By Jeff Maisey
Green Flash Brewing Company’s official Virginia Beach grand opening is Sunday, November 13. The long awaited date is the day after the brewery’s breast cancer awareness event, Treasure Chest Fest, which has been held the past two years on the field where the San Diego-based craft brewery now stands.
But if you’re in a hurry and want to experience the tasting room, we have a little hush-hush secret for you. The tasting room is now operational and open for business. Pony up to the bar and order a pint of West Coast IPA, Passion Fruit Kicker, Soul Style IPA, Jive IPA, Hoppy Birthday, or Sea to Sea Lager, a crisp golden lager brewed in celebration of the Virginia Beach opening. Also available are beers from their recently acquired Alpine Beer Company, including Alpine Mandarin Nectar and the rare Pure Hoppiness. During this window before the official opening, patrons must enter from the backside of the brewery and only when construction crews are not working on the exterior beer garden. Basically, 5 PM to 9 PM.
Green Flash will be the second West Coast craft brewery to open in Virginia. (Stone Brewing opened in Richmond this spring) As breweries from the Left Coast expand their distribution, they have sought locations in the Mid-Atlantic region to better service consumers east of the Mississippi while reducing transportation costs and providing a fresher, less expensive product.
In Virginia Beach, Evan Chamberlain will serve as the head brewer. Chamberlin is joined by three other brewers from the San Diego home base as well as an addition crew of six from Virginia. Chamberlin is excited about the East Coast location.
“The water here is perfect for IPAs,” he said. That’s a plus given the brewery’s notoriety for producing exceptional IPAs.
Overseeing Green Flash Brewing Company’s Virginia Beach operation has been COO Chris Ross. Ross said the Virginia Beach brewery will feature a state-of-the-art automated packaging system. These cases of bottled beer as well as kegged brew will be housed with the brewery’s cold storage (giant refrigerator) which can hold some 80,000 cases of beer. Ross expects the brewery will see 15 to 25 truckloads of beer depart the dock each week for points north and south.
On the retail sales side of the business, Ross said Virginia will have its own rep based in Richmond. Philadelphia and New York City will also have one person devoted to promoting the Green Flash brands through events, tap takeovers and tastings.
As construction was still underway in Virginia Beach, with crews installing monstrous fermenting and brite tanks, Chris Ross gave me a tour of the brewery. Here’s what he had to share.
The tasting room features a bar for buying pints and six-packs to go and then a separate bar for growler fills. Why two different bars?
This is set up very similar to San Diego. We have a tasting bar. We have a growler bar where you can also buy a case or kegs to-go. That will also be the tour bar where people come in for tours. They’ll sign in.
When you go on a tour you get to taste four beers.
We have an event room for private functions that has its own bar with room for 12 taps. It has a roll-up garage door which opens to a private beer garden separated from the main beer garden. It is an indoor/outdoor event space for weddings, business meetings etc. It will be set up with an audio/visual system for slides, movies and that kind of thing. It also has a prep kitchen for catering and any food service that’s needed. It is something we did not have in San Diego. We had the space here to do it so we thought it’d be really nice.
The large undersea mural on the wall leading to the merchandise room ties in the nautical nature of Virginia Beach. Is the maximum occupancy of 300 for the entire tasting room?
It’s for the entire indoor facility. It does not apply to the outdoor beer garden.
If you look out the two windows of the merch store you can see bocce courts. When finished, our beer garden is about one acre. Some of the key features in it will be a bocce court area; we preserved some of the old growth trees so we’ll put in some chairs for a chill area. We’re also going to have a hops trellis. Not many people get to see hops being grown. We’ll have our hops farmers based in the Pacific Northwest – John Segal of Segal Ranch – has agreed to give us variations of the plant that should do well in the Virginia soil. So we’ll have a little hops farm.
We’ll also have this huge patio. The centerpiece on the patio is a large fire pit.
Can you give us some sense of the production side of the brewery?
The brewhouse where we make the barley into wort is the exact same system we have in San Diego. It’s a 50-barrel system.
When you get into the cellar where the beer is fermented and where wort gets turned into beer with the addition of yeast, all those tanks are the same size and manufacturer as the ones in San Diego.
What we’ve tried to do is replicate the exact equipment so the process can be duplicated very easily. The idea is to keep the beer exactly as it is in San Diego.
The San Diego facility right now is maxed out at 100,000 barrels a year capacity. This facility (Virginia Beach) is also designed to do 100,000 barrels. So far we’ve only put half the fermentation tanks in to start.
The first phase will be to see if we can keep the thirsty people on the East Coast well satisfied, and then when the demand gets to the point where we need to add more fermenting tanks we’ll just add more.
I know that Stone Brewing put a great effort in making sure its beers brewed in Richmond taste identical to those made in California. Water quality is the big factor. What effort is Green Flash making to insure its West Coast IPA brewed in Virginia Beach will match the San Diego version?
We do some water treatment. We have to treat the water in San Diego as well. Sometimes the water has too many minerals. We may do some hardening. Our brewers are dialing it in. It’s part of the brewhouse commissioning process, which will start this month (October). We’ll start off with water brews to make sure the water meets our specifications. It’s not hard to do.
When will you start brewing in the house?
We plan to start brewing in November. Right around the time of the grand opening, and that’s from a construction standpoint. There’s still one variable that’s out of our control and that is getting our Brewer’s Notice from the federal government. We have an application in. The wait time can vary from four months to nine months. We put our application in four months ago. We expect to have it in time.
The first Stone beer off the Richmond assembly line was its IPA. Can we assume the first Green Flash beer made in Virginia Beach will be the West Coast IPA?
