When inspiration hits, sometimes it's with a mouthwatering plate of smoked beef brisket with spicy tomato chowchow and a mug of full-bodied craft beer.
At least that is how it happened for Chris Cook and Andrew Voss, owners of Williamsburg's innovative new brew pub, the Amber Ox. The thirty-something friends with decades of combined restaurant experience and a passion for craft beer, saw the need for a bold, pioneering approach to eating and drinking establishments in Williamsburg, and decided to meet it.
"I had talked to my neighbors and other locals here, and so many expressed a desire to see more places that are cool, creative, casual, and approachable," says Chris, a Williamsburg resident since 2014. "That's the niche we want to fill."
So began the Amber Ox, serving inventive cuisine with seasonal and regionally grown food and a curated, frequently-changing offering of regional wines, spirits, and craft beers, including beer brewed on site in its 7-barrel brew house.
Chef Troy Buckley, previously Chef d 'cuisine at Williamsburg Winery's Café Provencal, will head up the Amber Ox kitchen. "He will bring a progressive, Southern influence to our food, in addition to his passion for using locally sourced products," Chris explains. A cornerstone of the chef-driven menu will be fried buttermilk chicken, soaked 24 hours in buttermilk brine and drizzled with a little hot sauce, then finished with a dry, in-house spice blend, served with pickled watermelon rind salad.
Leading the brewing side will be Kyle McDonald, an experienced brewer from the Harvest Moon, a New Brunswick, New Jersey brew pub. "He's a very progressive brewer," Andrew notes. "He enjoys brewing the New American style using seasonally inspired ingredients, and he understands the marriage between food and beer."
That marriage will be one of equals, as the Amber Ox chef and head brewer work collaboratively. "As a cook and chef for nearly 20 years, the idea of being able to create something unique to us-to incorporate the food component with the brewing- helped tell us this concept was right," says Andrew. "A lot of brew pubs focus on one or the other… beer, with food an ancillary, uninspired cuisine, or the opposite emphasis, great food but not great beer. Our place will have that fine balance of all those factors."
Coming Together. The collaboration between Chris and Andrew was years in the making, since they first met at the wedding of Chris's sister. Andrew, who grew up in a small town in western Michigan, was a graduate of the culinary arts program affiliated with Grand Rapids Community College. Chris, then general manager of a new Grand Rapids restaurant, had grown up on a dairy farm in a central Michigan town so small that "people drove tractors to school sometimes…and not as a joke." The two hit it off, and Chris asked Andrew to join the new restaurant as its opening chef.
The two worked together for more than a year in Grand Rapids before heading off on separate career paths. Chris worked in corporate restaurants in Florida, became co-owner of several restaurants in Michigan, then relocated to the Chesapeake, Virginia area in 2012 and opened five Little Caesar stores. He moved to Williamsburg three years ago with his wife, Heidi, and their two young children, Ellie Mae and Carter, and developed strong roots in the Williamsburg community. Andrew left Michigan to take a variety of positions with JW Marriott, working up to executive sous chef before moving to the Renaissance Hotel in Boston as its Executive Chef and then its Director of Restaurant Operations. But despite the distance between them, the friends kept in touch, often kicking around the idea of working together on something new. In 2016, Chris began persuading Andrew that Williamsburg was ripe for an innovative new venture, and a year later Andrew, his wife, Abby, and their young sons, Mason and Oliver, moved from Boston to join Chris in Williamsburg.
"We decided to combine our passions for running a restaurant to create a cool dining experience-- something you can really remember-with our passion for beer, especially regional craft beer," says Andrew. The two, who had done some home brewing in the past, wanted to include brewing their own beer.
"The way people are focused on beer and the experience of drinking it has changed," Andrew notes. "Some people just go to a 7-11 to grab a six-pack of Bud Light, and that's fine. But for the Amber Ox, we are talking about a demographic of people who also want to try new things, experience where the beer is produced, meet the brewer, and experiment with different styles of beer."
