Is Virginia Ready For a ‘Beer Campus’?

Posted by  Hamilton Riley   in  Opinion     3 years ago     1362 Views     1 Comment  

Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, CA.

It was an awkward look on the young Enterprise Rent-A-Car lady’s face. As she was going through her standard, boiler-plate questions, she asked where we were going. “Oh, just out seeing Central California.”

“Awesome. You guys big wine drinkers? Going to Sonoma and Napa?”

“Actually, going past them to Santa Rosa and Petaluma. There are a couple breweries out there.”

Nine-thirty in the morning and it was already more than that poor girl could take. Who would drive 2.5 hours each way, PAST the two most sought after wine regions in the US to go to breweries? Should I call the cops or the loony bin already? