Virginia Beer Co.
Introducing Virginia Beer Co. from Williamsburg
Monday 13 April 2020
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By the time I reach Williamsburg, it’s snowing and a light dusting has already settled on the trees, making this historic town all the more beautiful. I’ve arrived at Virginia Brewing Company’s brewery and taproom about an hour before it’s open, and co-founders Chris Smith and Rob Wiley are there to greet me.
They’re an affable pair of old college friends, who both gave up soul-destroying jobs in finance to move back to Williamsburg and pursue their shared brewing dreams.
“We met there in 2004 and started drinking beer together,” says Rob. “After graduation we both went and did other things; I was in New York City, Rob was in Washington, DC. But we always had this brewing idea in the backs of our minds.”
“We both hated our jobs and were pretty much living to get home and brew in the evening,” continues Chris. “Things got a lot more serious in 2011, and we went to our first Craft Brewers Conference in early 2012, in San Diego. That’s when we decided we were going to go for it, so I moved back here in 2012 and started looking for a site.”
The pair looked at countless locations on the east coast, not just in Virginia, but struggled to find somewhere that both felt right and met their technical needs. For the kind of project they had in mind, they knew they would need plenty of space – 10,000 square feet at a minimum – plus robust drainage and power already installed.
“Williamsburg was like a lightbulb moment for us, because there's that authenticity,” says Chris. “We met here, we fell in love with beer here, we have that connection with the community. This place was built in 1960 by the utility then utility company; it’s where they kept their trucks. If you look at the walls you can see where the bays were, and the floor slopes slightly down to a central trench drain. But it had sat empty for about 15 years before we took it on and was in pretty bad shape cosmetically. It took a while - basically every surface is new here.”
Having signed the lease in December 2014, Chris and Rob were finally ready to brew in January 2016. Also during this time, they found their brewmaster Jonathan Newman, who had moved from Sweetwater Brewing Company in Georgia and was instrumental in helping design and built the new brewhouse according to the founders’ vision.
“We had a particular idea of how we wanted to position our brand,” explains Rob. “There are a lot of small breweries who never do the same brew twice. But we wanted to be a bit of a hybrid between a bigger, more classic production brewery and a smaller, flexible, craft brewery. So we designed it that way; here we have a 30-barrel brewhouse, and right next to it is a 5-barrel brewhouse. The whole thing is custom made and fully integrated; the pumps, the control panel, even the malt conveyor all work together. So we have the flexibility to do those interesting small batch beers, but also do production brewing for the volume channels like grocery stores.”
Virginia Brewing Company releases six small batch canned beers each month, alongside its four core beers. One of those mainstays, Free Verse, was one of the first Jonathan created in his initial run of test batches before the brewery officially opened. The whole team was keen to go out with a big and bold east coast style IPA, and Free Verse certainly is that. Weighing in at a hefty 6.8%, it’s hazy and smooth, with big tropical fruit notes thanks to obscene quantities of Azacca and Chinook. A little more bitter than some of its East Coast counterparts, I personally find that the balance makes Free Verse all the more drinkable, which is perhaps why it remains the boys’ biggest selling beer.
“Jonathan leads recipe creation, but it’s also a team effort,” says Rob. “Like this morning, we’re talking about our limited releases for April. I was just in Italy, in Rimini for a beer and food expo, where I was talking to a bunch of Italian brewers about Italian style pilsner, which is dry hopped basically. So when we were deciding what to do next, I immediate say Italian Pilsner! So, if someone has a good idea or an interesting idea, then the brewers spearhead the recipe development.”
Since I first ran into them a couple of years ago, I’ve always been impressed by Virginia Beer Company’s bold, straightforward branding. I put it to Chris and Rob that claiming the state’s name as its brand is kind of a ballsy move for a brewery straight out of the gate.
“It’s a very simple brand, yeah,” says Chris, grinning. “The thing is, I saw a lot of breweries that would pigeonhole themselves with their branding, and it came to limit them. Virginia Beer Company doesn't really pigeon hole us; we can go in any direction from there. And Virginia’s brand as an international beer destination is growing too. That was a big part of our hope; it’s great for export, and I think it makes us sound older than we are!”
This sense of place does seem to be a key part of the brewery’s secret sauce, and it’s completely understandable that it took Chris and Rob so long to find a home that “felt right”. Unsurprisingly, the brewery’s motto is ‘beer, people, purpose’, and it is heavily involved with the local community
“That was a big part of why we did this,” confirms Chris. “I worked in finance before and hated it, mostly because I never got any personal fulfilment out of what I was doing. Like, I was making money for rich people. And Robbie was in consulting and also kind of feeling like, you know, he wasn’t doing much good for anyone.”
“One of the things that always drew us to craft beer was that you could be a community based business, and impact the people around you in a positive way,” says Rob. “So that was a huge pillar n our plan. I think it's what we're recognised for, besides the beer of course. We work with charities constantly, giving money, beer and time. And that extends to our own team here; we try hard to be a good employer and make sure everyone who puts their trust in us really wants to come to work each morning.”
I’m only on tiny samples this morning, as I still have a drive ahead of me to O’Connor’s, but Chris and Rob are kind enough to send me away with one of their extra special barrel-aged beers, which I share later in the day. It’s been a real pleasure to meet them, and we vow to catch up the next time they’re in the UK.
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