By Elizabeth Erschens
Imagine a drive home from work on the 2nd Avenue corridor in Williamsburg, rounding the curve just past Merrimac Trail, and happening upon a 2,500 square foot patio beer garden in front of the old white building at 401 many recall as home to Blanton’s Used Autos. Chris Smith and Robert Willey, William and Mary graduates and Co-founders of the new Virginia Beer Company, along with their Brewmaster, Jonathon Newman, are in the building phase to make that patio and a 10,000 square foot brewery a reality on this property.
Confession time right from the gate; even though my mother attended William and Mary, and I attended Vassar, when I heard Williamsburg, William and Mary, and new craft brewery, all in the same sentence, I wondered if my simple enjoyment of the art of craft beer was going to be overshadowed by critics taking discussions of craft beer to a hypothetical point of molecular mass-to-charge ratio after being shot with a mass spectrometer.
A meeting with Newman, Smith, and Willey immediately set me, and my ignorance, on the right course with their enthusiastic sharing of their plans and love of craft beer.
From the beginning, Smith and Willey’s choice of location was not happenstance; they are not trying to be another Colonial American History landmark. On the contrary, they are trying to revitalize an area and an era (1920-1980) that no one talks about. The location they chose used to be the main business route in Williamsburg before 64 redirected the traffic, and they hope to be part of bringing that livelihood back to the area.
To make that happen, they realized, even with their experiences in the workforce those years since graduating and their homebrewing experiences, they needed to bring someone onboard with real world brewery experience. The founders decided to hire Jonathon Newman, previously with Sweetwater Brewing, to help chart their path.
With the excitement of a child describing Christmas gifts, Newman told me about the 30 barrel system they will start with, along with a smaller 5 barrel pilot system to be used for experimental brewing. With pride, he and the co-founders told me the steps they are taking with the environment in mind. Along with sharing their spent grains with local farmers, they are installing an in-ground separation tank, chemical buffer tank, and CFP system. They are also thinking of buying some fluid level sensors from Vega to help prevent overflows.
As for the beers they plan to brew; the list is a long one. They will have some flagship styles; maybe an American Wheat with orange and grapefruit peel, an IPA with a mixture of hops as well as a hop back, a dry-hopped Rye Amber Ale using rye malt from local Copper Fox Distillery, Oatmeal Stout divided into smaller batches with different varieties of coffee, and a series of rotating Saisons will always be on tap.
The 5-barrel system will be used to brew the rotating taps. I sampled a Saison Tournante, Bretta. The label describes the yeasts including both a French and a yeast procured from local RVA Yeast Labs in Richmond, a simple grist of barley, wheat, and flaked oats, along with Azacca hops.
Maybe it wasn’t such a responsible idea for me to wait until my deadline day and open a 22oz 6.3% Saison Bret at 2:30 in the afternoon, with my article not being finished, but we all have to do our due diligence, so I took one for the team and located a bottle opener.
Wow, Williamsburg! Get ready for some really great beer if this sample is true to what the future will bring with The Virginia Beer Company. I may not be a human mass spectrometer, but I can discern so many perfectly balanced flavors in this beer. The first burst of flavor is that of the fruitiness of a Saison. It is crisp, clean, with just enough sweetness to balance with the tartness that can come from the Bret (and sometimes the yeast). The hops are like the last row in a perfectly formed infantry; the last to arrive on the palate, but in great form and with just enough power to finish of the beer profile without overkill. Okay, I did go there and make a history reference, but I can assure you our colonial ancestors never drank beer like this!
The Virginia Beer Company hopes to complete construction in about 3 months and is located at 401 2nd Street in Williamsburg. You can follow their progress at: www.VirginiaBeerCo.com, www.facebook.com/VirginiaBeerCo, and www.twitter.com/VirginiaBeerCo. The can also follow the hashtag #PublicFrenemyNo1 for the locations releasing the Red Rye IPA collaboration The Virginia Beer Company recently brewed with Alewerks Brewing Company in Williamsburg.