Even as archeologists were unearthing the remains of what’s thought to be a colonial era brew house on the grounds of Williamsburg’s College of William and Mary, two friends – alumni of that very school, no less – were busy unearthing ideas for the foundation of their own brewery just a few miles away. And even while the most casual of beer geek would probably have a difficult time not day dreaming about what the beer from the former might have been like, no such contemplation will be needed about the beer from the latter. When Williamsburg’s The Virginia Beer Company opens their doors mid 2015, founders Chris Smith and Robby Willey, along with Brewmaster Jonathan Newman, will be more than happy to pour you a glass or two to satisfy any such curiosities.
Smith and Willey met while attending William and Mary, honing not only the skills that would serve them in careers in finance but also developing a shared interest in craft beer. Although Smith and Willey’s post college paths would take them in different directions and well away from Williamsburg as they landed jobs in New York, Boston, and Northern Virginia, the two kept well in touch, and often took trips together, visiting craft breweries as their mutual interest in craft beer continued to grow. During this time, the two began home brewing, and eventually began discussing merging their business lives with their passion for craft beer to open their own brewery. It was during these conversations that Willey and Smith felt a call to return to Williamsburg, the city where they had met and began their craft beer curiosities, and by 2012, had done so. However, apart from “some volunteer work at local breweries” and their own home brewing experience, the two lacked experience in larger scale brewing. So in 2013, Jonathan Newman, formerly of SweetWater Brewing in Georgia, was recruited as a consultant to the brewery. Roughly a year later, as Willey proudly states, Newman “became the brewery’s first full-time hire in Summer 2014”.
With Newman’s guidance and experience, the brewery plans on first focusing on “a small, high quality core lineup of year-round products”, Smith continues, and then building upon those three to four year round offerings to include “a boundary-pushing rotation of limited edition beers”. The brewery has already begun to create test batches of possible year round offerings, understanding that “while we have ambitious plans to offer a sizable variety of beers and flavors, we also realize that we want to make our name in the quality of our early recipes”. The early test batches include a citrusy American Wheat Ale, an IPA hopped with Azacca (a relatively new variety), an Oatmeal Stout, and an Amarillo/Simcoe Rye ESB. The series of more limited releases has already taken on a name, “Burg Beer”, and along with the core beers, will be the products brewed on the brewery’s primary 30 bbl brewhouse. The brewery also plans to fully utilize a smaller 3bbl pilot system. “Using the two, we aim to offer three to four year-round offerings as well as a multitude of one-offs in the taproom.” Depending upon the season and how those one are received, those may be moved to the primary brewing equipment. Willey continues, “We also plan to get creative with cask ales, so we are really stoked to take advantage of our planned brewing capacity and taproom to have some truly invigorating styles while at the same time offering something for everyone. In addition, the use of pins and firkins will allow us to be exceptionally creative and get feedback from customers, fans, and retailers to drive new [recipes].” Between the year round offerings and the more limited seasonal and taproom only beers, The Virginia Beer Company seems well aware of the wide variety of craft beer drinkers, as well as being cognizant of their wide ranging and often shifting tastes. “We’re focused on bridging the gap between those who don’t know much about craft to the people working in the industry who live, breathe, and drink it every day, so quality and variety are integral to Virginia Beer Co.’s future success.”
Central to the vision Willey and his partners have for The Virginia Beer Company will be the site at which the beers will be primarily available, the brewery’s taproom. The team well understands that the visitors to the brewery will span a wide variety of craft beer fan, from the locally based Williamsburg native to the tourist looking to check out a new brewery while on vacation. But regardless of each visitor’s level of craft beer experience or reason for stopping by, The Virginia Beer Company wants the taproom to feel inviting to all. “First and foremost, we want people who visit our brewery to feel welcome. All types of people, be they tourists, locals, students, or families, should sense the community atmosphere we will try to create. We’re [aware] that in a place like Williamsburg we need to cater to groups coming in to check out a band on a Thursday evening as well as families coming through for the weekend who may enjoy a Sunday afternoon on the patio.” Hosting various community events is but one way the brewery hopes to build such a comfortable atmosphere. The brewery also plans to have a green area near the patio where during the warmer months, patrons can bring a picnic or participate in lawn games. Without a doubt, it sounds as if Willey and Smith have learned – likely through their many travels to breweries over the years – that the more successful breweries are ones which become a social destination for families and friends to gather, instead of simply being a tasting room with a bar. “We want our customers to walk away feeling inspired by the experience they received by enjoying something created with so much thought, effort, and love.”
While The Virginia Beer Company’s long term plans include growing beyond the taproom and distributing on a regional basis, Willey, Smith, and Newman realize that success begins, as it should, at home. “We have been seeking a space with more capacity than we need now so we can grow into that location over the next 10 years, and we’d certainly love to be a regional brewery by that point.”, Willey says. “[But] we don’t want to expand too quickly – we want to make sure our year-round offerings are constantly available around Williamsburg and the surrounding areas before we move to new cities.” So while the brewery certainly has plans to distribute draft beer throughout Virginia within the first few years of operation, first on draft and then hopefully in bottle and can formats, “for now we’ll just focus on opening so people can come to us and sample some Burg Beer, but we plan to get out to the people as soon as we can!”
The Virginia Beer Company team certainly seems to have built a solid foundation, beginning with Smith and Willey’s return to Williamsburg, where their interest in craft beer all began. As the brewery’s founders explain, “A lot of research went into the name of the brewery as well as its final destination but after a lot of due diligence, Williamsburg, Virginia emerged as the perfect place to start the [brewery]. It’s the state where Robby was raised, where Chris & Robby first met, and one with a thriving beer scene. In addition, Williamsburg, beyond being the birthplace of the duo’s interest in brewing, is an incredible city with a rich history and thriving culture that has ample room for more growth in the world of craft brewing.” So far, the city has been receptive to the venture. “We’ve received a great deal of support from the City of Williamsburg and the surrounding counties, as well as from local breweries ranging from in town to Richmond to Charlottesville to Washington, DC.” And while the brewery certainly has a robust plan in terms of brewing a great variety of beers and attracting loyal customers through quality examples of those styles, the VBC team is starting with a time tested and simple recipe for success. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make a name for yourself – beer drinkers appreciate a well-crafted ale or lager, and if you do it right, you’re more likely to get [return] customers…If you’re willing to be polite, patient, and work hard, [the brewery] will be accepted by the powers that be and the peers around you.”
–Thank you so much to team at The Virginia Beer Company for letting me do this little write up about their brewery. Please check out their Facebook page here.