Big river: Scottsville’s contribution to the craft beer scene ups the ante

James River Brewing Company is rolling out a new beer, created by brewmaster Kelby Barnhill, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo: Martyn Kyle James River Brewing Company is rolling out a new beer, created by brewmaster Kelby Barnhill, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo: Martyn Kyle

James River Brewing Company is not an urban legend. I promise.

If you’ve never been down to Scottsville, you might find it hard to confirm the place exists. You haven’t seen the brewery’s beers on tap around town, and if you’ve come across a James River bottle somewhere, a Sasquatch hunter you are indeed.

But the tiny craft brewery 30 minutes from Downtown Charlottesville has big news coming that stands to change all that. By the end of the month, James River will be installing a 20-barrel brewing system that will up its production by a factor of 10.

No, a 20-barrel brewhouse ain’t big. But when your existing system is less than two barrels and consists of hardly more than a guy running his homebrew operation in a commercial location, it’s a big step up. When the dust clears on the James River construction project, which should be completed by the end of March, the little beer engine that could will go from a couple hundred barrels a year capacity to nearly 3,000.

“We’ve been operating on a shoestring,” head brewer Kelby Barnhill said. “As soon as we get this new system in, we’re going to have more beer than we know what to do with.”

Which brings me to why you should care. I’ll be honest, the first time I drove by James River about six months ago, I thought it was closed and/or under construction. The large room adjacent to the tasting room where there should be a gleaming chrome brewing system looks halfway cleaned out after a sudden shutdown.

Even when I first walked into the Scottsville brewery, I still found it confusing. The tasting room was uncomfortably small, with a singer-songwriter strumming away practically in my lap, and the menu was uncomfortably large. The brewery seemed to be making a little bit of everything, and its focus was hard to pin down.

Since my first visit, though, I’ve heard nothing but good things about James River, which was ahead of C’ville’s Champion and Three Notch’d brewing companies at taking advantage of the new laws that allow joints to make beer without serving food. From the casual tippler to the local craft beer guru, almost everyone I’ve talked to agrees the beer coming out of the boutique Scottsville brewery is pretty damn good.

Originally under the direction of co-founder and brewmaster Dustin Caster, James River has indeed had trouble figuring out what it wants to be. Caster handed the title of head brewer over to Barnhill just a few months after the place opened, and the duo has produced beer in a somewhat scattershot fashion so far. Since day one, they’ve been pushing beer out strictly through their “pilot” system, a three-burner Rube Goldberg apparatus that was originally intended as nothing more than a way to get the business off the ground. Almost two years later, Barnhill is still diligently making two 50-
gallon batches a day up to five days a week to meet steady demand from James River’s tiny tasting room.

“I love brewing on that system,” Barnhill said. “It’s like flying the Millennium Falcon. Everything is manual.”

Barnhill, who was hired as assistant brewer and became head brewer when Caster shifted over to the administrative side, said the goal with the new system is to standardize James River’s flagship beers and regular seasonal offerings. That means staples like the English mild River Walker and English bitter River Runner will be produced on the commercial system. The brewery’s more unique beers and one-offs will still be made on the pilot system.

That change should be a good thing, as in my own experience, James River’s staples have been inconsistent, while its one-offs have been highlights. Currently on-tap and worth the 30-minute trip down are Barnhill’s Vanilla Porter, which has a subtle and natural-tasting vanilla note, and 1865 Smoked Brown Ale, with a porter-esque character and just enough smokiness to give it depth and make it interesting. Coming soon on tap is a dry Irish stout, a beer that sounds as if it’s right in Barnhill’s wheelhouse. It’s making its debut in the tasting room on March 14 as part of an effort to bring in out-of-towners for the brewery’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend festivities.

“Our goal is to get people down here,” Barnhill said. “If people can brave the 20 to 30 minute drive, it is a totally different scene from C’ville, with local music with a rural character.”

No one would blame you, though, if you waited for warmer days to visit James River. The brewery’s small tasting room has been expanded to include a new room for live music and a second sitting room, but the prize of the place is certainly the beer garden and outdoor stage positioned along the creek out back. It’s a lovely shaded gem on sunny days but bitterly cold during winters like the one we’re having.

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