By Elizabeth Erschens
Eight years ago, it was easy to put local beer into its own little, well-defined box, as we only had two breweries on the Peninsula; the larger Southside would lie barren of breweries for another four years. For the most part, craft beer from other parts of the state was not locally distributed. Our beer menus, even from the best local establishments, consisted mostly of imported European beers, the larger American craft breweries (such as Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada), and a sprinkling of beers from the Peninsula’s AleWerks Brewing Company and St. George Brewing Company. New Belgium Brewing Company did not distribute in Virginia until a few years ago; they were followed by regional breweries such as Terrapin and SweetWater.
Today, the beer landscape has changed drastically to include five breweries on the Southside and an additional one on the Peninsula, with more in the building phase quickly popping up like hop vines. Some are being opened by lifelong residents, while other owners are out-of-state residents who decided to stay here and jump into the rapidly boiling brew pot.
Due to the transient nature of Hampton Roads, with tourism and the military, it is hard to define a local resident, much less a local beer. How long do you have to be here before you are considered local? If you sign a lease to reside here, is that the equivalent of opening a tap room locally even though your beer might be contract-brewed out-of-state?
Those are just some questions about our immediate vicinity. What about our state pride and camaraderie? Can we claim local pride of the many amazing breweries that have opened throughout Virginia? I know when I attended the Virginia Craft Beer Festival last month, it was with pride that I looked around and saw how far we have come as a state with the exploding number of great breweries. Hence the motto: Virginia is for Craft Beer Lovers.
In recent years, our area has also seen the arrival of larger regional brewery presence, with local representatives and events catered just for us. Since these brewery reps leave their homes, families, and friends to move here, provide us with more beer selections, and sponsor our local events, do we consider their product local? Do the reps feel like locals? I asked Geoff Rifkin, the local rep for New Belgium, who said, “I feel as though I am local. I support the local market. New Belgium gives back to local charity from every keg we sell. New Belgium is not viewed as local, but my presence does help get our wonderful story out to the public.” Kelci Griffin, of Terrapin, added, “When I first moved up here, I did feel more like an outsider than I do now. People are starting to get used to seeing me in the market, and even though the focus is usually on local beers, the fact that Terrapin is regional does help.”
What about national and international brands? Will Green Flash be considered local when it builds a plant in Virginia Beach even though it’s headquartered in San Diego and is currently expanding brewery production to Europe?
For years, I was a narrow-minded, vocal cheerleader for our original seven breweries. Not only had many of them started brewing in my homebrew store, but I also felt protective of them because we had waited so long for our very own breweries I did not want them to fail.
The local beer scene is changing as quickly as our transient residents, and I, for one, am actually more excited than ever about the craft beer selections in our area. I guess I will get off my stern “only buy local” soap-box so I don’t limit my own appreciation of beer, regardless of its origin. Of course, I will always stay true to our local brewers and will probably show bias in my beer purchases, but I am willing to open my mind and mouth to enjoy any great craft beer just because it is great beer.
Elizabeth Erschens is owner of Home Brew USA, with locations at Janaf in Norfolk and in Hampton.