By Diane Catanzaro and Chris Jones
If you’ve lived in the Tidewater area for many years you’ve seen a lot of changes in the landscape. In days of yore most of Virginia Beach, where Chris spent his formative years, was farmland instead of suburban sprawl. Now Kempsville is better known for sprouting subdivisions instead of soybeans.
So, let’s say you just got off work and said to yourself “I’d like to drink a truly local beer, one with links to the land, an agrarian ale that gives me a sense of the old Virginia Beach, before the green line got paved over for a strip shopping center.” You wish there was a “hot trub time machine” that would whisk you back to those days, but with better beer of course.
In late September 2018 a brewery opened, nestled on eight agricultural acres in the heart of Kempsville, that will transport you back in time. Back Bay’s Farmhouse Brewing Company has plenty of pastoral to go with your Pilsner. You get a sense of Virginia Beach’s agricultural past, before strip malls and subdivisions proliferated. The Farmhouse Brewery is the sister brewery to the Back Bay Brewing Company located on Norfolk Avenue in the oceanfront area of Virginia Beach.
Mr. Eddie Hewitt and Mr. Josh Canada, natives with deep roots in Virginia Beach, along with other investors, have created a destination location for beer lovers just west of the intersection of Kempsville Road and Centerville Turnpike. This labor of love took three years to come to fruition and it looks like it was time well spent.
Turn off busy Kempsville Road and there is a long driveway leading to gorgeous grounds surrounded by stately trees, a farmer’s field, a production brewery, a beer garden and the centerpiece, an exquisitely restored 1912-era farmhouse originally built by Eddie Hewitt’s in-laws.
The farmhouse has been meticulously renovated, and many original architectural details have been retained. There are taprooms upstairs and downstairs, an utterly charming sitting room, and at least three original fireplaces. The downstairs taproom is small, so when the brewery is hosting an event, there will be beer trucks serving customers outdoors to provide better access to beer. Reportedly the ghost of “Grandma Lily,” for whom the house was built, meanders throughout the house at night (her bedroom, upstairs, is now an office; they leave a light on for her every evening). Discovering two taprooms inside her reconditioned residence Grandma Lily might haunt the house with a Hefeweizen in hand, making her the friendliest ghost since Casper.
Surrounding the house is lots of green, from the grass under your feet to the trees that ring the premises. In the beer garden you can sip suds at picnic tables or glider-seating four-tops. There are bocce ball and cornhole courts along with ladder ball for you competitive types. If you’re hungry, food trucks will be on-station most of the time, and you are welcome to pack a picnic and blanket. A repurposed ice cream truck is on hand to serve both ice cream and beer. We don’t know if the truck has that same corny music to serve as a siren’s song to aficionados of both dairy desserts and malted beverages. There are two fire pits to huddle around if it gets brisk, and if you have a hankering for live music, musicians will regularly play on the house’s front porch.
There’s a farmer’s field that’ll remind you that beer is an agricultural product. Most of the things grown here will end up in the beer (a practice for which we’ve coined the phrase “dirt-to-wort”). Every farm needs a farmer, and the farmer here is John Wilson, aka “Farmer John.” (NOTE: He says that he is not the one that Neil Young sang about). He grows four varieties of hops on premises so you can see, touch and smell the “wicked and pernicious weed” that puts the bite in beer. Not just a farmer but an educator, he’s given classes on homegrowing hops, and he makes you aware that a farm or garden is a living ecosystem (grass and grasshoppers among your peppers means that your garden is alive and vibrant).
Back Bay Brewing’s three flagship beers (False Cape Red Ale, Atlantic Avenue IPA and Steel Pier Bohemian Lager) were previously contract-brewed by St. George Brewing in Hampton; now they will be brewed at the Farmhouse. The 15-barrel brewing system is in the skilled hands of head brewer David Achkio. David was the award-winning head brewer at Lickinghole Creek in Goochland, VA, and for the last year had held the reins, or more appropriately the mash paddle, for Back Bay’s Farmhouse Brewing Company. The production brewery is on the Farmhouse property, while smaller quantities will continue to be brewed at the oceanfront location. Beers produced at either location may be available at both.
David is a talented and understandably confident brewer. Chris, who is not a pilsner-head, told David that we had traveled to Plzen in the Czech Republic in June and tasted unfiltered Pilsner Urquel, direct from the fermenter. Chris, like an over-carbonated lager, gushed about the taste of that classic pilsner. David said “I’m not going to be outdone by Pilsner Urquel,” strode across the brewery, drew a glass directly from the fermenter, and handed it to Chris. It tasted … amazing! Crisp, clean, pure pilsner, Americanized with a noticeable but not overwhelming hop presence. Kaboom! David’s pilsner laid a glass of whup ass on Chris’ palate. Pilsner Urquel look out.
Farmhouse Brewing Company’s beers range from the classic to the stylistically creative. In early October there were 12 beers on tap, with alcohol-by-volume (ABV) ranging from 3.9% to 11%. Most standard pours are approximately 16 ounces, but four-ounce pours are available, and growlers can be purchased to-go.
For the hopheads, you can grab an Atlantic Ave IPA, 6% ABV and hopped with Mosaic and Nugget hops, or their version of a New England IPA, the Best Coast IPA, 6.4% ABV and hopped with Citra, Laurel and Pacifica hops. If you want to pump up the hop volume, grab a Hop Landy 110 Triple IPA, a massive 11% ABV, Lyft-riding-afterwards mother of IPAs.
Doc recommends more fruits and veggies? If you’re mad for mango, get a Mango Hefeweizen, 5% ABV. Delicious. There’s a Sweet Potato, Sage and Rosemary beer, 5.6% ABV. If you’re stout hearted and crave coconut, they have a Coco Milk Stout, 6% ABV, made with oatmeal, coconut and a dose of lactose.
Looking for an out-of-the-box session ale? Try the Botanical IPA, a very low 3.9% ABV beverage that gets two additions of hibiscus and dry-hopped with Wakatu hops, a Hallertau-ish hop from New Zealand. And don’t pass up the Farmhouse Saison, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale that’s delicious. Of course the beer selection will vary so you’ll want to visit Farmhouse Brewing often.
Farm livin’ is not the life for us, but visiting this farm is. Cheers!
THE NITTY GRITTY: Back Bay’s Farmhouse Brewing Company, 1805 Kempsville Rd, Virginia Beach, VA 23464; 757-512-6430; (www.farmhousebrewingva.com); open daily; see their Facebook page for operating hours, their draft list and a list of upcoming events.