When Mark Thompson took his leave of Starr Hill Brewery in February of 2015, it felt like a changing of the local craft beer guard. Thompson was replaced as Starr Hill’s head brewer by then 29-year-old Robbie O’Cain, and other local new kids, anchored by Champion and Three Notch’d brewing companies, were growing at a rapid clip.
One year earlier, South Street co-founder and brewmaster Jacques Landry had stepped away from brewing, looking to take time to himself. And one year later, Devils Backbone, which had by that time surpassed Starr Hill as the largest local beer producer, was purchased by Anheuser-Busch InBev.
Thompson left a considerable void when he semi-retired from brewing. Not only had he essentially launched the local boom by founding Starr Hill in 1999, but his departure was veiled in mystery. He wasn’t commenting on the terms of the brewmaster changeover, and Brian McNelis, Starr Hill’s managing director and VP of operations at the time, was similarly evasive.
Now Thompson is back. Over the summer, he opened Brewing Tree, a low-key spot on Route 151 where he plans to keep things small-scale, with no distribution and brewery-only sales. It’s the latest brewery opening for a local industry still growing in waves.
The third wave
Thompson, who says any mystery surrounding his departure from Starr Hill was due to a non-compete agreement he’d signed, wants to look toward the past with Brewing Tree. He envisions a European model, making classic styles as an old-school neighborhood beer supplier, a place where folks can come from down the street to enjoy a pint or take a jug of suds home.
“The next transition happening is this kind of hyper-local transition,” Thompson says. “At some point, the consumer said success is a detriment.”
Thompson is likely referring to the backlash breweries inevitably feel when they sell out to big beer, as Devils Backbone did to ABInBev. And while DB has largely weathered the storm, other local upstarts are now tapping into the hyper-local movement.
Reason Beer opened on Route 29 last year with some fanfare. Founded by Patrick Adair, Jeff Raileanu, and Mark Fulton, Reason was named to Beer Advocate’s list of 50 best new breweries in May. And Fulton, who along with his co- founders originally hails from Charlottesville, had already made a name for himself as director of beer operations at the renowned Maine Brewing Company. The Reason brewhouse is small at 30-barrel capacity, but the team has launched limited packaging and regional distribution.
Taking things even more local, Random Row Brewing Co. is aiming for “a neighborhood pub type” model, according to owner and brewer Kevin McElroy. “We knew that when we got started, the opportunity to be the next Sam Adams or Stone Brewing was passed,” he says. “So many breweries had grown to that size, and there wasn’t enough room for more regional breweries.”
Random Row began dabbling in distribution earlier this year, but over-the-bar sales still account for about 75 percent of the business.
Meanwhile, both Champion and Three Notch’d continue to expand. The former has opened a new location in Richmond—on the heels of co-branding for nano-brewery Brasserie Saison on the Downtown Mall—and Three Notch’d has moved from its humble original location on Preston Avenue to a sprawling campus at the Ix Art Park.
Style and substance
Landry, who founded South Street with co-owner Fred Greenewalt, couldn’t stay away from brewing any longer than Thompson. Now brewing at beer nerd favorite Basic City Beer Co. in Waynesboro, Landry essentially never left the industry. After turning the helm of South Street over to Taylor and Mandi Smack of Blue Mountain Brewery, he worked as a consultant for James River Brewery in Scottsville and a friend’s establishment in upstate New York.
At Basic City, Landry (titled “master brewer”) thought he and head brewer Derek Hornig would be focusing on standard styles, much like Thompson at Brewing Tree. But the Basic City team has found itself moving in some trendy directions by being “open…and driven by customer interest and being relevant,” Landry says.
“The market now likes something new all the time,” he says. “We’ve just basically tried to make the kinds of beers that get people excited. Personally, I’m not an IPA guy, but I have an appreciation for the newer style with low bitterness and juicy hops.”
McElroy, who also envisioned a brewery serving traditional styles at lower alcohol contents, likewise believes in listening to his customers—and why not? They’re sitting right there next to him in the small Random Row brewhouse. That’s meant using his limited batch size to his advantage and experimenting with different brews.
“It’s been fun to see that evolve,” McElroy says. “But when you go to a brewery with 10 beers on tap and eight are hazy IPAs, there’s something wrong. We try to have something for everybody.”
Reading the hop leaves
Whether the local brewing industry focuses on the trendy, goes back to traditional styles, sees more nano-spots opening every six months, or sits back as established brewers go regional is anyone’s guess. Thompson said he’ll “leave the Coco Pebbles and donut beers to others.” Landry believes the “market will take care of itself.”
Smack, who purchased South Street from Landry and Greenewalt in early 2014, is similarly optimistic—but with a caveat. He’s wary of breweries focusing heavily on distribution, as the bottle shop game is pocked with “woes and difficulties.”
“I think the explosion of breweries on balance is a good thing. It feels like we’re restoring something valuable that was lost in America with the onset of Prohibition,” he says. “But with this explosion comes hyper-localization; even though there was a brewery on every corner in much of America back in the day, you couldn’t get eight bazillion different varieties of beer at your local grocer. [That’s] not sustainable.”