Welcome to the district of Scott’s Addition, the beating heart of Richmond’s vibrant food and drink scene.
Monday 13 April 2020
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For British beer lovers, there are certain US cities that will always pop up as bucket list destinations: San Diego, Denver, Portland… Having spent a few says there, I would be very tempted to add Richmond, Virginia to this illustrious list.
The district of Scott’s Addition has become the beating heart of Richmond’s vibrant food and drink scene, playing host to 13 breweries, cideries, meaderies and distilleries, as well as more than 20 of the city’s best bars and restaurants. Formerly a run-down industrial area, the first of the new wave of occupants came here in the mid 2010s, because the rents were low and the industrial construction suited their needs. It wasn’t easy though; the founders of Reservoir Distillery tell a story of an early raid on their premises by armed police, who had assumed they were running a meth lab.
But wind quickly picked up behind these early pioneers, attracting yet more businesses, and artists keen to decorate the area with murals and sculptures. The same buildings that were once grim and threatening eventually became edgy and urban, making Scott’s Addition a destination in itself for affluent locals and curious tourists looking for an evening out.
One of the first beneficiaries of this change in fortune – and, to be fair, one of its driving forces – is The Veil Brewing Co. To say The Veil is sought-after would be a gross understatement; this is a brewery that sets out to make beers that will be savoured and appreciated by people who know their stuff. They make no apology for that and, while I’m generally not an elitist when it comes to beer, I also have massive respect for The Veil’s craft and its unwillingness to compromise.
The name itself refers to the membrane or pellicle that forms on the surface of a beer which is being spontaneously fermented. And, sure enough, up a winding case of stairs to a rooftop hut, The Veil has its own coolship full of beer exposed to the microfauna of the Richmond breeze. It’s also known for other wild ferments, including working with the region’s many wineries which provide barrels, grape skins and lees.
I sample one of the spontaneous brews in the bar, a gueuze, blended from three years of barrel-aged beers and it is transcendent. This is hardly surprising, as head brewer Matt Tarpey learned his trade at Belgium’s legendary Brasserie Cantillion, at the elbow of no lesser figure than Jean Van Roy.
I ask co-founder Dave Michelow if he anticipated that such high-end, niche beers would be such a huge success.
“Our expectation was that we would be able to sell it sell our beer,” he answers, somewhat gnomically. “About a year before we opened, Matt and I just drove around the state of Virginia, starting here at Richmond, just talking to the retailers we hoped would be interested in our beer. These were the top folks, who had the same passion for and their product, their brand; so the best restaurants and the best retailers."
While the Brussels influence is plain to see, I’m keen to explore other parts of the extensive and wildly named tap list. I’m not disappointed by the smash-your-face juicy double IPA, Master Master Shredder Shredder, which is honestly one of the most flavoursome beers I’ve ever had. It’s not even a style I particularly like, but I would happily sat there drinking it all day if given the option.
Just around the corner is Blue Bee cidery, housed in an uncharacteristically beautiful traditional building, considering we’re still in Scott’s Addition. Constructed as part of the New Deal in the 1930s, this former stable is clad in re-used cobblestones and was built over the course of six months by out of work artisans and architects. In short, it’s a smart-looking place, with not a wonky angle in sight.
I’m here to meet Courtney Mailey, who started the cidery in 2012, making it at that time the only urban cidery in the south and mid-Atlantic. We start with a tour of her ‘urban orchard’; a row of young apple trees along a grassy roadside verge.
“I just finished pruning these up,” she says. “Pruning in the city is a little bit different than pruning in the countryside. We have the same pests and diseases, but in terms of mammals, they have deer and we have drunk humans. So, I'm slowly trying to encourage the branch height up so people can’t reach the fruit. It’s going to take a few years.”
Unlike more commercial cideries, Blue Bee is completely seasonal and therefore runs more like a winery, based around the yearly harvest cycle. Last year’s harvest is currently in the tanks, from which it will be fermented, blended and packaged throughout the summer, in time for this year’s harvest to begin the cycle again.
Courtney also only uses cider apples, which tend to be smaller and more acidic than the varieties we might buy for eating. Most of her fruit comes from the west of Virginia, particularly from the orchards around Nelson county.
“You wait all year for the harvest, and then when it comes it's a slugfest to get your share. You’ve got to buy and press what you need right away, before somebody else does. It's seriously cutthroat for the best fruit.”
