(New Realm’s canned beers are everywhere these days in the Hampton Roads region)
By Jeff Maisey
One year after opening its production brewery in Virginia Beach, New Realm Brewing Company conquered the Commonwealth by winning the 2019 Virginia Craft Beer Cup when Euphonia Pilsner was crowned Best-in-Show.
New Realm’s success in the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild’s statewide competition with its pilsner (two gold medals) as well as lager (United Lager won a silver medal) was impressive given brewmaster Mitch Steele’s fame as an India Pale Ale guru, having penned the book “IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale.”
Still, the moment was monumental in that New Realm was not only building its reputation on brands such as Hoptropolis IPA, Hazy Like a Fox IPA, and Hoplandia IPA, but also on quality craft beers in every imaginable category.
As the Guild prepares to announce the 2020 medalists and overall finest beer on August 31, I caught up with New Realm Brewing Company’s Carey Falcone (CEO & Co-Founder), Bob Powers (CCO & Co-founder), and Mitch Steel (Brewmaster, COC & Co-Founder) to discuss a variety of topics including their defense of the Cup.
VEER: Last year, New Realm Brewing Co won the Virginia Craft Beer Cup when Euphonia Pilsner was awarded first place for Best in Show. Do you recall your feelings at that moment — was it surprise having your pilsner take best overall?
Bob Powers: We knew we had won a Gold for Euphonia Pilsner and a Silver for United Lager, but our team was shocked, in the moment, when our Pilsner was announced as the Virginia Craft Beer Cup winner. Not that we didn’t think the beer was amazing, just that we had won it in our first year. There are so many great craft brewers in the state of Virginia putting out fantastic quality beer, that we were honored to have been picked by the judges. When we called Mitch and his head brewers, Evan and Tyler, they were ecstatic and, as a company, we celebrated pretty hard. Did you know the VA Beer Cup doesn’t hold beer very well?
VEER: What is New Realm’s strategy when it comes to entering beers in competitions?
Mitch Steele: We look at it from several different angles. I’ve been a competition judge for about 25 years now, so I factor what I know about competitions into the decision. But we enter beers based on the following:
1. Core brands or top selling seasonals that have gotten really good feedback from our customers.
2. Beers that we really believe in and feel that they’re a world class example of the style.
3. Beer styles that are more esoteric, since palate fatigue among judges is a very real situation for some of the larger categories. We are heavily focused on innovation and my team brews a wide range of beer styles well, so we want to showcase that diversity.
4. If there are strict style guidelines, we enter the beers accordingly. We have some beers that don’t necessarily meet traditional style guidelines so those can be tricky.
VEER: Do you feel as though you are defending the Cup this year? Did you enter Euphonia Pilsner again?
Steele: Yes and yes! It was such an honor to win last year, but while I’m keeping my fingers crossed, we have no expectations of a repeat — that’s probably not realistic. But we believe in the quality of our Pilsner.
VEER: How has COVID-10 impacted both your Atlanta and Virginia Beach operations? Please touch on the topics of production/output, overall sales, sales/promotion representatives, safety of employees and visitors.
Carey Falcone: COVID has challenged us on many levels. We have always said that we will put our people first and strive to be pillars of our community. COVID provided an opportunity for us to demonstrate who are and who we want to be. We care deeply for all the members of the New Realm Family. I believe this horrible pandemic made us stronger. We all pulled together. We kept all of our team employed. We focused on ways to create the safest possible working environment and a place where our guests and vendors would feel like they could safely enjoy cold craft beer and scratch food.
We increased our focus on community involvement, donations, sanitation and keeping the family safe and employed. While there are always things we can do better, we feel really good about how we responded to this unfortunate and sad situation.
VEER: Through Phases 1-3, what impact have you experienced in sales at restaurants, on-site at the tasting room (curbside, to-go), and with regard to packaged sale at grocery stores, Total Wine & More, and other retail?
Powers: We have seen a drastic reduction in on-site revenue in our two locations, especially early on during the shutdowns. During the shutdowns, we focused on developing our to-go offerings and did a lot of community support. We kept our full staff employed in all locations and paid them throughout the shutdowns and phased re-openings. Employees weren’t required to come in, but those that were willing, helped us donate thousands of meals to service industry workers, hospitals, and military personnel returning from serving on the front lines in medical facilities in New York. We felt a need to contribute during this national crisis. That was tough for us financially, but it was the right thing to do.
Now both taproom restaurants are open but not fully operational due to the various phase restrictions. We delayed reopening both places while we developed what we feel are the most stringent health and safety protocols possible. It’s not always popular with our guests, but they know that we are clean, sanitized and a safe place to come to.
In terms of packaged sales, they have been fantastic throughout. We were impacted by the delay in grocery chain resets, where we were gaining a lot of new facings, but where we had product in a cold box, it moved very well. I’d say the only impact was on variety – most retailers initially wanted to stick with the tried-and-true and weren’t as interested in new innovation. That’s abated somewhat now, but it made it tough for brands already in the tank and ready to launch.
VEER: New Realm VB has a spacious outdoor area and the brewery has presented local music. How has your team managed the outdoor experience safely and what feedback have you received from both staff and consumers?
Falcone: We are very fortunate to have a significant amount of outdoor space in Virginia Beach and Atlanta. This allows us to safely distance our guests. With that said, we have seen declines vs prior year resulting from our aggressive approach to reducing guest counts. We have started to add music back into the mix with smaller music acts, but had to cancel our planned Stick Figure concert on July 26th, as well as our 2nd annual Revel Fest.
