Norfolk Looks Beyond Stone to Lagunitas, others

Norfolk Looks Beyond Stone to Lagunitas, others
Norfolk City Manager Marcus Jones and Deputy City Manager Ron Williams say lessons learned from pitching Norfolk to Stone Brewing may help lure other breweries
Norfolk City Manager Marcus Jones and Deputy City Manager Ron Williams say lessons learned from pitching Norfolk to Stone Brewing may help lure other breweries

By Jeff Maisey


While Stone Brewing Company will likely bypass Norfolk and select Richmond or Columbus, Ohio as the site of its eastward expansion, there is a silver-lining.  Though all three cities are finalists on the California craft brewery’s list, Columbus is offering millions in financial assistance to make the deal happen; Richmond is logistically the best choice given it is at the crossroads of I-95 and I-64 and is smack in the middle of the East Coast. On the line are jobs, tax revenue, tourism dollars and a coolness factor.

Regardless of the outcome – expected to be announced in late October – Norfolk City Manager Marcus Jones and Deputy City Manager Ron Williams have learned valuable lessons from the process of proposing Norfolk as a potential home for craft breweries.

The hype surrounding Stone’s request for proposals (RFP) saw 230 cities east of the Mississippi vying for consideration. It was akin to cities making a bid for the Olympics. The real potential prize, however, isn’t necessarily Stone Brewing, but Lagunitas.

Lagunitas Brewing Company is the fifth largest craft brewery in the nation. This is based on 2013 sales volume. By comparison, Stone Brewing is the tenth largest. San Diego-based Green Flash Brewing, which breaks ground this month in Virginia Beach, is not in the top 50 – yet.

Lagunitas began operations in 1993 in Petaluma, California. In April 2014, the brewery opened its second manufacturing location, in Chicago, where an amazing 250-barrel brewhouse will have an annual capacity of 600,000 barrels. Additionally, Lagunitas is looking for an East Coast location, and that’s where Norfolk comes in.

Unlike Stone Brewing Company, which announced its plans for a brewery in Berlin, Germany to serve the European market, Lagunitas is looking to export beer brewed in America rather than build a brewhouse on the other side of the Atlantic. Norfolk is seemingly well positioned, and why not? Brew is nothing new to the City-by-the-Sea.

Norfolk, you see, has a history as a beer producing town. Anheuser-Busch operated an enormous facility in downtown Norfolk on the riverfront near where Nauticus sits today. The long-defunct Southern Brewing Company produced beer in a large manufacturing building in the vicinity of Five Points Farm Market. Others have come and gone before O’Connor Brewing Company ushered-in a new wave of craft breweries in Norfolk in a business and culture climate propelled by State Bill 604 (SB604, passed in 2012) which allowed craft breweries in Virginia to sell pints on location. That was the game-changer. In fact, Green Flash owner Mike Hinkley said any Virginia location was not a consideration before SB604.

Norfolk’s effort to expand the number of breweries in operation is led by City Manager Marcus Jones and Deputy City Manager Ron Williams. Both are beer enthusiasts.

Marcus Jones became interested in beer, in 1996, when he worked for the General Assembly in Richmond. Jones and a state economist friend decided to experiment with homebrew, using the book “The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing” as a resource guide. He still keeps the paperback book, with meticulous notes scribbled in ink on various pages throughout, in his office today.

“We had our peers getting empty, used bottles for us and scrubbing the labels off,” recalled Jones. “Everything was about sanitizing.”

The result?

“It was God awful,” laughed Jones, “but everybody loved it.”

Ron Williams acquired his taste for beer by exploring the many options at the Norfolk Taphouse in Ghent. He and his wife moved to Norfolk from Virginia Beach.  While at the Taphouse, they began to take note of the complexity of Belgian beers, and later American craft ales.

Jones and Williams said they have been closely monitoring the explosive growth of the craft beer industry.

“You would think that we were forward-thinking enough to understand how this could thrive here, but for me it was a nice surprise,” said Jones.

Williams agreed and noted, “Beer can be done anywhere,” contrasting Virginia’s successful wine industry with the emerging craft beer world. “A light bulb went off, especially for old warehouse districts which are perfect for it.”

Norfolk currently has two craft breweries: O’Connor Brewing Company and Smartmouth Brewing Company. They have gained notoriety and garnered statewide, national and international awards.  Both are located in industrial zones in close proximity to the residential neighborhoods of Ghent, Chelsea/West Ghent, Park Place and ODU. Among their customers is a broad demographic spectrum, including Jones and Williams. Not that they’re micro-managing the city, but they see firsthand the success of the growing industry, and consider the possibilities.

Marcus Jones views craft breweries as an ingredient of building and encouraging a vibrant city culture.

“Whether it’s Smartmouth or O’Connor, or food trucks or festivals or First Fridays, we have these ingredients that bring people together,” said Jones, “and that’s not easy to do in many places. When you have an environment that brings people together it makes for a special city.”

Ron Williams considers the re-emergence of local breweries and the organic nature of the Chelsea Business District as part of a Norfolk getting back to its roots.

“It’s a return to where we have been,” said Williams. “In Chelsea’s instance, you’re talking about adaptive reuse and a great cohesion of light industrial business with restaurants. That’s where we actually have focus in our economic development strategy is to look at those commercial districts that are residential-based commercial districts because everybody wants a great place to live, work and play. If you look back at the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, Norfolk was a city with commerce and residential that gave people the ability to walk to work.”

Whether people work at a brewery or simply visit, Norfolk’s take-away from the Stone effort has Jones, Williams, and the entire Economic Development Department evaluating their process and looking at what additional breweries might find Norfolk appealing as a place to do business.

“This was not an effort solely driven by City Hall,” said Jones. “We have civic groups, the DNC and people of all walks involved in this. Sometimes we don’t take into account how great a city we have. I believe that as we try to diversify this economy that businesses will look for these ingredients. We need to make it easy for businesses to open and stay here. If we create an environment with the amenities that people – especially the Millennials – are looking for we will always be in the hunt for companies.”

Williams is steadfast in his believe that light manufacturing is vitally important for the region’s economy.

“We’ve got Old Dominion Peanut, for example, the largest peanut brittle maker in the nation right here in Park Place across from O’Connor,” said Williams, “and EOS, who makes the bacteria-resistant countertops. That kind of production is great. Beer fits into that category. When you look at what industries are expanding beer is one of them.”

Norfolk’s proposal to Stone Brewing Company was its first foray in trying to attract a nationally-known brewery to build and operate within city limits. Nearly two dozen other breweries are currently being courted.

“We are competitive and we’ve shown it,” said Williams. “Two hundred and thirty cities competed for Stone and we finished in the final three. We are going to continue.”

Perhaps Laguintas Brewing is just a stone’s throw away for Norfolk.

Stay thirsty.