wampler started, the term “craft beer” was barely on the tip of anyone’s tongue. “Tom Martin, the President, worked for Anheuser Busch in his younger days, and right around when craft beer was starting to catch hold, he decided this was something he wanted to do,” recalls Wampler. Legend started as two companies: Legend Brewing Company which encompassed the restaurant and the brewery, as well as Legendary Distributors “which was a guy and a van,” Wampler explains before I get any notions about a big distribution play. Over time, Brown Distributors picked up Legend, allowing them to dedicate more space to brewing. Legend gained traction in Richmond, mostly on the success of their best-seller, Legend Brown Ale. According to Wampler, “All of our beers are well-respected, but our Brown Ale is what we’re known for.” 

Of course, Legend has a full compliment of beers today, from IPAs to Tripels, but they also produce an interesting series called the Urban Legend Series. Each year, four beers are brewed that are inspired by local Richmond and Virginia urban legends. The first was brewed with St. George Brewing in Hampton, Virginia — an oyster stout based on the legend of Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, the notorious English pirate who did battle with Virgina’s governor along the coast at the turn of the 17th century. Due to its longstanding position, Legend has been a bit of an incubator for the local craft beer scene, churning out talent that naturally becomes entrepreneurial in its own right. “Mike Killilea (headbrewer at Center of the Universe) brewed here for years, and Mike Hiller (head brewer at Strangeways) worked for Legendary Distributors,” says Wampler. “A lot of the local guys have roots here at Legend."

How an ex-Major League Baseball pitcher would end up running a craft brewery is anyone's guess, but it actually makes a lot of sense according to Center of the Universe’s founder and former Giant’s pitcher, Chris Ray. Located in Ashland, VA just ten minutes outside of Richmond, the inspiration for the brewery started on the other side of the country. The travel required of ballplayers enables them to experience what’s going on in different cities around the US: “When I was traded from the Rangers to the Giants, it was my first experience living on the west coast. I saw the craft explosion out there, people only drinking craft and I thought ‘wow this is going to get to the east coast and I want to be a part of it.’” Ray had been homebrewing with his brother for a few years prior to his stint with the Giants, but in San Francisco, he saw an opportunity for more than a hobby. 

In 2011, the idea started to take hold. Ray was playing for the Mariners in Seattle, and decided to make connections in the industry, taking advantage of his time in another great beer town. At that time, Ray came up with the idea to partner with a brewery and raise some money for Operation Homefront. He had a friend in the Army and saw this as a good opportunity to bring some attention to the organization while also dipping his toes into the craft brewing business. But it was the Mariners announcer, a real craft beer fan, who got Ray the meeting he needed with Matt Lincecum of Fremont Brewing. 

Ray brought some of his homebrew to the meeting to illustrate how serious he was about brewing. Lincecum liked the idea, and the beer, and decided to get on board. Then Ray had another great idea: sitting in the Mariners’ clubhouse, surrounded by big-league bats Ray thought it might be a cool to age beer on them. Louisville Slugger agreed to donate unfinished maple bats, and once the beer was finished, the Mariners released it at Safeco Field, donating tickets to the game to servicemen and women. In a twist of fate, and a bit of cosmic cruelty, Ray pitched in that game, but injured himself. It ended up being the last game he ever played in the majors.

This isn’t a craft brew town — it’s a local beer town. I think they get it. They realize that if they spend their money on products that are made where they live, that money is going back into the community.

With the interest and recent brewing experience Ray had under his belt, and now no longer able to play at the major league level, the timing seemed right to open a brewery. “I went to William & Mary (Williamsburg, VA) and I met my wife in college and she’s from Hanover. I was drafted by Baltimore so it made sense for us to stay around here. I fell in love with the area. I always believed that if I wanted to open up my own business and I don’'t feel comfortable opening it where I lived, then why am I living there?” Ray and his brother identified a building in Ashland, VA and immediately started building out their brewery. He contacted Mike Killilea who had been a shift brewer at Legend for some time and wanted to grow. Killelea and the team began piloting recipes and dialing in their portfolio. In November of 2012, Center of the Universe was officially born.

“This isn’t a craft brew town — it’s a local beer town,” cautions Ray. Craft vs. local is symbiotic in many people’s minds, but it’s important to see the motivations behind each in their own way. “I think they get it,” he continues. “They realize that if they spend their money on products that are made where they live, that money is going back into the community.” Stylistically, he acknowledges that the Richmond drinker is open to trying just about anything, particularly if it’s local. Center of the Universe is primarily session-focused, with most of their beers coming in around 5% abv. “We’ll do a big beer here or there, but we feel you have to have beers that are approachable.”

One of those beers is Chin Music, an amber lager, that enabled Ray to bring his love of beer and baseball together again. Richmond is home to the Flying Squirrels, the AA affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. He had met Dave Parnell, the GM of the Flying Squirrels, and suggested that the team should have their own beer to sell at the stadium. He thought it would be a great marketing opportunity not only for Center of the Universe, but also for the team. The partnership paid off as Ray acknowledges that Chin Music now competes with their flagship Ray Ray’s Pale Ale for largest volume. “Overall, we blew our projections out of the water.”