Given the depth of her knowledge and passion, I’m very surprised to learn that Courtney is a relative newcomer to the world of cider. She used to work in economic development in Washington DC, at quite a high level, and spent ten whole years yearning for escape. Inspiration finally hit during a work trip to Northern Ireland.
“While I was there, my uncle got called up by Trinity College in Dublin, to help advise on this idea to develop an Irish wine industry. That obviously didn’t work, but it made me decide I wanted to focus on wine. So I get back to Virginia and look at the wine industry here. It was already pretty crowded and although there are some really good wines here now, it’s not like the Pacific north west, and there are a lot of varieties that just don’t grow well in our climate.
“So I took another step back and started looking at fruit wines, berry wines, mead. I looked at everything, but it took me a while to realise that cider is technically a wine too, just made with apples instead of grapes, and Virginia just happens to be one of the top apple-growing states in the country.”
Eight harvests later and the results are pretty amazing, even if you’re not a big cider drinker. Courtney’s ciders really are more like wine – delicate, dry and floral, with none of the sweetness or harsh soda fizz that mar many more commercial ciders. But what’s really remarkable is the range of characters, particularly among the single varietal ciders.
My favourite is the Harrison which, I’m told, was the most popular cider Apple during the colonial era, especially in the Mid-Atlantic region. It was in such demand that it would sell for four times the price of any other cider on the New York exchanges, meaning nobody could afford to drink it as a single varietal, as I am. Light in colour and body, it’s crisp and dry, with apple blossom on the nose and something earthy and straw-like on the palate.
Something about the tasters of cold, dry cider has really got my juices going, so Meghan Gearino from Visit Richmond insists (I do not protest) that we drop in Scott’s Addition’s famous ZZQ Texan barbecue. The subject of numerous gushing reviews and even a television programme, ZZQ is my first experience of an authentic barbecue and I am both excited and nervous to lose my innocence.
ZZQ is run by husband and wife team Jim and Sarah – both Texas natives – who are both so welcoming, especially considering a strange journalist has just been dropped on them in the middle of the lunch rush. The deal here, as far as I can make out, is that huge slabs of meat are marinated in a dry rub, and then slow-cooked over an open fire for many hours, until they are literally falling apart. This meat is then sold by the pound on metal trays, along with a variety of sides, until it runs out. Then the restaurant closes for the day. Simple.
Jim is keen for me to try absolutely everything on the menu, which today is beef brisket, pork ribs and some sort of dense, spicy Texan sausage. I’m honestly trying to only have meat once or twice a week at the moment, so this tray of literal carnage should use up my allowance through to about September. Meghan is supposed to be going to a meeting about forestry, but I think the fear in my eyes persuades her to stay and help.
It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before, particularly the brisket, which dissolves in my mouth with an explosion of meat, sweet smoke and savoury spices, and I think nothing this intense should come in such huge portions. The sides are equally revelatory – a buttermilk potato salad and a jalapeño slaw (which I’m still trying to recreate at home) are my favourites. I suspect Jim and Sarah may have taken a couple of years off my life, but it feels like a good trade.
I try not to be a fanboy at distilleries, I really do, but I think I’m on some sort of protein rush from the brisket and Reservoir is so very cool. You can’t miss the building; it’s got LOVE plastered across the front wall in primary colours, and there’s a guy pacing and smoking outside who might as well have ‘distiller’ tattooed on his forehead. This is Jay Carpenter, and he will be my drinking buddy for the evening, as it turns out.
Reservoir’s credentials are unimpeachable, having won every award going for its three core expressions – a rye whiskey, a wheat whiskey and a bourbon. But what makes it really interesting is the collaboration and experimentations. These guys will distil pretty much any kind of alcohol put in front of them and put it in wood for a couple of years to see what happens. They use almost exclusively small five-gallon barrels, which drastically speed up maturation time and – as a corollary benefit – make and failed experiments much less costly.
“We took an IPA and distilled it. And then because it’s 100% percent malted barley, like a scotch, we decided to age it like it's a scotch, in an ex-bourbon barrel. We’ve distilled Ginger Bread Stout from Hardywood, we’ve even distilled cocktails.”
