New nanobrewery C’ville-ian holding the line at ideal Main Street location

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Steve Gibbs makes nanobrews at C’ville-ian Brewing Company on West Main Street. Photo: Brianna Larocco Steve Gibbs makes nanobrews at C’ville-ian Brewing Company on West Main Street. Photo: Brianna Larocco

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.”

  • Thomas

    I think the big fault with this place is the lack of advertising and word-of-mouth combined with a location not ideally suited for this type of establishment. I hate to see local places fail, but this looks like a combination of someone starting a business without really doing their homework on the neighborhood demographic and also not having much hospitality experience. The area’s local beer market is getting close to oversaturated as it is when you’re just considering the brewers that have equipment that doesn’t suffer from QC issues. Hopefully this Cville piece will help turn things around, but interest in something does not equal ability to make money from it.

    • belmontDude

      I so have to agree and I almost in fact wrote the same comment. I really hate to see someone put their hard earned money (earned in a freaking war zone too) into something without having a clue about business in general.

      The exact same thing could be said about the poor guy who was suckered into buying the old Moto Saloon and who now wants to turn it into an adult game room. I cringed when I read that article and I felt physical pain for the man. You can’t take an awful space and a failed idea and just add even more junk to the room and hope to make a go of it especially with no background in any business let alone the harsh restaurant game. It was for sale for a really good reason, to pay back debts.

      I kind of want to go to both places a time or two just to throw a buck their way, but I know that’s no more sustainable than adopting all of the pound puppies.

      • Mark Weber

        This “poor guy” wasn’t “suckered” into buying the old Moto Saloon. Lots of people have mentioned how much they love the space but how the last incarnation left them wanting for multiple reasons – I don’t intend to repeat those mistakes, and I’m certainly not going to try slinging beer the caliber of C’ville-ian. If you have some constructive feedback about why the last place was a failed idea, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, save your dollar and head someplace you’d rather be.

        • belmontDude

          Unless the C’ville article that wrote about the Firefly concept was inaccurate, you do intend to repeat at least some of the mistakes of the previous owner.

          His biggest mistake, the one that ultimately doomed his business, was operating an illegal music hall and thinking no one would notice. The article says you have already lined up a regular band to play. If you haven’t searched the history of the place and the recent history of music zoning in the city you really ought to.

          Another serious mistake the former owner made was to do nothing to provide what people who live within walking distance might want in a neighborhood restaurant. I walk and run through the surrounding neighborhoods almost every day and those weren’t the people hanging out on the Moto Saloon porch until midnight or later. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think a loud metal lined arcade filled with huge TVs is going to bring the neighbors in either.

          The history of that location and the troubles closer to me in downtown Belmont make it clear, you lose your neighbor’s interest in your success and add in a clash with them over people parking all over the place, making noise as they come and go and dropping trash everywhere then you might as well just kiss your investment goodbye. Frankovich was lucky to have someone come along to bail him out, but I would be surprised if he even came close to breaking even on his project.

          • Mark Weber

            Hey Dude, I don’t think it’s appropriate to continue the discussion here but I assure you that I do know why Moto wasn’t popular and am making significant changes. If you want to email me at mrweber at gmail I’d be happy to discuss. Thanks.

  • Christine

    It’s not a lack of advertising. The beer does not taste good. The microbrewing and home-brewing community in Charlottesville is overflowing with resources for Gibbs. He needs to network with the local brewing community to start troubleshooting his brewing techniques. People in this town love beer and I can only imagine they would be happy to help get him back on his feet with some actually-drinkable beers.

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