Escaping the edges of Richmond’s West End, the comfortable, middle-class homes give way to farmland and the wide-open fields of Goochland county. A few turns on three-digit rural routes and you’ll come to where pavement stops and a dirt road begins. At this transition, a sign welcomes you to Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, and kindly asks that you “respect the neighbors and the wildlife.” This is more than a quaint request. To visit here is to find yourself among quiet, secluded acres and there’s no telling what you might encounter. In fact, I’d soon find a deer merely feet away as it wandered up during the interview, as though curious about the conversation.

As you approach, there’s open land as far as the eye can see, save for a white, barn-like structure perched neatly at the top of a hill. I’m a little early to meet Sean Thomas Pumphrey, Lickinghole Creek’s founder, so I decide to wander the fields and farmland surrounding the brewery. Fig trees to the right, a pumpkin patch to the left, and two plots dedicated to hops vines burst into the air in the distance. It’s interesting to think that some of the very growth I’m surrounded by will eventually end up in the tanks housed just feet away, and ultimately in bottles and kegs destined for various establishments around Richmond-proper.

In the distance, I see a cloud of dust trailing closely behind a car, rising higher and dispersing as it grinds into the dirt and pulls off the road into the grass. Sean hops out of the car — It’s a brilliant, bright sunny day and he brought the beer. 

Similar to Ray, Pumphrey spent time out west for college and was exposed to a lot of Pacific Northwest breweries. “Big Sky Brewery, Deschutes, Rogue...those were ones that got me into craft beer,” he recalls as we sit on a park bench in an open field. Upon returning to Virginia, he noticed that a lot of those types of beer weren’t available, so he started homebrewing to re-create them. “Make what you can’t buy” became his mantra. After receiving an MBA at the University of Richmond, he surveyed the brewery landscape in Richmond, and like others, he saw opportunity. The land the brewery currently sits on is family land that he was using to grow hops for his homebrews, and one day it struck him. He pondered what it would take to open a brewery on the land here instead of in the city. As a business major, he wanted his brewery to have a hook so it didn't get lost in the shuffle and thought a farm brewery would be unique. But that uniqueness came with a bit of a challenge. “We passed a bill called SB 430,” he explains. “We got it done in a year. It classifies us as a farm brewery.” This bill gave a definition to what a farm brewery is, allowing for similar benefits that are extended to wineries, which were critical to the economics of the brewery as well.

Thomas says Lickinghole Creek is trying to be known as a brewery that makes “Americanized Belgian beer.” “We try to maintain the core of the Belgian style with the malt base and the yeast, but we play a little with the hops, American and New Zealand hops.” With that said, he also acknowledges that they like to create big beers as well, particularly barrel-aged beers. They’ve been putting some of their Belgians into various barrels, most recently creating Batchelor’s Delight Rum Barrel Quad, and looking into the future he describes tequila-barrel-aged triple he’s looking forward to releasing.

“We want Richmond to be a destination,” he proclaims. “And we want to think beyond just our region. We think about what people all over would want.” A sentiment that has been echoed numerous times with each person I speak with is that Richmond brewers are all rooting for each other, wanting the other guys to do well as it elevates the craft brew scene in Richmond as a whole. Each is a business, each sees the other as competitor, but at the same time, they see each other as a collaborator in promoting the Richmond craft beer scene. “The Richmond guys have very distinctive portfolios, and all of our portfolios are complementary,” asserts Pumphrey. “If you go to Hardywood and then you come to Lickinghole Creek, chances are you’re not going to have the same beer.” 

Returning home to Richmond, now as an outsider, it’s exciting to see that the craft brew scene here is robust and thriving. Beyond the breweries I met with, there are other notables such as Midnight Brewery and Strangeways Brewing, each with their unique take, pushing the boundaries with their beers, or as they put it, “creating exquisitely peculiar concoctions to satisfy the most curious of cravings, persnickety of palates, and inquisitive of individuals.” 

We want Richmond to be a destination. And we want to think beyond just our region. We think about what people all over would want.

There are newcomers like Triple Crossing Brewing, Ardent Craft Ales, and Isley Brewing Company. And on the horizon, The Answer Brewpub will open, the brainchild of An Bui, owner and Chief Beer Officer at Mekong. No craft beer trip to Richmond is complete without a stop at Mekong. To the unknowing, it seems an odd excursion — a simple Vietnamese restaurant located in a small strip mall. Once inside however, beer lovers will find 50 taps of hard-to-find beers at a bar that has twice been voted the winner in craftbeer.com’s “Great American Beer Bar” honors.

Mekong's tap list

Mekong's tap list

As small pockets of great craft beer begin to emerge and concentrate in smaller and smaller places around the country, I’m not at all surprised to hear Richmond mentioned in the same breath as some of the perennial heavy hitters. It’s a thriving community, one where each brewer is trying to carve out their own niche, but at the same time, keeping a trained eye on the collective whole as they build a nationally-recognized scene.