“We’re learning all the time,” adds Jay’s co-founder, Dave Cuttino. “But fundamentally we’re doing these things because they’re fun to do. We had all came from jobs that, you know, maybe paid the bills but they weren't really soulful. They didn’t nourish us. You know it's a business, so you’ve got to make money and keep lights on. But what keeps us all going is that love for whiskey and distilling and trying different things and just doing the best we can. And then worst-case scenario is that we never have to buy another bottle of bourbon.”
Behind a glass wall from the tasting room is the copper still, mash tun and open fermenters, as well as row-upon row of those characteristic five-gallon barrels. This, I’m informed, is only around 5% of the distillery’s total stock.
Thanks to the accelerated ageing that comes with smaller size, most of Reservoir’s spirits only need two or three years to take on a lot of colour and flavour, but as Dave explains there is no set time.
“We wait until it tastes right, yeah,” he explains. “There’s a core group of four people who have to agree, and if it doesn't taste right, it goes back. Although they're small, they’re not easy to move around.”
We’re working through a huge selection of whiskies, and Jay keeps disappearing back into a store room to retrieve almost-finished bottles that he thuds down onto the bar-top with a conspiratorial look. “This one, we aged in a rum barrel that had held the same spirit for 25 years. We’re not allowed to say which rum, but it’s this one,” he says, plonking down a second, clearly branded bottle.
Every new bottle is better than the last, and I realise I’m starting to recycle superlatives. Under Dave and Jay’s instruction, I begin blending the different single-grain expressions to create completely new flavours. They were turned onto this trick for emulating different mash bills through blending by a bartender in Florida, and say it’s been a game-changer for them.
“We know what’s in our barrels, so having all these different flavours to play with lets us create bespoke whiskies for anyone who comes in. We’ll even do corporate things now where people will book to create their very own whisky, which will be completely unique,” says Dave.
This sounds like a lot of organisation, considering I can’t remember what’s in half of the glasses arrayed in front of me, but I suspect these sessions aren’t being run by someone who’s been drinking for ten hours.
Ardent Craft Ales
We’ve run out of clean tasting glasses at Reservoir, which is a pretty solid indicator that it’s time to move on. So Jay and I head on to Ardent Craft Ales, just a block away.
Ardent is one of those breweries that people have been telling me to visit all week. It’s not Earth-shatteringly wild like The Veil, but it commands an awful lot of respect for its traditional British and Germany brewing, and is reportedly just a great spot for a pint. Ardent started off as a brewing cooperative, run out of a garage with the aim of sharing and educating people about more traditional beer styles. Luckily for me, co-founder Tom Sullivan is behind the bar to pick up the story.
“When we started, we were very interested in making beers that in Virginia were hard to find, and in recreating some methods and processes that were not commonly used anymore. We felt these techniques were what made some of these styles distinctive, and that to have real diversity we needed to rediscover them.
“We’ve always kept the cooperative spirit behind what we do. If the if the guys are really interested in any particular style, we always find a way to fit it in, an we’ve just followed where that curiosity has taken us over the years.”
Tom says that, after multiple expansions, the brewery has now definitely run out of space, with an output of around 5000 barrels per year. “We’re not so large, but this is kind of the size we're always going to be, and that's great. Probably about 30% of what we brew is sold right here on site. And then, you know, depending on where you are around the state, you can find us from time to time. So technically we're state-wide, but the market outside of Richmond doesn't get a whole lot of beer.”
We’re settled in for the long haul, and I’m working my way through the eclectic board. I kick off with an Altbier, purely because it’s not one you see very often, but my highlight of the evening is the Winter American Sour Blend, a wine barrel-aged sour saison. I actually have a couple of these before switching up to the Dark Rye imperial stout.
“What's cool kind of about Richmond is there's been an East Coast thing that's developed in the past five years, of folks that are just starting out and are pretty like-minded,” continues Tom. “We've become this sort of loose confederation, so you’ll go to a big festival like Tampa, or Cigar City’s big thing, and you’ll see four breweries from little provincial Richmond. And then you look around and there’s only two breweries from California. It's like, Wow, what's going on here?”
It’s definitely time for me to take my leave of Tom and Jay, who have been phenomenally gracious hosts, but not before stopping in on a food truck that I spotted on my way in. Barry has been running Curry in a Hurry for a few years now, and may be the happiest looking man I’ve ever met. He’s a Londoner, so we bond over the usual discussion of what a hell-hole it is and why we didn’t get out sooner. I order a vegetable biriyani for the journey home. It is quite excellent.
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