NoVA Beer Scene Beginning to Come Into Its Own
By Robert Fulton
Mad Fox Brewing Company in Falls Church starts getting busy mid-afternoon on Saturdays, and stays that way until closing. The long, comfortable wood bar in this brewpub located in a shopping center situated right on the town’s main drag, Broad Street, begins to fill with thirsty beer lovers looking to try one of the dozen or so craft offerings described in colored chalk on two boards next to flatscreen televisions.
Long-time Northern Virginia brewer and Mad Fox owner Bill Madden sits at a table in the restaurant’s expansive dining room. He’s brewed in the area for 15 years, including stints at Capitol City in Shirlington and Vintage 50 in Leesburg, before opening Mad Fox in July of 2010.
“We were all heartbroken,” Madden says, wistfully, when the conversation turns to the subject of one-time area beer maker Old Dominion Brewing Company. “There was a big hole in all of our hearts, in all of the brewer’s hearts in Northern Virginia, when we saw Old Dominion [leave].”
When Old Dominion’s brewing operations relocated to Delaware in 2009 after 20 years operating in Ashburn, the Northern Virginia beer scene took a major hit. No longer was there a beer both brewed and bottled locally. No longer was there an area commodity that residents could see stocked on the shelves at the nearby grocery story and point to as theirs.
But in the wake of Old Dominion’s departure two years ago, a wide-open market has emerged, with a number of new breweries looking to fill the void.
“There was a big hole left when the company that purchased them kind of betrayed Northern Virginia,” Bill Madden says. “What the beauty of it now is we’re seeing the hole filled with these great new breweries coming up.”
Favio Garcia is making a mess.
Amber liquid pours out of a tank and onto the freshly laid floor of his new venture, Lost Rhino Brewing Company. Chock the spillage up as just another casualty in the beer-making process.
If anyone currently producing beer in the area has first claim to the legacy of Old Dominion, it’s Garcia and his business partner Matt Hagerman. Both were brewers at Old Dominion, the former the head brewer.
Founded in 1989 by Jerry Bailey, Old Dominion was the flagship beer in Northern Virginia. In 2007, Coastal Brewing Company, a joint venture between Fordham Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch, which owned a 49-percent share, purchased Old Dominion. In 2009, Coastal Brewing Company consolidated operations to Delaware, shuttering Old Dominion’s Ashburn brewery. The building still stands empty.
Garcia and Hagerman didn’t move with Old Dominion, and two years later, have opened Lost Rhino.
Of all the area brewers with an opinion on Old Dominion’s departure, Garcia’s might surprisingly be the most upbeat one yet.
“That’s the best part about it,” says Garcia, as he stands monitoring equipment in the new brewery in Ashburn. “When Old Dominion moved away, that sparked people doing things again. It’s exciting.”
It’s no coincidence that Garcia and Hagerman chose to locate Lost Rhino’ s home in a business park close to Route 28 in Ashburn, the drumming of their kettles drowning out the roaring of jetliners making their approach to nearby Dulles Airport.
“Ashburn at the end of the day supported a craft brewery for 20 years,” says Hagerman, who first brewed root beer at Old Dominion before making his way up the ladder. “They’re very well educated on how that all works.”
Originally, Garcia and Hagerman wanted to name their new company 28 North, after the nearby highway, but learned that a Pittsburgh-area band already laid claim to that moniker. The two settled on Lost Rhino, trying to convey a sense of West Coast nonchalance.
“We want to bring back that laidback atmosphere,” Hagerman says. “You just get a sense of being. I want to bring some of that relaxation into my beer.”
At the outset, the folks at Lost Rhino plan to produce three beers, as well as a seasonal selection, with the initial goal of making 2,500 barrels a year. At press time, plans called for a tasting room and, adjacent to that, a brewpub in the same vein as Old
Dominion’s popular brew pub. Beer is available by growler and 22-ounce bottles, and long-term plans include canning. Lost Rhino has space to significantly increase production.
“We’re trying to create a fun brewery, a place to have fun, hang out with the brewers, and make some interesting beers,” Garcia says.
For a brewery, Port City in Alexandria is clean. Like, you-could-lick-soup-off-the-floor-of-the-production-area clean. But this cleanliness is not because the facility off Wheeler Road, situated between Duke Street and the Beltway, only opened in February and isn’t busy cranking out product. No, it’s clean because owner Bill Butcher wants it that way.
“You can’t produce world-class beers in a dirty brewery,” Butcher says during a tour of Port City’s facilities. “We make a big mess in here when we’re brewing, but at the end of the day, we spend a lot of time cleaning it up and making sure that the place sparkles.”
While Lost Rhino in Ashburn may have a claim to the Old Dominion legacy because of lineage, Port City is trying to fill the void left behind on the store shelves. Unlike other Northern Virginia producers, Port City bottles its beer, which can be found in area grocery stores.
