Beer bard: Craft brew writer Lee Graves publishes far-reaching volume

The final stop on Lee Graves’ Virginia Beer book tour is an appearance at Pro Re Nata Brewery in Crozet on January 9. Publicity photo. The final stop on Lee Graves’ Virginia Beer book tour is an appearance at Pro Re Nata Brewery in Crozet on January 9. Publicity photo.

Lee Graves is not a foodie—he says so himself on the fourth page of his recently released book Virginia Beer: A Guide from Colonial Days to Craft’s Golden Age. But he is uniquely qualified to tell the rich story of Virginia craft beer.

Graves was a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the mid-’90s when an idea came up in an editorial meeting. We’re starting to see some small breweries open up, the editors thought. Why not start a beer column?

“I raised my hand, and all of a sudden I was writing a weekly column,” Graves says.

Graves was in the right place at the right time—his writing was syndicated by Chicago-based Tribune Media and appeared in newspapers across the country from 1996 to 2002—and he had a front-row seat to watch the first wave of modern craft breweries roll through Virginia and beyond.

If you’ve no clue what that “first wave” might be, Graves will enlighten you in Virginia Beer, one part suds market breakdown, two parts beer history, and three parts brewery travel planner.

“I don’t necessarily want it to be a guidebook,” Graves says. “But if you’re going to Roanoke, I hope the book will be valuable. There’s also some background on the process and pairings for the beer novice. I want it to be accessible.”

Virginia Beer comes on the heels of Graves’ city-focused Charlottesville Beer: Brewing in Jefferson’s Shadow and Richmond Beer: A History of Brewing in the River City. And while the new tome draws on the first two, Graves says he’s included plenty of new material for his repeat readers.

“It puts Charlottesville in a broader context,” he says. “The thing is, the city has a special place in craft beer history.”

Around the time Graves launched his Times-Dispatch column and Richmond’s Legend Brewing Company was gearing up for a decades-long run as Virginia’s craft beer standard-bearer, Charlottesville quietly launched some breweries of its own. The state’s first brewpub, Blue Ridge Brewing Company, opened in 1987 and later folded. But South Street Brewery has been going strong since 1998, and Starr Hill opened its trailblazing doors in ’99.

“The area began making its mark in the modern surge of craft brewing well ahead of the rest of the Commonwealth,” Graves writes in Virginia Beer. “Charlottesville routinely finds itself on lists of top places to live; why not promote it as one of the top places to find craft beer?”

South Street and Starr Hill are among those selected for the C’ville area, as are Three Notch’d Brewing Company, Champion Brewing Company, Random Row Brewing Co., Reason Beer, Blue Mountain Brewery and Barrel House, Wild Wolf Brewing Company, and Devils Backbone Brewing Company.

Graves says in the preface to Virginia Beer he followed no scientific method for selecting the breweries profiled, a point he reiterated in a phone interview. But there was reasoning behind the selections.

“I wanted to make sure I included some of the high-profile breweries and ones that have won medals,” he says. “But I also wanted to include breweries that might be out of the way that people might miss if they’re not careful.”

Readers are treated to local lore about Taylor and Mandi Smack, who met at Goose Island in Chicago before working together at South Street and later opening Blue Mountain; the booming early 2010s that brought us Three Notch’d and Champion; the marketing strategy that was the Brew Ridge Trail; and the meteoric rise and big-beer-buyout at Devils Backbone. “It’s breweries that have helped make Virginia a thriving beer culture,” Graves says.

Graves also wants his C’ville readers to find reasons to explore beyond the city limits. He profiles Waynesboro’s Basic City Beer Company, where South Street alum Jacque Landry is now head brewer; imperial stout specialist Brothers Craft Brewing in Harrisonburg; and Richmond’s hipster magnet, The Answer Brewpub.

The balance of the book offers plenty of interesting nuggets readers won’t find elsewhere, Graves says. There’s the University of Virginia student who had a profound impact on the homebrewing industry and Colorado’s craft scene, the role of slaves in hop history, the Virginia senate bill that changed everything for brewpubs, and Graves’ thoughts about where the industry goes from here.

“Yes the industry is maturing and the growth rate has slowed,” Graves says. “There will definitely be some sorting out.” But Virginia should bear less of that, with less breweries per capita.

And, oh yeah, he clears up all that “wave” stuff.

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