By Elizabeth Erschens
Walking into The Lynnhaven Pub to interview the owners of the future Pleasure House Brewing, Drew Stephenson and Tim O’Brien, I felt downright unprofessional with my childlike excitement! I have known them both for years and have been providing them with brewing supplies as well as advice at my home brew store since they were novices.
It’s been truly rewarding to watch them progress from beginners to professional brewers. Not many people get the opportunity to make their hobby a sustainable profession and I was beaming with maternal pride as we sat down, knowing I was able to be part of, and at times, steer their journeys.
Big grins, long hugs, and story time were shared before we got down to the business of the interview.
“It’s a big step opening a brewery,” offered O’Brien. Stephenson joked, “I try not to think about it too much, or I’m afraid I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and piss myself.”
They may have been novices, but both have accomplished a great deal in just a few short years. Stephenson has perfected his brewing technique by entering his beers in sanctioned brewing competitions and learning from the judges’ feedback. During this time, he became a Certified Beer Judge under the renowned Beer Judges Certification Program, (BJCP).
O’Brien, a bartender at The Lynnhaven Pub with 14 years of experience bartending, is now a Cicerone Certified Beer Server and is currently working toward becoming a fully certified cicerone. (In the beer world, a cicerone is equivalent to a wine sommelier.) O’Brien has passed the tasting portion of the certification and is now focusing on the written test. Many people have to take the test multiple times to achieve a passing grade.
While O’Brien already works in the beer industry, this is a huge professional leap for Stephenson, who was a high school history teacher for 18 years and taught English in China prior to that. His wife, Alex Stephenson, who will help run the brewery, is also a teacher.
With such diverse professional backgrounds, I was curious as to how each of them became interested in craft beer and brewing.
Stephenson’s interest was piqued when he was a senior in college. His uncle Bill happened to take a coaching position at the same college and Stephenson lived with him his senior year. “He always had good German beer around, and I loved trying them all. This was sort of the spring board for me trying American craft beers. After having good beer, it is hard to go back to drinking that fizzy yellow water or whatever you call it,” he said.
After college, Stephenson moved to China for a year to teach English. The craft beer explosion was just beginning when he returned to the United States. He and his friends would throw craft beer parties. Stephenson said, “We would go out and find all these American craft beers we had never heard of and bury them in a huge trash can full of ice. The only rule was you had to drink whatever beer you pulled from under the ice.”
“I guess for me it started when I traveled. I always tried new beers,” said O’Brien. “Love it or hate it, I would always try the new stuff,” he added. “This is kind of a silly story, but my mom gave me an outdated rip-off calendar with different beers on it each day,” he says. “It was no good as a calendar anymore but it did have the beer stuff. I found St. George’s Brewery in it and looked them up over in Hampton, met more and more people, and I was hooked.”
O’Brien started home brewing about 11 or 12 years ago. “I probably didn’t do it right back then, but I did it,” he chuckled. Brewing at home over a decade ago wasn’t as easy as it is today because not all ingredients available to breweries were obtainable by individual enthusiasts. He adds, “I didn’t even bottle the first batch because I was afraid I messed it up.”
O’Brien didn’t realize that local home brew clubs existed until two or three years ago. He found the Seven Cities Brewers, a local home brew club, through Stephenson and has since enjoyed having, “cool people in the club to talk to that are really knowledgeable and are serious about brewing.” He adds, “In the beginning, it was just a silly hobby for me and I never really shared my beers. I was intimidated because my job at The Lynnhaven Pub and working with Specialty Distributors had exposed me to so many incredible commercially brewed beers. Stephenson joked, “I have never been clever enough to be intimidated by beer so I have always forced my beer on people.”
Stephenson was mentored by Joey Tomasello, the president of Seven Cities Brewers from the beginning. He says, “Joey was on the same Navy ship as my brother-in-law. My brother-in-law decided to get me a home brew set for Christmas one year because he knew I was serious about craft beers. He went to Joey for advice and Joey led me in the right direction.” “That’s how I found Homebrew USA at JANAF and was able to appreciate the advice from your home brew store, you as well as Andrew [Jackson] and Vaughn [Erschens]”.
Stephenson enjoys the social aspects of the club and sharing beers as well, but he doesn’t enjoy socializing while he is brewing. “I am a very solitary brewer,” he explained. “Some people like to brew together at parties. I like attending the parties to just hang out but I don’t brew. When I am brewing, I am in the zone and brew the beer. I can’t do both at the same time and do it well”.
Through serving and brewing, both Stephenson and O’Brien have a resume of sharing craft beer education throughout Hampton Roads. O’Brien educates customers as a server and Stephenson has held office with his home brew club. He and his mentor, Tomasello, were instrumental in arranging a visit from White Labs (a preeminent national supplier of yeast) and The Brewing Network. Stephenson admits, “I am a Brewing Network junkie.”
Pleasure House Brewing is moving fast! “If everything works out reasonably, we might be able to have a soft opening in a couple of months,” said Stephenson. “My dream would be late August, but realistically it will most likely be mid-September.” He explained that the Tax and Trade Bureau, (TTB) will determine their opening date as the TTB regulates alcohol on the federal level and processes brewing permits. The projected opening dates are based on the average lead time, about 88 days, for the agency to approve licenses.
Pleasure House Brewing will not have to wait for restaurant licensing as Stephenson and O’Brien do not plan on selling food at the location. They want to focus solely on the quality of their beers. Says O’Brien, “We will offer free snacks; such as pretzels or possibly flavored nuts.” In addition, they can invite some of the many food trucks that have been serving the other local breweries, and O’Brien is also making arrangements for food deliveries to the brewery’s tasting room.
As for the delegation of responsibilities, O’Brien will mainly run the front of the house, which will offer a tasting room and growler fills, while Stephenson will concentrate more on the brewing. They, of course, assist each other every day as they understand the importance of knowing all aspects of running a small business.
Once Pleasure House Brewing opens, Virginia Beach will have a plethora of local beer available. When asked the beers he planned to produce, Stephenson joked, “How much memory do you have on that recorder?” He was right. The list is too extensive to print. “The short version is we will have five style taps,” said Stephenson. “Initially, we will not repeat recipes but instead brew different recipes for 5 styles of beer.” Those five styles will include an IPA or a Double IPA, a hop forward, a Belgian, a malt forward, and a seasonal. Stephenson added, “We will also serve pilot batches on the side maybe one or two nights a week or as long as the supply lasts.”
Early on in the process, O’Brien and Stephenson made a conscious decision to brew for the people of the bay area before they begin distributing their beer anywhere else. “One of our main goals is to make sure we can supple the local demand first,” said Stephenson. “We really hope to be a community hangout place; whether you have out-of-town guest you want to bring, just want to watch a football game, or come here and eat your dinner while drinking a beer. We want people to come to Pleasure House Brewing and have their own local beer.”
Pleasure House Brewing will be opening soon at 3025 Shore Drive, Virginia Beach, VA 23451. For more information, visit www.pleasurehousebrewing.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org , or call (757) 647-8597.
Elizabeth Erschens is owner of Homebrew USA.