When Butcher sees opportunity, he jumps. After a career in the wine business, Butcher recognized that the greater D.C. area didn’t have microbreweries commensurate to the region’s market size. That’s when he explored the idea of opening a brewery.
With no beer experience to speak of, Butcher brought in award-winning, long-time local brewer Jonathan Reeves to make his beers. Port City now has four flagship products [Monumental IPA, Essential Pale Ale, Optimal Wit, Porter], with plans for a seasonal offering. Port City, a homage to Alexandria, has plans to produce 5,000 barrels in 2011, with capacity for 25,000 barrels annually.
The Port City building includes a small tasting room, where customers can try out the beer before purchasing growlers or bottles. On one wall is a display paying respect to the old Robert Portner Brewing Company, which operated in Old Town Alexandria from the end of the Civil War until the onset of Prohibition.
A hundred years later, Butcher now sees a time for a renaissance in Northern Virginia craft beer.
“I’ve always been a fan of craft beer,” Butcher says. “Over the past 10 years the craft beer business has gotten more and more like the wine business with more choices, more selection, more styles available, and a growing appreciation of the market for craft beer that’s in a way very similar to how wine aficionados have appreciated wine over the years.”
While the likes of Port City and Lost Rhino are new to the Northern Virginia beer scene, brew pubs have long been popular. Over the last decade plus, such locations as Vintage 50 Restaurant & Brew Lounge in Leesburg, Capitol City Brewing Company in Shirlington and the three area Sweetwater Tavern locations have quenched beer drinkers’ thirsts.
“A lot of what Northern Virginia has benefited from is the recent exposure and acceptance of beer and food,” says Capitol City director of brewing operations Mike McCarthy, sitting at his Shirlington location, speaking passionately about beer. The restaurant operates two additional brewpubs in D.C. “It’s so much more accessible. People are feeling less intimidated by microbrews. There’s such a wide range of beer. People are demanding better selections.”
McCarthy says that while Northern Virginia’s brewpub scene has remained strong, Old Dominion’s departure hurt because it took away a local identity.
“I think it had a big impact,” says McCarthy, who has been with Cap City for nine years. “They were the only big boy around here. There was no other production. It’s great to have a great pub scene, but that’s something that legitimizes an area.”
Nick Funnell, the head brewer for Sweetwater Tavern, owned by the Great American Restaurant Group with three locations in Merrifield, Sterling and Centreville, has brewed locally for 15 years and has seen the area evolve as much as anyone.
“It’s much easier to get good beer,” Funnell says. “When we opened up, there were very few breweries and very few places to get good beer.”
Funnell believes that the area beer drinker is sophisticated.
“Beers in the East Coast tend to be better balanced,” he says. “The average drinkers here are more broadly traveled. They have a fairly good understanding of different styles of beer.”
The members of the NoVA beer scene are a tight-knit bunch. Madden brewed at Vintage 50 and, before that, Capitol City. Jonathan Reeves, the head brewer at Port City, worked with Funnel at Sweetwater, among many other stops. Between Old Dominion leaving town and starting up Lost Rhino, Garcia also brewed at Sweetwater.
The beer scene, at least locally, is not like, say, the restaurant business. The brewers share equipment, and don’t keep secrets from each other. It’s not so much competitive as it is camaraderie. They root for everyone’s success.
“We all know each other,” Madden says. “We’ve all work together in some shape or form. We’ve all helped each other out.”
Festivals have played a significant role in the growth of the local social scene. Capital City’s Oktoberfest in the streets of Shirlington is a highlight event each October.
From 1996 to 2006, Old Dominion held a festival in Ashburn. In that tradition, Madden helped found the Northern Virginia BrewFest, both in summer and fall.
“It’s spreading the word,” Madden says. “It’s getting us brewers together and getting our products together in one place that people can sample and enjoy and savor what’s going on in Northern Virginia in one location.”
While Northern Virginia can boast a number of brewpubs from Leesburg to Arlington, and a beer consumer can find Port City in a local grocery store, there’s no specific style yet associated with the area.
“I think that the scene is too young here for us to have established a specific style or a regional flavor that we’d be known for,” Butcher says.
Madden sees nothing but growth for the local beer scene in the coming years, echoing Butcher’s vision.
“It can support all of us brewers,” Madden says. “I think it’s a little under-served right now. It’s desperate for more breweries and brewpubs. There’s a definite demand out there. It’s having a local identity folks can really gravitate towards.”
Sitting at Mad Fox one Saturday afternoon, taking a break from working on a new batch of beer, Madden recalls a well-repeated quote from rock musician Frank Zappa:
“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”
“Hopefully the hole is going to be filled for us all,” Bill Madden says.
Where To Go For Local Beer
4001 Campbell Ave.
21730 Red Rum Road
444 W. Broad St.
3950 Wheeler Ave.
Three locations, in Centreville,
Merrifield and Sterling
50 Catoctin Circle NE,