The crowd peers into the caverns, the James River behind and 21st-century condominiums looming above. Historian Mike Gorman describes the storage cellars of James River Steam Brewery, built in 1866 by David Yuengling Jr. of the Pennsylvania brewing family.
Onlookers sip homebrews from a brewery-in-planning paired with fare from a local vendor. Their stops on the annual autumn Beer-istoric Tour will include breweries and tales of brewing history.
Like Richmond, Virginia, the tour respects the past while celebrating today’s trends. These trends, which have spurred the growth of the city’s beer scene, were among the reasons Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh chose Richmond for their new business, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. They vetted the region and noticed that Virginia’s capital city embraced cultural values similar to those in other beer cities, like Boulder, Asheville, and Portland, including the independent food scene and a vibrant outdoor culture.
Hardywood opened in 2011, the first of Richmond’s new wave of breweries. Eleven have opened since, with more on the way—including Stone Brewing’s East Coast brewing operations center.
In September 2014, U.S. News & World Report listed Richmond as one of “8 Under-the-Radar Foodie Cities” in the world. You can taste the innovation at nationally recognized spots such as The Roosevelt, Rappahannock, and Heritage restaurants, Sugar Shack Donuts and Sub Rosa bakery.
Fortunately, most of the restaurants recognize the affinity of beer and food. Over a decade ago, Capital Ale House opened its first location, introducing an extensive beer selection to Richmond consumers.
Mekong Vietnamese restaurant, tucked in an unpretentious building in Richmond’s West End, has fertilized many beer palates. For the full flavor of Mekong, make your way to the bar. Besides the beer list with an emphasis on Belgians and sours, you’re likely to find other people eager to talk beer, as the restaurant has become a “Cheers” for the local beer community. You may even see the colorful An Bui himself.
At the rear of the building, you’ll find The Answer Brewpub (emphasis on “An”), Bui’s second project. The new restaurant serves casual Vietnamese fare, distinctive beers on tap and house-brewed beers, mostly IPAs.
The foundation of the city’s outdoor scene is the James River, which bisects it. In June 2015, American Express Travel named Richmond the No. 1 U.S. city to visit for its flurry of outdoor activities, including whitewater sports, mountain biking, swimming and trail running. Beer-related runs and improved beer selection at sporting events have helped connect the two cultures.
Near the home of the minor league Richmond Flying Squirrels, Hardywood gained national renown for its Gingerbread Stout (GBS), a sought-after trading commodity, then for the Raspberry Stout, which won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Since opening, it has grown in brewing capacity and distribution, extending through Virginia and into Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.
Hardywood’s accessible beers and taproom events introduced many locals to the culture of beer. Though many of the beers are perfect for newbies—Singel, Pils and Cream Ale—the lineup has morphed, as have Richmonders’ tastes.
“We have started to do a lot more experimenting with barrel-aging, sour ales, aging beers in unusual types of barrels,” says McKay.
A 30-minute drive west from Richmond’s West End takes you to the state’s trendsetting farm brewery, Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery. Its serene rural setting, surrounded by rolling fields and forests, pairs fresh air with fresh beer.
Though still young, the farm brewery has already been able to use its own crops—hops, locally malted six-row Thoroughbred barley and adjuncts—in Gentleman Farmer, Rosemary Saison and other beers. This year, the barley harvest increased from 6,000 to 20,000 pounds, with seven acres of rye and three acres of wheat.
“We expect to continue to increase the use of our farm-grown barley and hops and adjuncts,” including experiments with Endeavor two-row barley, says Lisa Pumphrey, co-owner with her husband, Sean-Thomas Pumphrey.
Despite facing challenges distinct from brewing—typical farmer woes plus regulatory struggles as the first of its kind—Lickinghole has established its reputation as a creative brewery. Notable beers include the Enlightened Despot Russian Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels; tequila-barrel-aged La Calavera Catrina Belgian tripel; and Nuclear Nugget Imperial Honey IPA.
Richmond’s most distinctive brand comes from Neil Burton and Mike Hiller of Strangeways Brewing in the city’s Near West End. Stepping into the tasting room, you know the name is appropriate: from the signature chimp pondering a Belgian ale to offbeat pop culture names such as Room 237 and off-the-wall taproom events, such as Brews & Burlusque and Cards Against Humanity SIN Night. The tasting room features more than 25 taps, including infusions dubbed “curiosities.”
The beers march to the beat of a different brewer, too. Sour and wild beers figure prominently in the lineup. Hiller employs a variation of kettle souring and adds wild yeasts and lactobacillus cultures to barrels.
“We’re experimental,” explains Hiller. “We try to take existing styles and push the limits on their taste and ingredients.”
In 150 years, drinkers may still be pondering Richmond’s beer history, enjoying beers from start-ups and seasoned veterans. Perhaps like today, both innovation and heritage will have nurtured the growth.
With a breeze on her face and a draft on her lips, freelance writer Annie Tobey focuses her professional attention on active travel and beer. She’s the First Drafts beer columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and covers the topic for Richmond.com and a variety of other regional and national publications.