Houses of Craft

A Return to the Old Dominion — The Veil Brewing Co. in Richmond, Virginia

Just beyond the edges of Brussels proper lies a municipality called Anderlecht. Much of it is residential, serving as home to much of the city’s working class. It’s rather benign—uninspiring, even. But it’s in Anderlecht, at Rue Gheude 56, on an unassuming side street, housed behind white exterior walls and mustard yellow slatted wood doors, that you’ll find Brasserie Cantillon.

Matt Tarpey is describing his first time there, a chance internship granted to him by Jean Van Roy, Cantillon’s owner and brewer. I’ve asked him tell me this story a second time because it sounds too good to be true. His story takes place in January 2013, pretty early—eight or nine in the morning. He and Van Roy are walking around inside Cantillon. It’s damp and cool, each exhale is visible. They pace around the empty, extremely quiet building, chatting about spontaneous fermentation.

“I was a young brewer,” Tarpey says. “It’s this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, walking around with Jean as if we’ve been friends for years, talking about brewing. I shouldn’t be there. I don’t deserve this opportunity.”

They begin talking about pellicles, the thin layer of organic matter that forms on the surface of resting beer. Van Roy, who has friends in Italy’s natural wine industry, tells Tarpey that the winemakers have a name for this layer. Tarpey remembers the moment like a cartoon character with a speech bubble above his head. Van Roy’s words echoed in his mind when he heard them, struck him as something powerful, something he should remember. Years later, that conversation, the name that those winemakers gave to that organic layer would ultimately resurface and become the name of his company.

The Veil Brewing Co. calls Richmond home, but it’s an hour and a half southeast in Norfolk, where the story begins—O’Connor Brewing. “I never wanted to be a brewer,” Tarpey says. “I was never a homebrewer. I don’t even know how to homebrew. That’s scary.”

A touring musician at the time, Tarpey had tired of the lifestyle—too many miles, too little money. He looked into new careers, applied to be a fireman, did some construction work, met a friend who was a homebrewer. He tried his pal’s beers and was interested in the process, but never felt the urge to pursue brewing. Nevertheless, the introduction opened his eyes to the fact that there was a small brewery just blocks from his work site.

When he inquired about volunteer opportunities one day, O’Connor took him on. He’d help them mash in at 5am, go to his day job from 7am-4pm, then work from 4-7pm at the brewery. After about six months of this, the brewery approached him about a full-time shift brewer position. A switch flipped in Tarpey’s brain.

“I fell in love with it,” he remembers. “I started reading everything I could. I wanted to learn more.”

After a little more than a year serving as both an apprentice and shift brewer, Tarpey was looking to brew more styles and expand his knowledge. Through mutual acquaintances, he met Tod Mott, then of Portsmouth Brewery. Tarpey was seeking an internship, but Mott was looking for a new brewer. As they chatted, it was obvious that the process was less interview and more personality gauge. Mott was looking for someone who had a good work ethic and an attitude that would gel in the cramped quarters of the brewery. Mott says he interviewed a number of applicants for the position, but that Tarpey seemed to take the most initiative.

“He didn't have a whole lot of brewing skills,” Mott says. “However, he listened very attentively, took notes, and asked a lot of pertinent questions. He wanted to learn the skills of brewing. There is no better incentive than to want something.”

He listened very attentively, took notes, and asked a lot of pertinent questions. He wanted to learn the skills of brewing. There is no better incentive than to want something.
— Tod Mott

In January 2012, Tarpey moved to Dover, New Hampshire to start at Portsmouth. Then the real learning began. He immediately took interest in the fact that he’d be brewing in the pub environment. “I learned so much, we brewed so many styles,” Tarpey says. “Learned a lot about ingredients, yeast, and different fermentation profiles.”

And part of Mott’s leadership style is that he lets his assistants develop recipes so they can learn on the job. “Matt researched a White IPA recipe,” Mott remembers. “He figured a White IPA had not been done and thought about how a Belgian yeast would react with hops, orange, and coriander. Motueka was employed to impart a crazy, Mojito lime character. The beer was great.”

About a year into the new gig, Mott announced he’d be leaving Portsmouth Brewery to start his own place. Tarpey was crushed since he’d made the move from Virginia to learn from Mott. With no definitive timeline for the new project, Tarpey decided to leave Portsmouth as well. Fortunately, The Alchemist—maker of the legendary Heady Topper Double IPA—was looking for a brewer. Tarpey had met the brewery’s founder John Kimmich when Portsmouth and The Alchemist collaborated on a beer.

