Richard Croasdale meets the founders of a true Virginian trailblazer, to discuss how they’ve translated a community ethos into commercial success, and vice versa.
Monday 13 April 2020
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Twenty short minutes outside Richmond, Hardywood Park’s brewery and taproom could be a megachurch, viewed from a distance. That’s until you spot the towering grain silos of course. Inside though, this impression is only reinforced; the knave is where the faithful gather to sample the latest and greatest (or revisit old favourites), watched over sternly by a steel brewhouse on one side, and by an array of shining fermenters at the far end, gleaming like the fat pipes of a particularly bassy church organ. This is a cathedral of brewing.
The brewery’s story also starts with a humble shepherd (just shout if this allegory is getting tiresome), tending to his flock in the Australian outback, on a large farm called Hardywood Park. Staying with him for a couple of weeks in 2006 were two young backpackers, Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh, from New York City and Connecticut respectively. The pair had been friends since childhood, when their families had holidayed together – they had even talked idly about going into business, but without any clear idea of what they would do.
But it was in Hardywood Park, after a hard day of shearing and dipping sheep, that Eric and Patrick received their calling to higher service, in the shape of a cold pint of the owner’s home-brewed beer.
“It was in the middle of nowhere and there were no grocery stores,” recalls Patrick. “At the end of the day we'd finish with a glass of his beer, and at the time it was the best stuff I'd ever had, my first experience with hand-crafted beer. It had so much flavour to it and I was just blown away. He taught us about home brewing and we decided we had to start brewing when we got back to the US.”
The brewery's first site was a warehouse in Richmond
About a year later, the pair got their first homebrewing kit – “it was pretty basic, just Gatorade jugs” – and inevitably became obsessed and decided to work towards starting their own brewery. Rather than leaping in with both feet though, they each went out into the world to get the skills, experience and contacts they would need to make their venture a success.
Eric went to business school, then got a job with a large distributor, handling big-name British and American beers, and developing a particular interest in getting craft beer into high-end restaurants. Patrick meanwhile went to brewing school at the Siebel Institute, which included a stint at the legendary Doemens Academy.
“I didn’t know this until after, but my great grandfather on my mother’s side also went to Siebel, followed by his son, my mother's uncle. So I’d like to say I have brewing in my blood and was just following a family tradition, but I honestly had no idea about any of this until later!”
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
Thus armed, Eric and Patrick came back together and began dealing with the hard practicalities of starting their own brewery. They were lucky enough to relatively quickly find their first investor, Richard, who gave them the confidence to present their business plan more widely, and has remained a very involved part of the Hardywood team ever since. The brewery’s first site was a warehouse in Richmond; although neither came from the city, Eric was already based there, and they felt it had untapped potential as a real destination for craft beer.
“Eric kept telling me what a great town it is, with a real enthusiasm for craft beer, yet it only had one craft brewery, Legend,” says Patrick. “Ten years ago, Virginia was a desert, mostly thanks to the very restrictive laws. But at the same time, you had these great bars championing craft beer from out of state, places like the Vietnamese restaurant Mekong. Craft beer sales were also up about 30% year-on-year, compared to 10% across the US as a whole. So, it was a gamble, but we really felt it was the right time to be starting something new here.”
Eric picks up the story: “Those early days back in 2011 were tough – long hours and it was more expensive than we'd expected – but about halfway through our first year, a draft bill was introduced, which would allow breweries to have taprooms. We got behind that with Devil’s Backbone and Starr Hill, and it just made it through. The bill was signed at our downtown brewery on 1 July 2012, and we celebrated with first legal pint poured at a brewery in Virginia. Then on 4th July, Independence Day, we had our first event in the parking lot across the street…”
“It was a total disaster,” interrupts Patrick with a laugh. “We promoted it on Facebook and about 1000 people signed up, which felt like a lot to us. We were worried! In the end 5000 turned up. Remember we didn't know anything about hosting events; we were using bottle caps as currency and didn't have a consistent pricing, so people were walking round with bags full of caps and standing in line for 25 minutes to get a beer. We got lambasted on social media, but the weather was nice, it was by far our most successful day to that point, and it made us realise this could really work.”
It also demonstrated something that would become a truism for the Virginia breweries that followed in Hardywood’s footsteps: that a taproom – even if it’s just some benches and empty kegs for people to sit on in an old loading bay – is essential for building brand loyalty and a local following, and (to be brutally honest) getting decent margins to re-invest in growth.
