(Diane Catanzaro and Chris Jones treat their out-of-town guests to a tour of Williamsburg, including this scenic stop on the deck of Billsburg Brewery.)
By Diane Catanzaro and Chris Jones
When you think of Williamsburg, VA, what pops into your mind? A bonny burg that’s been the home of William and Mary College since 1693? A place where you can tour Colonial Williamsburg and see what life was like when buckles were big and hats had three points? A place where there are more pancake restaurants than panhandlers? Home of Busch Gardens and Anheuser-Busch Inbev? All of these are true, but Williamsburg is also a beer destination that is gaining popularity, with five craft breweries, a brewpub, a meadery, and a top-rated beer bar.
Today we’re going to give you a quick look at each of them to whet your whistle and inspire you to take a “Tour de ‘Burg,” a trip to the former capitol of England’s Virginia colony, not to experience its history, but its zymurgy. We’ll give you a route that makes sense, although you can start at either end or anywhere in the middle you like.
Billsburg Brewery is adjacent to the former Jamestown Colony, about a 13 minute drive southeast of historic Colonial Williamsburg, it’s on the outskirts of town. The location and the beers are both noteworthy. The view from the sunny outdoor deck, of a small marina and a quiet estuary, is almost perfect, and at sunset in nice weather it’s sublime. There is also a larger outdoor picnic table seating area on the premises. Billsburg is known for its well made lagers, like their French lager, but offers a range of beer styles. Enjoy a Tourist Trap Hazy IPA, and listen to the music of the marsh, the orations of ospreys and maybe imagine eaves-dropping on some conversations around you, perhaps a conversation similar to this one. Two gents in full colonial regalia – buckles, pointed hats, the whole shebang – sipping said pilsner, and one of them says “I didn’t sleep with my wife before we were married. How about you?” The second gent says “I don’t know, what was her maiden name?”
Next stop is the Colonial area. You can walk the streets of Colonial Williamsburg’s historic area for free, and if you are lucky you will see some cool sights. But, pay for a ticket and you get to go inside the buildings, experience re-enactments, and engage with the townspeople and merchants in period garb. When you work up a thirst, you can amble into the Precarious Beer Hall on South Henry St. The PBH is just a few steps away and catty-corner to the Dewitt Wallace Decorate Art Museum, a terrific museum well worth a visit.
The Precarious Beer Hall is a large tasting room that serves up delicious gourmet tacos and tortas masquerading as “street food” along with innumerable delicious beers brewed on premises. The lineup changes a lot, but they are most known for their range of hazy New England style IPAs and double IPAs. Arcade games will amuse young and old, and there are Mexican cokes and sodas for the kids. If you are coordinated enough to hold a beer in one hand and a fish taco in the other while playing Ms. Pac Man (Note: Chris isn’t.), this is your kind of place. Diane loves the air hockey even though she has yet to win a game. Roomy and dynamic, it’s cafeteria-style dining, so order your tacos and guacamole at the counter, grab a beer at the bar, sit at one of the room’s long tables, and enjoy yourself. There is a very nice outdoor seating area and in cooler weather the firepit is well appreciated. PBH often has bands on weekend nights, they aren’t always mentioned on the website so you might need to call if you are seeking live music.
Amble a minute to the Merchant’s Square pedestrian zone to the DoG Street Pub. A range of mostly pub style food, with 15 taps of very well-chosen craft beers, including both local and out-of-town. Do seek out the bottle list as it is extensive and has many superb beers. The are a few outdoor tables which allow for great people watching. The building used to be, among other things, a bank. The main dining room has some interesting architectural details and charm. Around the corner they have their own bottle shop, Hair of the Dog, with a stellar selection of beer, as well as a few taps and growler-fill opportunities.
A four-minute stroll to Prince George Street will put you at The Amber Ox, one of our favorite restaurants anywhere. It is a brewpub, and under the same ownership (and brewership) as the Precarious Beer Hall. This is the original brewery, located behind the bar area, now dubbed the Precarious Beer Lab. While the beers here are nothing short of amazing, it’s the food that draws us back again and again. The pimento cheese and the Brussels sprouts appetizers are great. The shrimp and grits and the citrus cured salmon will cause you to have a massive dopamine release and subsequent euphoria. That’s right, it’s that good. Really, everything they do is tasty and beautifully presented. They have an ambitious craft cocktail menu, and their Bloody Mary is the best we’ve had. Cool bar area with a view of the open kitchen, and an inviting exposed brick-and-wood dining room. The beers are great, but as the lineup changes so quickly you never know what exactly you’ll find. Popular beers like Kung Fu Kittens, a hazy IPA, Totes Adorbs Belgian dubbel are examples. The beers all have fun names. Usually they don’t have the same beers on tap at the Amber Ox and Precarious Beer Hall, so you need to visit both!