In December 2013, Tarpey made the trip to Vermont, interviewed, and secured the position. Thanks to a kind word from Mott and his can-do personality, Tarpey started brewing immediately. A month later, he took his first vacation to apprentice at Cantillon.

 

But how did a brewer with relatively little experience get an apprenticeship at one of the world’s most-lauded breweries?

In June 2012, Tarpey attended The Festival—an annual event hosted by importer/distributors the Shelton Brothers. He knew Cantillon’s Van Roy would be in attendance. He also knew he wanted to learn as much as he could about spontaneous fermentation. So he asked Van Roy if he could travel to Belgium and be his understudy. Much to his surprise, Van Roy responded, “If you come to Belgium, I will accept you.”

Emails exchanged, Tarpey booked a trip to Brussels for two weeks’ worth of education at Cantillon. In January 2014, he packed his bags and flew to Brussels. Joining an extremely lean crew, Tarpey was exposed to everything, “all the bottling, all the brewing. I was just doing whatever they needed.” Though brief, his time there was vital. In fact, he returned again in December 2014—and has plans to head back this December as well.

Upon his return, he started brewing Heady Topper at The Alchemist as the third shift brewer. While there, he met Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead. Hill invited him up to check out their space, which lead to him helping out there on his days off.

“They were doing different styles, barrel-aged stuff, dealing with wild yeast, all the stuff I wanted to learn,” Tarpey says.

Tarpey would go on to become Shaun Hill’s direct assistant for a time, until a family crisis sent him out on his own. In 2014, Tarpey’s father-in-law suffered a series of strokes. Tarpey’s wife, Michelle, moved back to Virginia to help with his care. She’d spend three weeks in Virginia, then a week up in Vermont. “She was the ultimate road warrior,” Tarpey says. “She’d drive 14 hours by herself.”

 

While at Hill Farmstead, Tarpey met current partner Dustin Durrance. They linked up, chatted over beers and remained in touch. Durrance wanted Tarpey’s opinion on some Virginia IPAs, so he sent him a few in the mail. Tarpey told him what he thought and at the conclusion of their discussion Durrance told Tarpey that if he ever wanted to bring some of his brewing knowledge down south and open a brewery he’d love to get one going.

Durrance had become enamored with beer when his brother took him to Alpine Beer Company in 2012. He was instantly hooked and soon found himself making frequent trips from Virginia to Vermont to snag beers from Hill Farmstead.

“I never had any ideas of opening a brewery,” Durrance says. “When I met Matt, one of my first thoughts after ‘Wow this is the nicest brewer I've ever met,’ was, ‘I wonder if he would ever want to set up a brewery in RVA so I don't have to drive to Vermont all the time.’ I definitely wasn't thinking of ever trying to start a brewery.”

But then they started considering the opportunity to import a bit of what was happening in the Northeast down to The River City. People were willing to make the drive up, surely they’d welcome locally made beers of a similar style. And as Durrance got to know Tarpey better, he felt he’d found just the right person to do it.

Had I tasted any of his beer before I decided to borrow a scary amount of money to start a brewery with him?” Durrance continues. “No. Did I think twice about that? Not for a second. Spend 10 minutes with Matt and you’ll know why.
— Dustin Durrance

“He's humble,” Durrance says. “It would have been easy for him to be a jerk or full of himself but I was pretty blown away by how he treated those around him.  As I got to know Matt better I would say I developed a lot of faith in this project. At the end of the day I really just wanted to be a part of bringing my favorite style of beers to RVA.”

“Had I tasted any of his beer before I decided to borrow a scary amount of money to start a brewery with him?” Durrance continues. “No. Did I think twice about that? Not for a second. Spend 10 minutes with Matt and you'll know why.”

Tarpey, meanwhile, had begun giving serious thought to his conversation with Durrance. “I never wanted to start my own brewery,” he says. “I’ve worked directly with owner brewers and I’ve seen the stress. I just wanted to be a worker bee, live my life, and spend time with my family and friends.”