Hardywood’s first beer was Singel, an abbey-style blonde ale that is in this month’s Beer52 box. Eric had shifted a lot of Belgian strong ales during his time in sales, but wanted to create something that was more sessionable, while still retaining that classic Belgian character. When Patrick had been studying at Doemens, he had the opportunity to visit the legendary Trappist brewery at Westvleteren, and found that its house beer was exactly what he and Eric had been looking for, drier and hoppier than your usual blond. Hardywood’s version is now the best selling beer in the taproom, and it’s easy to see why, with its peppery, estery yeast profile and spicy Saaz hops, it’s both distinctive and highly drinkable.
Hardywood’s motto is Brew with Purpose, and this manifests itself across the brewery’s activities. There is its high-profile commitment to environmental performance, with 100% of energy requirements being met from on-site renewable sources. But there are also less obvious ways in which the brewery integrates with and supports the local community.
Its Great Return IPA is – as well as being a seriously good beer – a tribute to the decades of hard work that have gone into restoring the James River as vibrant aquatic habitat. Once so polluted that bathing in the river was banned, it now once again plays host to the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, whose presence once saved the first settler communities from starvation. As well as raising awareness, Hardywood donates $10 per barrel sold to The James River Association, to support its award-winning mission to be the guardian of the waterway.
The brewery also has a great track record of working with local producers when sourcing ingredients for its brews. For example, one of its most successful lines, Gingerbread Stout, began life when local farmer Bill Cox showed up at the door with an armful of ginger he’d grown.
“Bill saw we'd used ginger in a previous recipe, and came in with these big stalks of baby Hawaiian ginger,” says Patrick. “Two hours later we'd heard so much about this ginger! Didn't know what we'd brew with it, but it had this really unique, really subtle flavour, so we were like ‘why not?’. Then two weeks later Eric met this guy who makes wildflower honey and has a bunch of acres just north of here. We suddenly had all this ginger and all this honey and Eric said ‘has anyone ever made a gingerbread stout?”
The beer was a runaway success, scoring a bronze at the World Beer Cup and a perfect 100% in Beer Advocate in its first year. The next year’s batch went out in October, and Eric and Patrick got their first taste of true craft fandom.
“We couldn’t believe we got to the brewery on launch day and people were queuing around the block! Our initial feeling was that we felt awful these people were all standing out in the cold; we didn't understand beer line culture, as we’d never seen it in Virginia. And it’s spiralled from there for each new release. It’s great of course, but that's never what we intended – it was something that started organically. Now we have a beer club for the super-enthusiasts.”
The ginger/honey collaboration was just the start, and kickstarted a slew of local growers keen to have their seasonal, high-quality produce incorporated into a beer. For many of these growers, Hardywood has become their largest single customer.
“The ginger was great, but it was really Bill’s passion that inspired us, and we’ve found so many other people in the area who are as passionate about what they do as we are about beer; it just creates this great synergy. So at one point we made a whole series just using Virginia ingredients, which became our Virginia Roots series, two of which have gone on to win silver at GABF.”
THE JOURNEY, AND THE DESTINATION
The latest development in Hardywood’s story has been its opening in 2016 of the truly impressive facility in which we now sit. The site was originally intended as a fabrication plant for a large international semiconductor company, which fell through just after the groundwork and services had been completed. With industrial-level infrastructure already in place, in an idyllic rural setting, it was the perfect spot for Hardywood.
We were using bottle caps as currency and didn't have a consistent pricing
It goes without saying that the taproom experience was a key part of the design from the beginning. While the beautiful German brewhouse is showcased for those enjoying a beer, the accompanying tangle of pipework and valves are concealed in a lower deck, allowing the real business of brewing – the cleaning, testing, maintenance – to happen, swan-like, safely below the surface.
Anyone taking the tour will also see a lot of barrels on their way round; I obviously spotted a lot of bourbon, but there was also wine, scotch whisky and apple brandy thrown in there for good measure. Like most Virginian breweries, barrel-ageing is a large part of Hardywood’s seasonal and specials programme, and I gratefully took away a bottle of its exceptionally blended Anniversary Ale.
As large as the new brewery is, space is already at a premium, and there are many exciting developments planned, including a taproom kitchen and an outdoor amphitheatre, so Hardywood can host shows on the banks of the river. Already a popular destination for locals and beer tourists alike, Hardywood seems set to go stratospheric.
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