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Exploring Virginia's Beer Scene

Exploring Virginia's Beer Scene

The Virginia beer scene has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. Mitch Steele caught his first glimpse of the Virginia beer scene in 2014 as Stone Brewing Co.’s brewmaster when the well-known San Diego stalwart was scouting locations for an East Coast brewery.

Dozens of cities east of the Mississippi River pled their case for the site. Stone ultimately picked Virginia’s capital city, Richmond, in part because of beer-friendly economic policies laid out by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

A wave of other West Coast breweries followed suit, including Deschutes Brewery and Green Flash Brewing Co., helping add weight to a local scene that was building out a reputation of its own.

Steele, now a co-founder at New Realm Brewing Co. in Atlanta, Georgia, is back on the scene after he set up shop in the former Green Flash facility.

“There’s a lot of new breweries doing really exciting beers, all sort of beers,” Steele said. “Everything I’ve had is pretty high-quality.”

former VA gov terry mcauliffe
Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe played a big role in opening up the state's beer scene.

The state regularly takes home a slew of Great American Beer Festival medals, including 15 in 2020 in a wide range of styles, from Port City Brewing and Lost Rhino Brewing’s Vienna-style lagers to Random Row Brewing’s hazy pale ale to Big Ugly Brewing’s contemporary gose.

Stone was also drawn to the market for its relatively new but budding brewing scene. Devils Backbone, now Anheuser-Busch-owned, opened in 2008 as one of the first breweries in the state.

“We’re probably a microcosm of the country as a whole,” said Jason Oliver, Devils Backbone brewmaster. “We have a couple urban markets, but then also the rural scene has changed a lot. Up until recently, it was very much centered in urban areas, but now you’re seeing these small breweries in rural country.”

With the Northern Virginia metro area, Richmond and Tidewater areas provide ample brewery crawl possibilities and rural breweries offer brewery trails in the same vein as winery trails, which are great experiences for any beer fan.

Alexandria’s Port City Brewing recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, as wine industry veteran Bill Butcher and his wife saw an opening for beer in the state. Butcher said in 2009, they’d buy whatever they could locally, but couldn’t find reliable Virginia beer that matched the quality of their favorite Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Washington D.C. (which borders Alexandria, Virginia), at the time, was the largest metropolitan area without a packaging craft brewery, according to Butcher. That changed when Port City opened.

“It’s funny to think only 10 years ago, we deduced if we could do something that was high-quality and consistent, someone would give us a chance,” Butcher said. “That was the impetus of us to start D.C.’s first packaging brewery. The area needed more local beer.”

When Port City opened, Virginia was, in many aspects, lagging behind other states in the U.S. In 2011, Butcher couldn’t serve a pint to a customer in his brewery.

It was around then the passage of 2012’s Senate Bill 604 helped change the landscape. Prior to the bill, a brewery needed a restaurant to sell beer. Otherwise, they could only give away small samples. The model of a brewery taproom was nonexistent.

Devils Backbone helped get the bill passed. There were about 40 breweries when Port City opened in 2011.

devils backbone brewmaster jason oliver
“We’re probably a microcosm of the country as a whole,” said Jason Oliver, Devils Backbone brewmaster. “We have a couple urban markets, but then also the rural scene has changed a lot. Up until recently, it was very much centered in urban areas, but now you’re seeing these small breweries in rural areas.”

Following the SB 604 and McAuliffe’s beer-friendly attitude — he installed a kegerator in the Governor’s Mansion to serve Virginia beer — the state’s beer scene exploded. Now, there’s more than 300 breweries.

“[McAuliffe] saw a lot of potential, similar to the way it got behind the wine industry,” Butcher said. “He dedicated resources to helping small breweries grow, seeing its importance to help grow local agriculture, tax base and tourism. In 2012, our business changed overnight. Beer in Virginia changed overnight.”

In the colonial haven of Williamsburg, Virginia Beer Co. opened in 2016 as the city’s second brewery. At one point, it was simply the hub of an East Coast Anheuser-Busch brewery. Now, the town of fewer than 15,000 people has six microbreweries.

“We look back to the landscape of historic English and German breweries and they were part of the neighborhoods,” Virginia Beer Co. co-founder Robby Willey said. “We’re seeing this doubling down of community. It’s a hunkering down to support the community.

That community support across Virginia for their breweries is stronger than ever.

In March 2020, the entire world was altered because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia’s beer scene is no different. How the state’s brewers come out on the other end is yet to fully come into focus.

One thing is for sure, the pandemic has helped push creativity. With taprooms shut down, Virginians still wanted their beer. At Virginia Beer Co., brewers canned 125 different recipes in 2020, up from 2019’s total of 49.