But this was different, and seemed to make a lot of sense, both from a business standpoint as well as personal—he could continue brewing, with new control, while also relocating to be closer to family, which was critical at the time. Tarpey reached out to Durrance to get the ball rolling, and they they reached out their third partner, Dave Michelow, who brought in a few other investors. Durrance explains:

“Through a series of fortunate events I became the largest single investor and together with some minority investors and a significant line of credit that Dave and his partner provided we were able to make things happen,” he says. “I’ve heard some stories about how difficult the capital raise can be for a start-up brewery, but we didn't experience any of that.”

On April 16, 2016, The Veil opened its doors to the public.

 

I join Tarpey and a small crew on a cool, rainy morning in May. The mobile canning line exits a cavernous truck and takes its place in the center of the brewery. The Veil has a few staples, including Crucial Taunt, a big, fruity Double IPA that would seem as much at home in Vermont as it would in Richmond. They’ve also got a series of rotational, limited releases. All of this seems standard fare for a brewery, but what’s unique and made me take notice was that they had cans available on day one.

On opening day, customers were able to sample drafts as well as head home with a mixed four pack of canned offerings. This usually takes time: open brewery, work your way toward cans and bottles. But having been around successful breweries like Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist, and knowing that customers enjoy being able to leave the premises with a few selections in tow, The Veil resolved to have them available from the start.

They also can Master Shredder, a Wheat IPA on the lower end of the ABV spectrum (5.5%). Tarpey likes many of his IPAs to be sessionable. He also likes to inject a little whimsy into his branding. Crucial Taunt’s name is pulled from Wayne’s World—Cassandra Wong’s band in the movie. There’s Broz Day Off, a Session IPA, and Bob From Marketing and Cheryl From Accounting, two lightly soured IPAs.

At The Veil’s opening day in mid-April, I bump into Nick Walthall, then of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, now of Tired Hands Brewing. Tarpey may be an outsider, but the local scene is paying attention.

“Matt has an incredible resume,” Walthall tells me. “He’s worked at some amazing places and has been around and learned from some crazy talented people. There are already a lot of really good IPA brewers in RVA, Brandon (Tolbert, The Answer Brewpub) and Jeremy (Wirtes, Triple Crossing Brewing) come to mind as the best. Matt is right up there with them, putting out hyper-fresh IPAs with some great hop combinations and varieties.”

TheVeil5.jpg

The tasting room itself is vast and beautiful, a striking departure from your usual start-up brewery. Tarpey himself had a hand in many of the design choices. “I wanted to strike a balance in the tasting room, somewhere between a brewery and a lounge,” he says. “I wanted something that didn’t feel like you were just at a brewery.”

Poured concrete abounds. Various white taxidermied animals adorn the walls. The color palette is limited to neutral grays, whites, and blacks. You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking this is an upscale bar.

But the brewery also houses a special room, hoisted atop the brewery. Ascend a flight of stairs toward the roof and you’ll find the coolship room. Between his love of spontaneous fermented beer and his time spent in Brussels at Cantillon, Tarpey knew he needed a coolship. The room includes open ventilation, reinforced flooring to support the weight of the coolship, and warm slatted wood lines the walls. It’s an aesthetic departure from the brewery below, but it works in the sense that this type of brewing is a departure from the IPAs and stouts brewed downstairs. In this room is a keepsake, a reminder of time spent at one of the world’s most notable breweries. It’s a magnum bottle lugged back from Brussels that Van Roy signed for Tarpey. It reads: “Merci pour ces 2 superbe semains Matt.” Translation: “Thank you for these 2 superb weeks, Matt.”

The Veil is still an infant, having only been open a couple months. But the wealth of brewing knowledge far outstrips that rookie status. The Veil is based in Richmond, but its roots are in Portsmouth, Waterbury, Greensboro, and Brussels. You can see those influences in the beers coming out of The Veil’s tanks. Varied styles and continued experimentation he picked up in Portsmouth. Northeast-style IPAs harkening back to his days brewing Heady Topper. A coolship nodding to his time at Cantillon. A forthcoming barrel and blending program, which he enjoyed at Hill Farmstead.

It’s almost poetic: a man who had no interest in brewing went on to brew alongside some of the greats. A man who wanted no part in owning a brewery ultimately opened his own. Things certainly could have turned out differently. In an alternate reality, he’s putting out fires in Chesapeake, Virginia. Instead, he’s making beers that channel his fortuitous travels of the last few years. As it turns out, sometimes you just have to lift the veil and see what’s under it.