By Jeff Maisey
Remember those investment commercials with the slogan, “They make money the old fashioned way — they earn it”?
Well, St. George Brewing Company should probably have a similar theme. Something like, “They make beer the ol’ fashioned way — they stick to tradition.”
Traditional styles that is.
On April 28, Hampton’s St. George Brewing Company will mark its 20th anniversary, and thus remind everyone they are the longest operating craft brewery in Hampton Roads and one of the oldest in Virginia.
Like Legend Brewing Company of Richmond, St. George has survived the dark ages of craft beer (pre-2012, SB604) and weathered the storm — more like a tidal wave — of new breweries spreading like kudzu, showcasing one extreme concoction after another. St. George has done it by producing consistent quality, tried-and-true British and German style beers.
Their core lineup doesn’t seem to change — ever. And there’s nothing fancy about the names given to each beer; just plain and simple. Beer names such as Pilsner, Porter, Nut Brown Ale, and Imperial Bock.
The brewery was born on St. George Day (April 24 this year) and was named in honor of the patron saint of England. Mythology had St. George slaying a fire-breathing dragon after the beast demanded human sacrifice. The dragon likely represented paganism.
St. George the brewery got its start not in Hampton, but Virginia Beach, when Ron and Karen Walkup operated a Brew On Premise establishment in 1996. Bill Spence joined them the same year and bought stock in the company after retiring from the US Air Force.
By 1998, the three owners decided a Brew On Premise business — essentially a home brew operation — could not be sustained and they converted the 3-barrel system into a commercial brewery, packaging and kegging the beer to be sold locally as St. George Brewing Company.
A decision was soon made to expand as a full-fledged, 15-barrel micro brewery. After a brief exploration of potential sites, they selected a one-time ice-making factory in downtown Hampton off of Kecoughtan Road for the new brewhouse.
In 1999, Andy Rathmann joined the company as head brewer. Rathmann had travelled the world as a brewery consultant, helping people build breweries. He studied the craft of brewing as an apprentice in Germany with Weihenstephan before completing his training at the University of California at Davis in a program affiliated with Institute of Brewing in London.
Rathmann was the perfect fit for St. George Brewing Company since the focus was on German lagers and British ales.
Tragedy struck St. George on Christmas Eve 2000 when — ironically — a fire broke out and destroyed the building. No dragon or reindeer was spotted in the vicinity.
Virtually left without a home, Rathmann and Spence Sr. did some contract brewing in Baltimore and Raleigh to keep the business going before finding a brewpub on Jefferson Avenue in Newport News. The city required them to sell food so they cooked hot dogs to satisfy the municipality.
St. George’s stay in Newport News was brief. The brewery moved to its current production warehouse location in Hampton in 2001.
The first two beers produced by St. George were the Scotch Ale and the Golden Ale. Today they operate a 30-hectoliter, or 27-barrel brewhouse.
Over the years, the top best selling St. George beers have been the English IPA, Nut Brown Ale, Pilsner, and Porter. The core seasonals are the Oktoberfest and Spring Ale, which garnered a gold medal and took third best overall in the 2017 Virginia Craft Brewers Cup competition in Richmond.
“It’s nice to be recognized,” said Spence Jr.
St. George has won several awards including a World Beer Cup Award and an English competition. The winning entries were, of course, traditional style beers.
The dedication to traditional styles is a personal preference.
“I always say we brew the beers we like to drink because we’re here everyday drinking them,” said Rathmann, with a near empty glass of Pilsner in his hand. “If other people like them, then all the better.”
“There are a bunch of breweries and niches with big bold IPAs, hop-bombs, juicy-crunky beers, the sours, bourbon barrels,” said Spence Sr. “Everybody’s got their particular go-to. I think our style is sessionable and drinkability, and we’ve been that since Day One.”
Spence Sr. stressed the key to success for St. George — and really, anyone — is to do what they’re good at.
“You can’t be all things to all people,” he continued. “And you have to take a look at whether your facility can support it.”
Spence Jr attributes much of the brewery’s success to producing beers with a reasonable alcohol level. St. George has a relatively small tasting room compared to many, but its strength and focus is on distributing bottles and draft beer to restaurants throughout the Coastal Virginia region.
“Bars and restaurants get behind us because when they sell one of our products they end up selling one or two more,” he said. “That benefits the servers and the restaurant.”
St. George’s field sales team and distributors — Hoffman Beverage and M. Price — seek out restaurants with fewer than 15 taps at the direction of the brewery.
As trends come and go, St. George sees itself marching forward with the banner of traditional beers, serving a supportive community of increasingly well-educated craft beer consumers, but they’ll also open things up with a cast of new brewers, William Miller and Scott Batten, who’ll be test batching on a one-barrel system.
Rathmann and crew will unveil a special 20th anniversary beer for the April 28 party at the brewery. It’s an English Best Bitter on white oak.
“It is really, really good,” said Rathmann.
Happy birthday, St. George Brewing Company.