The clock is ticking for C’Ville-ian Brewing Company. Business has been slower than expected during the summer months, and if things don’t turn around by the end of the year, owner Steve Gibbs said he’ll have to think hard about changing his model, looking for a buyer, or shutting down altogether.
According to Gibbs (no relation to this writer), Charlottesville’s newest brewery, located on the hottest part of West Main Street, has served about 4,500 customers in its first three months. Gibbs would like to do nearly that much business in a month. At the rate he’s going, he’s breaking even. He’s got big plans for when—or if—C’Ville-ian (pronounced like “civilian”) starts turning a profit.
“I wanted to build the beers, listen to feedback, fine-tune everything, and then go from there to distribution,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t want to distribute 500 gallons of mediocre beer. I want to distribute a fantastic 500 gallons of beer.”
Distribution seems a long way off at this point. Gibbs, who’s moved into beer making after 10-plus years in the U.S. Army, is mainly striving for drinkability. He launched his 42-gallon microbrewhouse in late April with a co-owner who he’s now in the process of buying out. According to Gibbs, the partners didn’t “see eye-to-eye,” and he’s been left financing the place with cash on hand from his deployments to Iraq.
Gibbs hopes his own passion for beer and dream of giving Charlottesville’s craft enthusiasts another great place to hang out will eventually win the war for profitability. C’Ville-ian’s atmosphere and space, with exposed bulb lighting hanging over a sleek bar and cozy couch, is likely its greatest asset, but the current battle against pricey real estate in the middle of town, the learning curve for a short-time homebrewer turning pro, and a handful of negative online reviews have begun to claim casualties.
The most embattled of C’Ville-ian’s brews has been its India pale ale (IPA). The first iteration of the ale, craft beer’s fastest growing style but one of Gibbs’ least favorite, took a lot of heat on Yelp and beer forums like Untappd. Some called it undrinkable. Others suggested there might be a contamination problem. Gibbs blames the beer’s failure on an error in scope.
“I was trying to meet other people’s expectations instead of my own,” he said. “The new IPA is malty and incredibly well balanced. It is not over-the-top hoppy. I’m not a hoppy type of guy.”
The new version of the JPA IPA, a big, 10.2% ABV double IPA, shows Gibbs is more or less on the right track. While it too has an off flavor that might be described as soapy, it’s indeed better than the first attempt. The brewery’s flagship beer, the Rugby Red, highlights another challenge Gibbs is working hard to overcome: carbonation.
“This is a nanobrewery, essentially a home brewery on steroids, and I’m still fooling around with different methods of carbonation,” Gibbs said. “Honestly, that has been one of the most difficult parts of it.”
The challenge, an “enormous” one that Gibbs said is far more important than he figured going in, is in part due to the temperature in C’Ville-ian’s fermentation tanks. Gibbs said he’s had trouble dialing it in, specifically keeping the temp at the outside of his tanks consistent with the inside, but he’s close to leaving the concern behind him.
The bright spot on the C’Ville-ian docket at the moment is the Cavalier Chocolate Stout. The carbonation level is more on par with what you’d expect from the style, and any off flavors are replaced by a subtle mix of chocolate and coffee notes. Brewed with oatmeal added to the malt bill, the beer is bigger than traditional dry stouts but lighter in weight than most American and imperial stouts.
The true test of Gibbs’ brewhouse will come this fall, when activity on West Main ticks up. And while Gibbs expects his location, C’Ville-ian’s laid back game-room feel, and Charlottesville’s taste for artisanal food and drink to drive sales, true growth will no doubt start with continued improvement of the booze. Those bad online reviews and negative buzz among the beer geek community have become landmines. Gibbs will have to sidestep them if he intends to make it through to 2015.
“I really listen to customer feedback,” he said. “If people don’t appreciate the particulars of a beer, why am I making it? If I like it and no one else does, it means it’s no good.”
Gibbs said he’s willing to look for help with his beer. If the financials would allow it, he’d hire a schooled brewmaster to take over the helm. He’s already enlisted assistance from fellow homebrewer John Jones, whose primary gig is at Fifth Season Gardening, Charlottesville’s leading homebrew supply store.
Whatever the changes to the existing or future beer list (expect a pumpkin porter and Belgian tripel to roll out soon), Gibbs thinks word of mouth will be his best defense against negative reviews. Facebook fans have been far more supportive than Yelpers, he said, and the “17-foot giants when they go home to their computers” aren’t representative of the crowds he talks to in his taproom.
“Ninety-eight percent of my customers come in and leave happy,” Gibbs said. “I’m not sure what’s going on with the Yelp thing, but I’m standing here day after day and people are having a good time.”