How the commonwealth’s brewery scene climbed the ranks

Raise a glass to the government that’s helped the state’s brewed options abound.

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When Jonathan Staples put a half-hearted offer on a derelict horse farm in Lucketts, turning it into a hops-growing hub for the county’s fast-growing beer industry was not in his playbook.

But it was in the governor’s.

The restaurant industry veteran, who also owns Richmond’s James River Distillery, mentioned to Loudoun County officials that he wanted to grow hops on some of the 60-acre farm, a fragrant botanical to use in the distillery’s gin. In the county that’s become ground zero for an explosion of hops-loving craft breweries—going from two in 2015 to 28 breweries today—it was as though Staples had said the magic word.

Soon, he had a meeting with the commonwealth’s former Secretary of Agriculture, Todd Haymore, and a $40,000 grant from the state department of agriculture, which the county matched, to get the hops growing facility off the ground as soon as possible.

Black Hops Farm came to fruition as quickly as the flavorful flower clusters could form, spawning another on-site business owned by Staples, Vanish Farm Brewery, in 2016.

The farm is now home to 5 acres of hops and a processing facility, while the brewery, in just two years, has added more than 60 employees—one of the reasons the state deemed it worthy of investment.

The other reason? Then Gov. Terry McAuliffe really likes craft beer.

During his four years in office, the number of active breweries in Virginia tripled to nearly 200, several with the help of state grants. For a governor focused on economic development, breweries, wineries and distilleries hit all the right marks: They buy produce from local farms—whether hops, barley, wheat or grapes—and transform them into beverages and places that add jobs, value to farmland and culture to the commonwealth.

McAuliffe seemed to home in on breweries, both homegrown and national brands, and the ways their events-based facilities can boost the state’s tourism industry quickly by adding additional stops to the already popular wine and oyster trails winding through the state.

McAuliffe went so far as to have a kegerator installed in the executive mansion so he could serve pints to out-of-state craft beer manufacturers, wooing them to open job-generating facilities in the state.

To that end, he had a personal hand in recruiting Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery to open an $85 million East Coast facility outside of Roanoke in 2015 (sending Haymore on a last-minute beer run to get a keg of the company’s hard-to-find brews). A similar level of recruitment helped bring California-based Stone Brewing, Ballast Point and Green Flash breweries to open facilities in the state all during McAuliffe’s two terms. However, Green Flash shuttered its Virginia Beach facility, citing “too much debt,” in April, while Deschutes announced they were delaying their new facility.

During that same period, Virginia moved from 30th to 17th in the national rankings of brewers licenses per capita, according to the Brewers Association (currently ranks 18th), and McAuliffe brewed himself something of a legacy in the local beer world.

“What was really amazing to me was his genuine enthusiasm about agriculture and the culture of breweries, as opposed to someone who just sends out a press release about a new business,” Staples says of McAuliffe. “He was emotionally invested in what we were doing.”

McAuliffe, still considered a potential Democratic candidate for a 2020 presidential bid, told Virginia Craft Beer magazine at the end of his term that he plans to start a brewery and a hops farm in the state.

In many ways, the state’s beer businesses boomed on the coattails of an already successful industry of more than 300 local wineries, some of whom labored years ago for regulations that are friendly to on-farm sales and events. But Virginia distillers—who have grown in number from 10 four years ago to 50 today—will say there’s a caveat to the state’s booze-friendly regulations.

Sold exclusively through Virginia ABC stores, Prohibition-era laws still view the higher-alcohol products as a means of generating tax revenue more than tourism and jobs, says Tom Murray, co-founder and CEO of Murlarkey Distilled Spirits in Bristow.

“If the state would embrace and help these distilleries flourish, they could make exponentially more than they are making on the sales markup” at state-run liquor stores, says Murray.

McAuliffe officially passed the state’s booze business-growing baton to Gov. Ralph Northam in January, who is likely to continue support of the industries as a win-win for the state’s economy, though he might take a different tack.

“I think Northam will be supportive of any locality that brings him a project around craft brewing, but I don’t think he’s going to wear the banner like McAuliffe did,” says Kellie Hinkle, agricultural development officer for Loudoun County. “I think, when it comes to agriculture, his banner is going to be aquaculture.”

Northam’s comments on the campaign trail and since taking office confirm that hunch. Raised on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, he sees growing more oysters and clams as a way to clean state waters while producing food that, incidentally, pairs well with the state’s already healthy slate of homegrown libations.

“We’ve done a good job promoting our breweries and wineries,” Northam said at a campaign event last year. “You add good oysters and good things happen.”

(July 2018)

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