Local brewery celebrates anniversary amidst growing industry

Some works of art might be obvious, like Botticelli paintings at the Muscarelle or an Oscar-winning film screening at the Kimball Theatre. But a growing segment of the population is finding worthy works of art elsewhere, at breweries throughout the area.

Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of Virginia Beer Company, the latest in a series of area breweries. The occasion heralds a three-day celebration, featuring ten live bands, five food trucks and a selection of new beers.

The founders, Robby Willey and Chris Smith, figured their backgrounds in business and finance could turn their appreciation of beer into something practical. In 2010, they started planning. Now, their products are available across the area, from Petersburg to Virginia Beach.

"We have surpassed a lot of our own expectations," Willey said.

Willey and Smith both attended William & Mary, and they wanted stick around in the community.

"We feel like our story was in Williamsburg," he said.

Their 2nd Street location was a natural fit, only a couple of miles from campus and the city's downtown scene, although Willey said they paid a premium for that proximity.

He and Smith wanted to give it their all, with strict standards on their cleaning equipment and a full lab for microbiology testing.

"We take that part of our brewery really seriously because you get one chance," Willey said.

They also brought in an established brewmaster from Atlanta's SweetWater Brewing Company, founded in 1997.

"The creativity of craft breweries interests people," Smith said, emphasizing consumers' interest in locally produced fare.

Friday marked the company's first bottle release, an imperial stout with two variations: Waypost Black, aged in barrels previously filled with Kentucky Bourbon, and Waypost Green, aged in casks once home to Islay Scotch.

"It's two very drastic takes on the same beer," Willey said.

Competition and camaraderie

Relaxed alcohol laws are part of the reason for breweries' growth. The biggest of these was SB604, passed by the General Assembly in 2012, which allowed the establishments to sell their creations on their own premises. They can still only serve alcohol that they produce.

Fellow brewery Alewerks, founded in an industrial park off of Mooretown Road, launched in 2006 as a distributor. That's still their focus, but premise sales have contributed to "slow and steady growth," according to the site's brewmaster and managing director, Geoff Logan.

Logan was the first employee hired by Alewerks' founder, Chuck Haynes, and took over after Haynes' retirement.

"The availability of better beer is pretty contagious," Logan said, citing double digit growth year-to-year. He welcomes the growing competition from Virginia Beer Company as well as Brass Cannon Brewing, which is located half a mile from Alewerks on Mooretown Road.

"Beer people are friendly," Logan said, praising the "fraternal" relationship between breweries, which often leads to collaborating on different brew ideas. "It just attracts more attention to beer as a whole."

Willey shared the same sentiment.

"It's actually really positive." he said. "That was one of the things that drew us to the industry."

He and Smith went so far as to meet with Alewerks after deciding to enter the industry.

"We basically gave them a heads up," Willey said. "We were not just here to make a buck. It's really what's good for the overall area."

Logan saw an opportunity to focus on the company's brand in an effort to stand out.

"Quality is paramount," he said. "We're really proud of the recipes that we put out."

Current offerings include a double IPA, Bitter Valentine, a malty brew with Pacific Northwest hops.

Brass Cannon is celebrating its fifth anniversary on April 1. It launched in Toano and moved to its current Mooretown Road location last August. The move has meant bigger business for the establishment, according to its president, Phil Norfolk.

"Our proximity to town has been a big help," he said, asserting that their intimate location in relation to Alewerks only helps both businesses raise awareness.

"More places means more variety," Norfolk said. "Getting on taps is definitely harder," he said, but he also mentioned that there are more taps than ever before.

Bob Harris, the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance's Senior Vice President of Tourism, expressed the organization's excitement surrounding the burgeoning brewery scene.

"It's something consumers are really looking for now," he said.

Local data is hard to track down, and the breweries themselves keep specific numbers confidential. At the state level, breweries generated $173.18 per adult 21-and-over in 2014, the latest year for which information is available.

The Williamsburg Tasting Trail encourages residents and visitors to check out the breweries, as well as the Williamsburg Winery, Silver Hand Meadery and others for those interested in a break from beer. Williamsburg Distillery and Copper Fox Distillery are also included.

"I think it's starting to resonate with people," Harris said, emphasizing millennials' enthusiasm in particular.

It gives people a new reason to visit the historic area, and it adds a dash of variety for those who live here.

"There's definitely a misconception that Williamsburg is a quiet place," Harris said. "I think the biggest thing is that appeal to younger people. That type of things gives Williamsburg a very hip feel."

Harris is confident that each brewery stands out on its own.

"They've transformed each building into something unique," he said.

He praised Virginia Beer Company's "really creative atmosphere," including the deliberate decision to forgo TVs.

"They want you to come in and enjoy the beer, but they want you to talk," he said.

Alewerks' wood aesthetics give the sense of being inside a barrel of beer, and Brass Cannon mixes history with modernity.

"It's nice having that variation," Harris said. "These guys are all gleaning attention. That in and of itself is exciting."

Looking into the future, Billsburg Brewery is opening in the fall at the marina near Jamestown Settlement.

"There's always concern about, 'What's the magic number?'" Willey said. But he's confident that unique settings and styles of beer can sustain four breweries.

For now, this weekend's celebration at Virginia Beer Company offers a simple opportunity to meet up with friends and unwind in the aftermath of the work week.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-390-3029.

Want to go?

Saturday's All-Day Birthday Bash lasts from noon until 10 p.m. and include eight bands, three food trucks and more than 15 beers. Tickets $12 or $5 for designated drivers and those under 21.

Sunday's Hangover Brunch runs from noon until 7 p.m. Highlights include a live jazz band and the release of a coffee brew in partnership with local coffeehouse Aroma's. Tickets are not required.

More information is available at virginiabeerco.com.

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