(Perfect Time For Another Look At This One – Re Post): A Thought Worthy Of A Pint Or Two: An Official Craft Beer Week In Roanoke?
** I thought that given that we’re a full month plus some into 2013, that I’d re-post this one from back in August of last year. If you live in and around Roanoke, and love craft beer, perhaps the thought of an Official Roanoke Beer Week has come to you too. At any rate, here are my thoughts on the matter, which basically are…the Star City deserves one!**
Blame it, perhaps, on the beer. Even a single pint can sometimes cause the mind to wander towards the most enjoyable of what-if scenarios. Lately, over a stout or two, my thoughts have been drifting to one idea in particular, comparing my own city of Roanoke to certain others, and during these moments I tend to think big. In between sips, it attempts to draw lines between the Star City and such urban sprawls as Philly, Seattle, Boston, or DC, and no, we’re not playing a game of “what doesn’t fit”. I’m also not measuring up drive times to work, sizes of airports, or what downtown parking is like, because in all of the above, Roanoke is vastly different of course. And yes, those cities score major concert tours, have professional sports franchises, and often show up on Travel Channel shows. But I believe that there is one kind of event that when mentioned in conjunction with those other cities certainly seems like a foregone conclusion, but which Roanoke is deserving of as well. So yes, blame it on the fact that I am usually sipping a beer at these moments, but occasionally I think, these cities have their own annual, official craft beer weeks – why can’t we? Roanoke Craft Beer Week: It rolls off the tongue pretty well, right?
Those of you who share an address in the Star City, stop chuckling. Sure, at first it may seem that we would be more likely to land a major, nationally known craft brewery right here within our city limits than to have our own official craft beer week. (Then again, a quick 45 minute drive would’ve sufficed, right?) So as my mind begins to wander, more questions come to mind. What do those other, much larger cities have plenty of, other than people of course, in order to host reputable craft beer weeks? Obviously, they also have plenty of places which serve the beer in question, and I suppose this is where my mind really begins to stray from reality in one sense but remains firmly rooted in another. Restaurants which are serving, and moreover, are specializing in having craft beer available seem to be sprouting up all over town. Take a step out of one Roanoke establishment which shows any devotion to featuring craft beer on tap, and stop right there. In a couple areas in town, odds are you can literally see another such place from the very spot in which you’re standing.
Should Roanoke ever actually hold an official Beer Week, you couldn’t ask for more than this type of a geographical advantage. No scattered locations all over town for the craft curious to travel to, no, not for our fair city – not when they’re right across the street from each other. Of course, Roanoke still has far fewer spots to enjoy craft beer than any of those larger cities. Just take a look at the Washington DC google map for craft beer bars and restaurants on dcbeer.com. The number of those little map flags marking the locations make it look more like World War II invasion plans than a guide to local watering holes. But Roanoke does have a fair number of such places, and they’re growing. It would seem to prove that Roanoke, while perhaps not at Beer Week level just yet, is definitely one craft beer curious town. The proof can be calculated in mere footsteps.
In the cozy Grandin Village area, for example, several craft beer selections wrap themselves neatly around the T intersection of Grandin Road and Memorial Ave, concentrated in only a one and a half block range in either direction. Centrally located in the middle of it all is Local Roots Restaurant, with its large ambrosia maple bar which seems to almost anchor the area, and more importantly the taps of only craft ales and lagers behind it. Just about a block and a half away sits Italian eatery Jimmy Sardines and their predominantly six lines of flowing craft beer. Almost directly across the street from Local Roots, the seafood themed Surf N Turf Grill, and a couple more. On a recent afternoon, I counted seventeen craft beers between these locations, all within a barely three block area. But if this type of concentration in such a small amount of space is impressive, the rate at which the restaurants switch out the beers for new ones to try – or at least how often their regular visitors want them to – is perhaps even more notable. At Local Roots, Manager Brian Sallade has enjoyed making a name for the restaurant as a craft beer destination in town, but is quick to point out “that our beer-loving guests are always seeking something new to drink. Bar guests will actually call me out if we’ve had a brew on tap for ‘too long’”. What might seem like a slight logistical problem for the establishments is simply another key sign of a growing craft beer scene. Once locations which serve the beer become established, one of the most basic features of the national craft beer scene – incredible variety of styles – becomes something the restaurants both enjoy supplying, and also must cater to. Describing those regulars who are always craving something new and different to try than what has been on draft for “too long”, Sallade continues, [they] “will actually order that particular beer in hopes of kicking the keg and having it replaced with something they’ve never tried – happy regardless, because beer is in hand.” For these customers, even more choices – and beers to try – are coming. Yet another restaurant, so far dubbed the “1906 Ale House” is in the works, to be situated between Local Roots and Jimmy Sardines. (2013: Of course, 1906 is now up for business, and doing quite well!)
Roanoke’s second main concentration of craft beer on tap is also in an area which features more than a touch of quaintness, although it easily spreads out over a much larger area. As any Star City resident will tell you, downtown Roanoke, and especially the area surrounding the farmer’s market area, is also one of the city’s primary attractions. Everything from festivals to the regular Saturday morning offerings of local farmers is held there. But downtown Roanoke is steadily making itself into a destination for those who enjoy craft beer, as stepping off of the street into one of the many restaurants around Market Square means finding plenty of it on draft. Assisted by the configuration and relatively cozy size of the market area itself, you can practically see one location while standing on the doorstep of another. For example, enjoying a Virginia brewed Wild Wolf Scotch Ale from a window table at Blues BBQ and Company gives you a perfect view of Awful Arthur’s, located straight across the street and home to beers locally brewed by Big Daddy’s Brewing, like their Dark Side Porter. Just a few store fronts away, you can easily make out the tables sitting outside Fork In The Market, which upon its recent opening dedicated all but one or two of their taps to craft beer, such as Breckenridge’s “471” IPA. This close proximity of the restaurants has always, as it does with any downtown market area, added to the inviting feel of downtown itself. But it also seems to perfectly fit in with what some might say is a similar, “locally grown” feel that most craft breweries seem to have (no matter how large the brewery actually is).
