By now, even casual beer fans should know that Richmond’s scene is booming. Stone, the pioneering Southern California craft brewer, opened a gargantuan brewery and gorgeous tasting room in the Virginia capital’s east end this year. Five-year-old Hardywood Craft Brewery has gotten so popular, it’s opening a plant in nearby Goochland that will produce nearly three times as much beer as the original brewery. Mekong figures in national “best beer bar” polls by the likes of USA Today, Thrillist and more.
And these days, when I want a taste of Richmond – cutting-edge craft beers, Virginia ciders, even mead and whiskey – I head to Scott’s Addition, a neighborhood in the northwest part of the city that I couldn’t have picked out on the map three years ago.
The industrial area, north of the city’s Museum District and just to the west of the Redskins’ Bon Secours training camp and the Richmond Flying Squirrels baseball stadium, has become home to an array of producers, including the Veil Brewing Co., whose juicy IPAs have become some of the most sought-after on the East Coast; Ardent Craft Ales, which creates flavorful seasonal saisons and just won a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival for its Brett Saison; and Blue Bee Cider, an award-winning maker that just moved to the neighborhood.
In all, four breweries, two cideries, a meadery and a distillery are within a few blocks of one another, with another brewery planning to open in early 2017. “If you park your car and walk between all eight of us, it could take you a full day,” says Blue Bee founder Courtney Mailey. “A very fun full day, I might add.”
The tasting rooms in Scott’s Addition share what Mailey calls “a strong sense of independence,” but they’ve also developed an interesting symbiotic relationship. “Our business is bumping up every time someone opens,” says Ardent co-founder Tom Sullivan. “With the Veil, you can literally look down the street and see people walking up the street [to our taproom] from their direction.” The Veil co-founder Dustin Durrance says it’s not a one-way street: Ardent’s anniversary party in June “was one of our biggest days,” he said, fueled by out-of-towners who came for the second annual event. And for Blue Bee’s Oct. 15 grand opening, the cidermakers worked with six neighbors, including Black Heath Meadery and Reservoir Distillery, to create a series of seasonal collaborations.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1990s, when Ardent’s Sullivan attended Virginia Commonwealth University, “Scott’s Addition was where all the artists went to find studios and rehearsal spaces where we could make a mess and do our thing relatively quickly,” he says. “It was that last corner of the city that no one seemed interested in.” Years later, Sullivan, Paul Karns and Kevin O’Leary began as a home-brewing co-op in Richmond’s historic Church Hill but opened their brewery in Scott’s Addition in 2014 because it was easier to find property with the right zoning.
At first, “it was a bit of a zombie wasteland, to be honest with you,” Sullivan says. Isley Brewing had opened the previous fall and was making beers such as Choosy Mother Peanut Butter Oatmeal Stout a five-minute walk away, but Sullivan remembers “empty city buildings with grass three feet high on the sidewalk.” The neighborhood remains a mix of anonymous low-slung industrial buildings, parking lots and new construction but this year has seen a steady stream of restaurant openings, including Peter Chang Cafe and Boulevard Burger & Brew, as well as announcements about condos and CrossFit studios.
Although it’s worthwhile to spend a few hours poking around, here are the neighborhood standbys and new arrivals that should be on your Scott’s Addition walking tour:
Ardent Craft Ales
By the time Ardent opened in Scott’s Addition, the brewery’s founders had already succeeded in getting their IPA and saison on tap at bars around town. But, Tom Sullivan says, they realized they’d have to step up their game to give people a reason to come to the brewery itself. “We didn’t want them to say, ‘Why show up to Ardent if it’s the same stuff we can get anywhere?’ “
Indeed, it’s the beers I’ve never seen anywhere else – or even heard of – that make me want to spend an evening sampling flights in Ardent’s terraced beer garden. They might include the funky Brett Saison; the earthy Sweet Potato & Sage Saison; or the Dark Rye imperial stout.
When the brewery expanded this year, it added more small tanks to allow a greater variety. “Instead of ‘How do we make enough IPA?’ it’s ‘What do you want to do?’ The brewers are getting excited,” Sullivan says. Besides, he adds with a laugh, “it sucks to make the same three beers over and over again.”
Blue Bee Cider
After more than three years in the Manchester neighborhood south of the James River, Blue Bee has expanded to 9,000 square feet of space in four buildings that once housed the city’s stables. Owner Mailey says the new facility has a “more linear production line” that will allow Blue Bee to triple production of its quirky and delicious ciders, including Charred Ordinary, a tangy, semi-sparkling cider made with heirloom Virginia apples, and Hopsap Shandy, a dry, slightly bitter drink that gets its grassy notes from an infusion of hops. Expect volume to grow to around 100,000 bottles a year.
But the real attraction, Mailey says, is the new tasting area, which will offer “a much richer consumer experience.” The buildings surround an interior courtyard, and an old barn with cobblestone walls has been repurposed as a “cider salon” full of tables and chairs. “It’s like going to a little cider village,” Mailey says. The salon offers guided tastings every day but Saturday, when, due to expected crowds, the salon will stick to flights.
Three Notch’d Collab House
The third branch of Charlottesville’s Three Notch’d Brewing is more than just another place to sip No Veto English Brown Ale or Hydraulion Red. Although you’ll find some longtime favorites there, says taproom manager Aaron Thackery, along with original beers by Richmond brewer Stefan McFayden, such as Hops Addition IPA, the real goal is to make creating beers a more interactive experience. Thackery explains that “artists, musicians, breweries, businesses, nonprofits” and regular beer lovers will be able to pitch Three Notch’d with ideas for new products, then participate in the recipe development and actual brewing. Among those with a green light: a coffee porter made with nitro brewer Confluence Coffee and an Apple Streusel Brown Ale with Whole Foods Market.
Of course, you don’t have to come up with a beer to enjoy one: The taproom’s schedule includes Tap That Thursdays, with $3 pints of a new beer, and should soon include trivia nights and other events.
The Veil Brewing Co.
The splashiest recent addition to the neighborhood is the Veil, which debuted in April. Brewer Matt Tarpey worked as a brewer at the Vermont brewery the Alchemist, makers of Heady Topper, and later moved to Hill Farmstead, the Vermont farm brewery whose rustic ales are consistently named some of the best in the world. Tarpey also apprenticed at Cantillon in Brussels, a traditional family brewery known for its sour lambic and gueuze beers. In short, expectations were sky-high, even if Tarpey had never run his own brewhouse.
The Veil’s IPAs and double IPAs have lived up to the hype: While the Veil’s dozens of brews vary, they tend toward dank and citrusy aromatics, silky-smooth bodies and a rich, juicy complexity. They’re loaded with hops, but there’s little of the bitterness associated with the style. It’s no wonder beer geeks have been known to wait in line for hours on Tuesdays for ultra-fresh cans. (Although the IPAs are headliners, don’t overlook beers such as Child Support, a single-hopped pilsner, or the easy-drinking milk stouts.)
The Veil’s taproom, where you’ll find a larger selection of beers on tap, is edgier than most, decorated with taxidermy and faux-concrete-finished walls. “But we’re just trying to do things we think are cool,” explains co-founder Durrance. “That’s why sometimes you’ll come in, and it will be nothing but IPAs and double IPAs.”
Coming, though not soon: sour beers fermented on the Veil’s roof, in an open vessel called a coolship. They’ll age in barrels for about three years, Durrance says, before being released. The Veil hesitates to call them “gueuze,” because that “would be disrespectful. We revere that product.” It probably doesn’t matter: As long as “The Veil” is on the label, beer lovers will be looking for it.