“The pandemic has made everyone pivot a bit,” Willey said. “It’s been great to see the industry thrive despite what’s going on. It made us double down on creativity.

“Northern Virginia is ripe with well-known breweries known for pushing the envelope. Now you’ve seen that explode throughout the state.”

With an eclectic mix of brewery settings, it’s also an eclectic mix of beers. Breweries like The Veil Brewing Co. and Commonwealth Brewing release highly anticipated canned hazy IPAs and ingredient-packed sours. Others like Devils Backbone and Port City Brewing stick more to true-to-style liquid.

“Long story short, we as a state certainly have a handful of breweries making international waves with their innovation,” Oliver said. “But there’s everything in between, breweries like Port City filling a niche with traditional-style beers to breweries running the gamut for a normal beer drinker.”

port city brewing

Port City Brewing
3950 Wheeler Ave.
Alexandria, VA

Metro D.C.’s first packaging brewery focuses largely on traditional  beers. Its best-seller is Optimal Wit.

Devils Backbone Brewing Co.

Devils Backbone Brewing Co.
200 Mosbys Run
Roseland, VA

Started in 2008, Devils Backbone helped start Virginia’s rural brewing scene and became its largest brewery on the backs of beers like its Vienna lager. It was acquired by AB InBev in 2016.

Virginia Beer Company

Virginia Beer Company
401 2nd St.
Williamsburg, VA

The colonial town’s second brewery, the company packaged more than 125 beers in 2020.

New Realm Brewing Co.

New Realm Brewing Co.
1209 Craft Lane
Virginia Beach, VA (Founded in Atlanta, GA)

New Realm’s Virginia hub is located in a former Green Flash brewery. Former Stone Brewing brewmaster and New Realm co-founder Mitch Steele continues on with hop-forward brews.

The Veil Brewing Co.

The Veil Brewing Co.
Four locations
Richmond & Norfolk, VA

Trendy branding and delicious releases helped make The Veil a much sought-after brewery for its IPAs, fruited sours and barrel-aged beers.

Ocelot Brewing Co.

Ocelot Brewing Co.
23600 Overland Drive
Dulles, VA

A musically themed brewery producing high-quality liquid named after lyrics from their favorite artists, like Love & Light NE Pale Ale, Stepping Through the Door Red Ale, and Gravity Always Wins Scotch ale.

Aslin Beer Company

Aslin Beer Company
847 S. Pickett St. / 767 Elden St.
Alexandria, VA / Herndon, VA

Another buzzy brewery in the D.C. metro area with a slew of IPAs, fruited sours and stouts with eye-catching, artsy labels.

Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery

Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery
4100 Knolls Point Dr.
Goochland, VA

Come for the goofy name, stay for the delicious beer like the French Toast Brown Ale.

Commonwealth Brewing Co.

Commonwealth Brewing Co.
2444 Pleasure House Road
Virginia Beach, VA

Artistic labels adorn the canned releases at Commonwealth, which stretch from a variety of double and triple IPAs to an imperial Irish stout.

Random Row Brewing Co.

Random Row Brewing Co.
608 Preston Ave.
Charlottesville, VA

A small-batch brewery, Random Row has ridden its Mosaic Pale Ale to popularity and was awarded a GABF bronze in 2020 in the hazy/juicy pale ale category.

Lost Rhino Brewing

Lost Rhino Brewing
21730 Red Rum Dr.
Ashburn, VA

Lost Rhino is the legacy of Old Dominion Brewing, a brewery that left Virginia in 2009 after 20 years. Founder Matt Hagerman was a brewer there and much of the equipment also followed.

Skipping Rock Beer Co.

Skipping Rock Beer Co.
414 Parkersburg Turnpike
Staunton, VA

Skipping Rock brewers want their beers to “speak to a more enlightened way of life, worrying less and living more.” Its Baltic Porter won a 2020 GABF gold medal.

Big Ugly Brewing

Big Ugly Brewing
845 S. Battlefield Blvd
Chesapeake, VA

A classic homebrewing passion turned career story, Big Ugly opened Chesapeake’s first brewery in 2015.

Precarious Beer Project

Precarious Beer Project
110 S. Henry St.
Williamsburg, VA

A hip brewery in the colonial city works to make “culinary-inspired beers” by using local ingredients within traditional style boundaries.

Starr Hill Brewery

Starr Hill Brewery
Five locations
Charlottesville, Crozet, Lynchburg, Richmond, and Roanoke, VA

Opened in 1999 in Charlottesville, Star Hill is one of the state’s oldest breweries and a regular on the podium at GABF.


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