NRBC has focused on creating a safe environment for our employees and guests. As mentioned, our goal has been to set the standard for how to operate safely during a pandemic. Measures we have taken include COVID testing all employees every other week with 24-hour turnaround times on results. This allows us to ensure that our staff is safe, and we aren’t contributing to the spread of COVID-19. Our staff is wearing masks and gloves, we’ve added hand sanitizer stations throughout our facility and added sanitation specialist to each shift ensuing that all touchable surfaces remain clean and safe. We also installed foot openers to all bathroom doors and changed the way we process payments – all in an effort to make the process as touchless as possible.
The reaction from the staff has been great. They know that we care deeply about them as people and want what’s in their best interest, that’s why we helped them financially during the first months of this crisis. The overall reaction from consumers has also been encouraging. They understand the seriousness of this situation and appreciate how aggressively we’ve implemented the health and safety protocols.
VEER: Your core brands — Hazy Like a Fox, Hoptropolis, Hoplandia, and United Craft Lager — are very visible in retail outlets throughout Hampton Roads. So, too, are seasonal releases. Have these been saviors to the business during the pandemic?
Powers: As mentioned earlier, yes, the core brands and seasonals were where the consumer were reaching out for – trusted brands that they had tried previously and liked. We were fairly new in some parts of Virginia in 2020, so that presented more of a challenge because it’s hard to properly launch brands when the on-premise bars and restaurants are shut down. Everyone’s partially open now, but business is down, retailers are skittish, and no one is doing promotions or tastings. We are doing great in those newer parts of Virginia, but we weren’t able to execute our normal brand launch strategy. We’ll revisit that when things return to normal.
VEER: How successful have your variety packs been? What is your product/brand choice strategy when putting together a variety pack?
Powers: The variety 12 packs have done very well in 2020. Again, shelf set delays cost us time and sales, but most of the major grocery chains and mass-market retailers were very receptive. For us as a 2 ½ year old brewer, product trial is very important to us, so we start with our two biggest brands, Hazy Like a Fox and Hoptropolis, as must-haves for each package. We include a selection from our seasonal or sour series, like Lime of the Party or Bavarian Prince, and then add an exclusive taproom only brand that can’t be found anywhere else. So, it has a bit of a treasure hunt feature to it. Just like anything else, we’ll continue to monitor that strategy and pivot when we need to, but the consumers have responded well to this package.
VEER: TFLEX won the People’s Choice category at the Craft Beer Marketing Awards this year. What role do limited release beers play in your overall business plan? Have they proven more valuable in driving to-go orders during the ongoing pandemic via the taproom, or do they simply appeal to the “what’s new” enthusiast no matter what?
Powers: Erik Leach, our Brand Manager, and lead designer is very proud of that award! New Realm prides itself on the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit among our brewers, as Mitch has assembled quite a talented team. We always have testing and innovation underway, from new brewing techniques to experimental hops, to experimenting with other adult beverage products. We challenge everyone to bring creativity to their role and live by a “best idea wins” philosophy.
The limited release beers allow us to push some of this innovation into the marketplace, test it with our consumers, and appeal to that “what’s new” enthusiast. We’ve had quite a few brands come out of the special release series that have become successful seasonal brands or annual mainstays like Bavarian Prince Octoberfest, Oaxaca Choca Mexican Chocolate Stout, Doomsday Hound Imperial Stout, etc. Mitch has a new “Monsters and Myths” DIPA series that includes some outstanding brands like Tyrannosaurus Flex and Hazy Like an Ox, that consumers have already responded exceedingly well to.
VEER: What are some of the innovation and new product ideas brewing at New Realm? How are these developed?
Steele: We have a very creative team of brewers and we have a 5 bbl pilot system. My rule is that any of our brewers can brew a beer on the pilot system as long as they do all the work on setting up the recipe, ingredients etc. I do have veto power but rarely use it. We work internally with our sales and marketing team to also get ideas and get them brewed. We are working both on dialing in some classic styles we haven’t brewed before, and testing innovative brewing techniques and styles. We pay attention to what’s going on in the business, what’s new, and what beer drinkers are getting excited about. This past year we came up with a beer called Southern Tee, A Berliner Weiss with lemon and tea, formulated to taste like the Arnold Palmer drink. We brew a lot of IPAs focusing on experimental hop varieties and new combinations of hops to drive unique flavor profiles.
VEER: How much of a role are hard seltzers playing in your business?
Steele: We have been brewing seltzers for almost 2 years now. They are very popular in our restaurants, and we’ve had some fun trying new flavors. They are an important offering in our restaurants, especially for guests who aren’t beer drinkers or have other reasons not to drink beer.
VEER: Predictions: What are you anticipating for the upcoming fall, winter, and then into 2021?
Powers: I anticipate that things will get back to normal towards the end of this year or at least that is the hope. It has been a difficult year to figure out what to brew, in what quantities, and at what time. We have some new brands that we are planning to bring to the market in 2021 and have great expectations for their success. We’re ready for everyone to be safe, for the world to get back to normal and then we’re going to have the biggest party at New Realm that anyone has ever seen!
VEER: Will New Realm Brewing Company repeat with a second Best-in-Show at the Virginia Craft Beer Cup awards?
Powers: We can only hope so! Mitch mentioned that we have no anticipation of a repeat performance, but I believe very strongly in the consistency, quality and taste of our brands. Euphonia is such a classic German pilsner and one of our brewer’s favorite brands. Who knows though, maybe Euphonia doesn’t repeat, but another New Realm brand takes home the win?