But the craft beer doesn’t stop flowing at the edges of the Roanoke market area. A couple blocks away is Corned Beef and Company’s sprawling layout, which moves sideways from original bar to band area to pool room, and then upwards towards a rooftop dining area, each section either having its own bar, many with craft beer selections among the tap handles. Martin’s Downtown Bar & Grille and The Quarter are both easy walks, where you can find still several more at either. Edging the downtown area but still only about five blocks from its center sits Blue 5 Restaurant, with its city leading and head spinning 46 taps of predominantly craft beer. In case you were keeping score, along with the additional restaurants with one or two taps here and there, the number of craft beer taps in downtown Roanoke falls somewhere north of eighty – it’s easy to lose count. And while the number of choices at the largest, Blue 5, is a popular topic of conversation among the craft beer curious in the area, the events the restaurant holds are just as notable. After all, craft beer weeks are all about the beer, but are organized around events occurring throughout the week to showcase them. Blue 5 already hosts popular craft beer events such as “Steal the Pint” nights and seasonal beer kickoffs from time to time, as well as features the occasional cask ale. The success and popularity of such events may make for one very happy happy-hour today, but they could also signal that Roanoke is on the cusp of deserving a full week of them soon.
But supporting a full week of such events takes more than simply having plenty of beer, even if the city does have as many as eighty choices within a few blocks. After all, if there is plenty of great craft beer to drink, but there is no one around to drink it, what does it matter? So does Roanoke have a dedicated, beer seeking portion of its population who will turn out consistently throughout the week? If what already occurs every August in Roanoke is any indication, the city just might have the next piece of a craft beer week puzzle solved.
Held each annually each summer, Roanoke’s craft beer festival has been growing healthily in attendance over its fifteen years. Last year, gate ticket sales were cut off mid afternoon as the venue, downtown’s Elmwood Park, reached capacity. This year, the festival was moved to a more open area downtown, and the craft curious responded. Prior to the event, ticket sales were moving roughly three times faster than the previous year, and early returns on attendance are showing that nearly four thousand folks came out to sample craft beer and socialize. Should Roanoke Craft Beer Week begin to truly formalize, a target audience for marketing seems to be available, ready, and willing to turn out, at least on that kind of scale. The popularity of Microfestivus, like almost all craft beer festivals, is part extensive craft beer tasting and part massive social event. Those same beer fans who pack downtown for the festival each year should be the same ones interested in similar events, held of course on a much smaller scale, for just a couple hours at a restaurant or bar, if given all the right reasons. One or two special beer releases, live entertainment, and appearances by brewery representatives can all add to the overall excitement.
Those are the kinds of reasons those larger cities employ within their own beer weeks. A recent visit to an event website for “DC Beer Week” listed brewers in attendance for the festivities, as well as special release beers. With the right people organizing a beer week for Roanoke, events here could easily feature the same. It already happens from time to time – Baltimore based Heavy Seas owner Hugh Sisson was recently in Roanoke for an event featuring his brewery, and when Virginia’s own Devils Backbone rolled out their bottled product several months ago, brewers and brewery reps were found at a week’s worth of events all over town. Roanoke’s strength and its foundation for holding an official craft beer week may then lie in all those growing number of locations already serving craft beer. Any doubts to that effect might be answered by that DC Beer Week website – interestingly enough, the events on it are completely organized not by type of event, beer, or brewery – but by exactly which DC area restaurants and bars were involved.
And those locations are growing even as we speak. In addition to Roanoke Railhouse Brewery, another, Parkway Brewing, is just getting started in Salem. A third, Flying Mouse Brewery, has recently acquired a site in nearby Daleville. Near downtown, the folks who run popular Roanoke restaurant Wildflour Café are opening up a new project, the Wasena City Tap Room and Grill, and promise to feature thirty or more beers on draft. One of the downtown apartment complexes, The Lofts at West Station, is planning an on-site restaurant with quite a few of their own. Even restaurants which might not spring to mind as being craft beer destinations are getting in on the act. Macados in Salem was an event location for the Devils Backbone rollout week, and even Buffalo Wild Wings in Roanoke County has moved several of their taps over to craft beer in the last year.
So as I take another sip of my beer, I once again wonder if my stout is really to blame for letting my mind wander towards such a vision. I’m thinking that there is a ghost like quality, a faint smokiness somewhere off in the distance – but only in the beer, certainly not in the possibilities. The reality of a Roanoke Craft Beer Week is much more firm in my mind than the flavors I can’t place yet in my glass. What begun occurring several years ago a few craft beers at a time now has a quickening pace, as more restaurants continue to step into the footprints left behind from a growing nationwide trend in craft beer popularity. Thankfully, Roanoke did not fail to follow. In some spots in town, we’re practically surrounded by it. If Microfestivus is any indication, there are many folks here in Roanoke who are more than curious about craft beer and its endless flavors and aromas, and the good time that can be built in celebration of it. Is it just me, or could it be that the city has plenty of prerequisites already in place? We have the places, the beer, and what surely seems like the interest. Will Roanoke soon be ready, and deserving of its own official craft beer week?
Taking another sip of my beer, I’ll raise my glass to that. Cheers.