It will be probably be one of three beers: the West Coast IPA, Soul Style or Alpine Duet. Those are our best selling beers, and we plan to have those on draft. Which one gets done first? I’ll leave that to the brewers. They may have this method where they stage production based on yeast management, and one beer might be better to do first if they can reuse yeast. But it will be one of those three beers.
Will there be at some point a Green Flash East Coast IPA?
Everybody keeps asking that. You can’t say never, but it’s not currently on the radar. The beer that we had made specifically to honor the opening of this brewery was really the Sea to Sea Lager, which is a great summertime beer. It has Neptune on the can. That’s what we want to be the known beer for this facility.
Is it still part of the plan to have Green Flash staff in Virginia Beach create unique, one-off beers available exclusively in the tasting room?
Yes. What we’ve done in California is that we have a pilot system – a mini brew system. Every two weeks there’s a pilot brew and the brewers use it half the time to do experimentation on different recipes. The other half of the time we allow employees to use it. There’s a process we go through where we have a committee. People submit ideas to the committee. Some of them are actually customers. The committee selects the best one, and then they get to brew their beer. So basically once a month there’s a new brew. It’s a 3-barrel system. It’s one of the attractions for employees working here.
Returning to the tasting room, you have three very large garage-like doors with multiple glass panels so visitors can look into the brewery. Will these doors ever be raised?
We have three large garage doors that look directly into the brewhouse. You’re seeing the brewing taking place. You’re not just staring at fermentation vessels, which do nothing other than ferment beer. Here you have the brewhouse itself. You can see the guys on the brewers platform putting hops into the beer.
We’ll probably never open these doors while the brewery is running. There is a safety issue. But we want people to get as close to the brewhouse as they possibly can – and be safe.
Our San Diego brewery runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day. It never stops brewing. Our expectation is that it will be the same here. People can come in at any time and see the beer being brewed.
We also take people on a tour of the brewery to see the tanks; to see our bottling/packaging line. We’ll also have an automated kegging operation. So there are some cool, high-tech operations to see on the tour.
In San Diego, the tour lasts about an hour. On the tour you get to taste four beers. The first beer they taste is West Coast IPA, which put us on the map. It’s meant to be an educational experience to explain what Green Flash is all about. You get the final beer at the tour desk. It’s a special beer you get to taste.
What did Green Flash see in Virginia Beach as an ideal location for East Coast production and distribution?
That gets back to the whole business case for putting a second brewery somewhere. Go back to what the company was thinking three or four years ago. The San Diego brewery was nearing capacity. First of all, the brewery moved there (San Diego) from a small brewery in Vista, California, which was where Green Flash was founded.
In 2011, we opened up the facility in San Diego and that had half the capacity it does now. So its similar situation. We put the brewhouse in – a 50-barrel system – and quickly had to put in the additional fermentation tanks in to get it to 100 barrels.
As they were doing that, we asked, what’s our next move? Then the discussion began, do we continue to find additional space in San Diego and build another big brewery in San Diego, or perhaps we look somewhere else.
At the time Green Flash was expanding well beyond California. There are lots of big breweries in San Diego including Ballast Point and Stone. As it turns out we were the first San Diego brewery to be in all 50 states, which was kind of unusual for a brewery our size.
Give that and that there was high demand on the East Coast it turned out Virginia and Pennsylvania were our two largest states (in sales) next to California.
We thought we should have our brewery on the East Coast because all of our beer is shipped on refrigerated trucks. It’s expensive to get the beer from San Diego to the East Coast. It affects our pricing.
The conclusion was the best place to put the brewery was going to be Wilmington, North Carolina. Virginia Beach was actually the preferred location. That’s the one everyone on the selection committee liked, however the state law at that time did not permit tasting rooms in breweries. To us it is such an important part of who we are. The purpose of the tasting room is to engage customers and have customers see how much we love to make beer, and be part of the process. Without that it was a no-go for us.
As we were walking down the path to lock-in the Wilmington location the state law (of Virginia) changed. It happened at the right time for us. We selected the site. The city of Virginia Beach was very kind to us, and so here we are.
What makes Virginia Beach better for us than Wilmington is that this is the largest metropolitan area in Virginia. That’s just permanent population. You have this influx of tourists during the summer, spring and fall that makes it more attractive. We want the brand to be exposed to as many people as possible.
The other thing that is really excellent is we can get the one-day freight between Miami and Boston from Virginia. You can also do as far west as the Mississippi River. Our plan is to supply beer from this facility to everywhere east of the Mississippi.
What is your timeframe for bringing the Virginia Beach brewery to capacity – six months?
We’d love it to be six months. A lot will depend on the market. Our plan is to start the Phase 2 of the brewery sometime next year. We’re going to watch to see how demand is going.
Our thinking is that there will be a surge in demand once we start to correct the pricing and pass along those savings.
The overall beer industry is going through a little bit of a slump this past year. A lot of companies that were high-fliers are showing single digit growth but not negative growth. We are still a growing brand, but we’re cautious. There are over 2,000 breweries in the US today. There are more breweries than there ever have been in the United States. There is some crowding. But we’re optimistic we’ll be able to increase production in the next year.
What’s new for this year’s Treasure Chest Fest in Virginia Beach?
Our plan for Treasure Chest Fest is to have it in the beer garden. It’ll be the first time for people to enjoy the beer garden. You can also go into the tasting room and event space. It’ll be very similar to the one we do in San Diego.
WANT TO GO?
Treasure Chest Fest
Saturday, November 12
Noon to 5 PM
Green Flash Brewing Company, Virginia Beach
Green Flash Grand Opening
Sunday, November 13
Green Flash Brewing Company