Now you’ll need your car again, or a handy Lyft/Uber/taxi. The Virginia Beer Company is only a 10 minute drive from the Colonial area. Get a serving of one of their many IPAs and put a big smile on your face. They released cans of the “Fresh Powder” Double IPA, a beverage hopped with 100% Citra hops, on February 1. Their four-year anniversary celebration is March 28 (noon until 7:00 PM), when you can enjoy bands, beers and pop-ups from area restaurants. Excellent beers, friendly tasting room. They are on a busy road with many hotels so they may be close to where you are staying. No matter, you must check them out wherever you are staying.
Drive North (or start here!) to Alewerks Brewing Company, brewing beer in Williamsburg since 2006. Alewerks has two locations to tempt your taste buds, the main brewery on Ewell Rd (about a 15 minute drive from the Colonial area) and the Little Auxiliary Brewery, the L.A.B., at Williamsburg Premium Outlets (maybe 10 minutes from the Colonial area). Each has its own vibe, and each has some draft offerings that are unique to that location. Right now the main brewery taproom has 16 beers on tap, including Superb IPA, Coffeehouse Stout (a delicious milk stout), Good Mintentions Mint Chocolate Stout (the York Peppermint Patty of beer), and their much-loved Bitter Valentine Double IPA, an 8.3% ABV mammoth mouthful of hops. The L. A. B., has, among other offerings, Good Luck Irish Stout, a tasty low-alcohol (4.4 % ABV) Irish-style Stout, Not in Saison (a lemon and white peppercorn Saison), and a Double Dry Hopped Bitter Valentine, an even more enormous assault on your tongue with five, count ‘em, five different hops therein. If you can only go to one Alewerks location, go to the main brewery.
And now, for something a little unorthodox – a brewery which doesn’t distribute – if you want their beers, you need to go to the brewery to get them. That takes a lot of brass, so let’s head to Brass Cannon Brewing. They are located super-close to Alewerks main taproom on Ewell Rd so combine visiting both when you are in this area. Brass Cannon blasts an assembly of ales that range from nearly hopless to hop-heavy. Their Rocket’s Red Glare is an amber ale with ghost peppers. The Skull IPA is a New England IPA that’s crankin’ in citrus. The Smoothbore Stout is jammin’ with coffee and chocolate flavors, and the Angry Scot Scottish Ale/Wee Heavy has a smoky flavor and hints of molasses that their web site refers to as “dangerously quaffable.” One of the coolest things about their tasting room is that it has two distinct areas within it, a standard tasting room filled with barstools and tall tables, and a cozy ‘listening room lounge’, furnished with couches, easy chairs, etc. If you want to immerse yourself in live music, sit in the lounge, and if you want to hear live music but still have conversations with friends, stay in the tasting rom.
And finally, your last stop on the Tour de ‘Burg, a visit to the Silver Hand Meadery to try something a little different….mead. Mead is fermented honey. It can be dry, sweet or semi-sweet, depending on the quantity of honey used, and it has a wine-like alcohol content, with ABVs in the 11–13 % range. Most commercial meads tend to be on the sweet to semi-sweet side. Traditional mead is made from honey, water and yeast, just three ingredients. Metheglin is mead with herbs and spices added. Pyment is mead with grapes added, and melomel is mead with fruit added. When you visit the meadery, mead tastings are free, honey tastings are not. That may sound odd, but different honey varietals impart different flavors to the finished product, so you to appreciate the mead, you must go all-in, and experience the honey tasting prior to test driving the mead. The honey tasting is required by Virginia law, as we understand it. So, be prepared to spend some time tasting various honeys, and then you get to taste the meads! They have bottled meads to purchase and after the tasting you’ll know which ones you like best. Silver Hand is on Monticello Road, it’s about a 10 minute drive from the Colonial area.