But why pair beer with food? "Why is the sky blue?" Andrew laughs. "It's very similar to wines. There are different beers for different types of food: braised ox tail with a robust Peacock Porter or spicy food with refreshing, lighter pilsner or wheat ale. Beer transcends all the different flavors of food. "
From Concept to Concrete. Chris and Andrew negotiated a lease on space in Williamsburg's Historic District, selected equipment, and came up with a brew house layout. In summer in 2017, they started brewing. "We brewed on a small, 1-barrel pilot system sitting in Chris's garage," Andrew notes. "This is legitimately a pilot series beer." They developed three beers to start: a New American-style IPA, an amber ale, and a blonde ale.
The road from concept to concrete has been filled with challenges, but the friends have met them with a sense of humor. "For the people we've encountered along the way, different people who have presented challenges for us, we've created a lot of fictional names," Andrew says, laughing. "Like 'Old Man Jenkins' or 'Slick Rick' or 'Your Boy'-as in if it's someone Chris dealt with, I would call him 'Your Boy.' Then, since we are legally required to have names or numbers for our fermenting tanks, we decided to affectionately use those nicknames for our tanks."
While naming the tanks was easy, coming up with the name for their brew pub took a bit more thought. "We wanted some subtle historical influence in our name, but not something cheesy or generic," Andrew explains. "We chose our name to center on the ox because oxen with reddish coats used to pull grain carts through the streets of Williamsburg; even today you see them in Colonial Williamsburg. Also, the amber ox used to be called the draft ox, and was used to pull grains to the distillery at Mt. Vernon, where [George] Washington ran a brewery. There are a lot of historical ties between amber oxen and the alcohol industry."
Keeping It Local for Food and Drink. The menus for Amber Ox will be locally sourced and constantly changing with the seasons. For cuisine, Chris and Andrew plan to use local suppliers such as Blenheim Farm outside Charlottesville, and Hayes Oyster Company, which works with mom-and-pop businesses that harvest oysters in the lower York River and Chesapeake Bay watershed area.
The drink menus will also change to keep things fresh and interesting. Amber Ox will offer 18 draft handles: 8-10 of their own brews and the rest exclusively regional craft beers. They plan to brew with other breweries such as Virginia Beer Company, and then serve that beer exclusively at Amber Ox. "Having a seasonal and quality-driven philosophy will be important in choosing who to collaborate with," Andrew notes.
Between drafts, cans and bottles, the Amber Ox will have a maximum of about 40 offerings. "We do not believe it's a good idea to have 1,000 different bottles of beer," Andrew says. "We want to really focus on quality, not quantity, and the selection will change all the time."
Hard cider, local wines, and a wide range of regionally distilled spirits also will be on the menu. "Part of the brew pub experience is to have a full bar, so we will have a whole cocktail menu," Andrew says. "Much the same as the beer and food, we will focus on regionally produced spirits. The Copper Fox in Williamsburg does an amazing whiskey, and we plan to offer a lot of their stuff. We will also serve products from Belle Isle moonshine, Commonwealth Distillery, Jamestown Distilling and so on".
"We want to create a new experience for people," he continues. "It's easy to have 25-year Macallan scotch the same as everyone else. But we want to celebrate regional spirits and to come up with signature cocktails. We plan on producing our own bitters in-house, and a lot of cocktails will use them. For example, Copper Fox whiskey, maybe our naval orange bitters, and fresh herbs."
Creating Community. Building community is a prime focus for Chris and Andrew, not only in their approach to food and drink, but also in planning their 180-seat dining room, bar and open air patio. Like many beer halls, the Amber Ox offers communal tables, but it also has private tables for patrons who prefer that seating. Warm, natural wood is a major component of the décor; communal tables are crafted of live-edge black walnut slabs and smaller tables are reclaimed heart pine, all made by a regional artisan.
Since beers will change often, there will be special events to introduce new brews; there are plans to have a kettle sour beer program. The Amber Ox will have some televisions, but mostly for its "On Tap" electronic menu and for guests to rate beers, so it will not be a typical sports bar. However, with a location across the street from the main campus of William & Mary, Chris and Andrew expect student patrons and if there is a big game, are happy to let them watch it at the brew pub.
"We really want to connect to our guests, and to do that through approachability, creativity, and originality," says Andrew. "Our tag line is 'It's through food and drink that we connect to our roots -- and then to each other.' We really love that line."
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