Is This America’s Next Great Beer Town?

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Bottled selections from Hardywood Brewery, based in downtown Richmond, Virginia.Courtesy of Hardywood Brewery

In 1935, the Gottfried Krueger Brewery made drinking history by selling the first-ever canned beer, choosing Richmond, Virginia, as its test market. But the innovating spirit of the city’s brew scene didn’t settle, leaving the town far behind in the race for craft dominance.

That’s largely because prohibition-era legislation forbid breweries to sell their product on-site unless they had an attached restaurant— an economic hurdle for smaller brewers. The tide shifted with the passage of State Bill 604 in 2012. The law allowed retail sales of beer and sampling on the premises of Virginia breweries. Which is how in just five years, Richmond has transformed from a relatively dry city into a micro beer mecca.

“[The bill] was instrumental in dramatically changing the Richmond scene, overnight. It made it a lot easier to start [a brewery] with a lot less capital,” says Patrick Murtaugh, a co-founder of Hardywood Brewery in the Historic German Brewing District. “It’s the single-biggest marketing tool a brewery has—to bring people into the tap room and tell them anything they want to know.”

Now, Richmond has transformed into a haven for beer lovers—with more than 20 breweries producing quality product of all varieties—and its own thriving suds-based economy that encompasses restaurants, on-site tastings, and beer tours. The city ranks as one of the top craft breweries per-capita in the country.

Richmond local David Hunter started the Facebook group Fans of Virginia Craft Breweries with 50 friends shortly after SB 604 passed. It’s bloomed to more than 13,000 members, most natives of his home city.

“The scene is Richmond right now is like Austin or other bigger towns,” he says. “The breweries have created a really nice culture where people have something to do on the weekends. People just go from place to place and have fun.”

From the former Major League pitcher who opened a brewery at an old newspaper plant (Center of the Universe’s Chris Ray) to the garage brewers who graduated to retail (Ardent Craft Ales’ Tom Sullivan and Kevin O’Leary) to the son of Vietnamese immigrants who turned his family’s restaurant into one of the best beer bars in the nation (Mekong’s An Bui), there are as many interesting stories in Richmond as there are varietals of beer.

“What’s been exciting is that Richmond is a really friendly community,” says Tom Sullivan, Ardent Craft Ales’ co-founder. “We all know each other and we talk often and drink each other’s beers. That camaraderie and competitive spirit has driven us to improve our quality and come up with bigger and better ideas.”

Experimentation is a hallmark of the Richmond craft brewers, which means it’s hard to pinpoint a specific taste of the city. You’ll get the dank hops of the Falcon Smash IPA from Triple Crossing Brewery, the chocolate and espresso notes of Center of the Universe’s El Duderino stout, and the Hawaiian Punch-inspired tartness of the Never Aloha Gose by The Veil.

In order to experience it all, a beer tour might be the best way to sample Richmond’s wares. You can take an official tour via bus, or saunter around Scott’s Addition, the onetime industrial enclave that has become the epicenter for the city’s craft explosion, with five breweries and several cideries in the neighborhood, including Ardent, The Veil, and Isley Brewing Company.

Richmond’s craft beer boom also got a boost from an uptick in its food scene, a natural pairing that has elevated palates in the city. “There’s a lot of buzz from people always talking about craft beer, which is great, but that growth is driven by our restaurant scene as well,” Ray says. “Richmond has some of the most incredible restaurants I’ve ever been to.”

While some brewers worry about oversaturation, most feel that the quality of the product being produced throughout the city will help Richmond continue to develop into one of the major craft beer capitals in the United States.

“Everyone is doing something different here, so the city isn’t a one-trick pony,” says Triple Crossing’s Adam Worcester. “I’ve used this quote before, ‘A rising tide lifts all ships.’ There’s always room for great, high-quality breweries and it only makes Richmond more desirable, which helps all of us.”

Five Richmonders Offer Their Must-Have Beers

We polled Richmond residents to see which craft beer is at the top of their list:

· Rob Ullman, Artist: Chin Music, Center of the Universe – “It has a light sweetness that pairs really well with a warm, sunny day.”

· Jamil Chambers, Bartender: Rockville Red, Midnight Brewery – “I can enjoy one whether it’s hot in the summer or cold in the winter.”

· Mike McDonnell, Marketing: Coconut Quad, Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery – “A Belgian Quad with a double-digit ABV. It’s not for the light-hearted!”

· Adam Worcester, co-founder, Triple Crossing Brewery: Gingerbread Stout, Hardywood Brewery – “Like everyone else, I have to have one of these at the holidays.”

· David Hunter, founder of Fans of Virginia Craft Breweries: Rockville Red, Midnight Brewery – “This sunk the hook in my lip. As an amateur beer fan, it’s nice knowing people on the pro level know it’s good.”

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