“Out of 56 places in Charlottesville to get beer, we’re rated number 56,” says Chris Kyle, the new manager of C’Ville-ian Brewing Company. “Dead last in all categories.”
That’s a strange thing for a business to admit, but the folks at C’Ville-ian have started a process of redemption akin to a 12-step recovery process. They have admitted that they have a problem, taken inventory, apologized to those they’ve hurt and started to make amends by brewing much better beer.
C’Ville-ian was opened in 2014 by Steve Gibbs, a veteran of the Iraq War. Gibbs had a vision of a brewery that would attract other military veterans and give them a place to feel comfortable. “He’s passionate about that as a cause,” says Kyle. “He thought that opening a veteran-owner brewery in Charlottesville would be a good idea. There’s a big learning curve in there, trying to do all of that by yourself.”
Things didn’t go well. One early reviewer noted, “The owner is still a little overbearing, but at least in a nice way. Brushing your teeth with guests around is a little weird. …The beer ranged from sophomoric to infected and terrible.”
In a town full of world-class breweries, the standard for beer is high. C’Ville-ian became a notorious flop. The bar was dirty, the atmosphere uncomfortable and the beer tasted like a bad homebrewing experiment. An investor filed a lawsuit against the business, which is ongoing.
Finally, Gibbs faced reality: While his vision for a veteran-oriented brewery on West Main Street might work, he needed to step away and put someone else in charge. Gibbs accepted a military contracting job in Afghanistan (he could not be reached for comment), asked his mother to make any major business decisions in his absence and hired Kyle to step into a situation reminiscent of an episode of “Kitchen Nightmares.”
Kyle cleaned house—literally and figuratively.
“When I came in the staff was a little demoralized,” says Kyle, who decided to part ways with all of them. “It had become common in their minds that this was the way it had always been and this was how it should be. The place was rundown, it was dirty, it was missing some type of character. …If you don’t have the best beer on the block and your place looks like crap, that’s a recipe for disaster. So that was an immediate thing.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the bar was visibly cleaner and remodeling had started. A wooden “firing line” had been built to safely accommodate a dart board for patrons’ use. American flags are still boldly displayed. Kyle poured a flight of beers that was nothing like the C’Ville-ian of old. Standouts included a pineapple wheat beer, perfect for hot weather, and a rye-based IPA.
Kyle brought in a contractor, brewer J. W. Groseclose, to design recipes for the new brews, and Alex Bragg handles the day-to-day brewing operations. Their challenge is making beer with equipment that can only brew beer in 25 gallon batches. Refrigerated space is limited, making the lagering process impossible. They can only make ales using yeasts that tolerate fluctuating temperatures.
“We’ve got about 12 to 14 days from grain to glass,” says Bragg. “That gives us just a little bit of time. We’ve just got to keep everything moving. It’s tight in here. We’re doing what we can with what we’ve got. …We had to come up with our own carbonation system.”
As they’ve turned the brewery around, business has picked up. Suddenly, C’Ville-ian has a problem that it’s never faced before—the prospect of running out of beer to sell. “We are at the limits of our environment in terms of what we can make,” says Kyle. At some point, they will have to figure out how to cram a larger, closed brewing system into a brewing space the size of a walk-in closet in Farmington.
Two new breweries are about to open nearby: Random Row Brewery on Preston Avenue and Hardywood, only three blocks from C’Ville-ian on West Main.
“Even though we’re on the same brewery map next to those places, we’re the only nano-brewery in Charlottesville,” says Kyle. “We don’t distribute and won’t distribute. Everything we make, we’re going to sell in this location.”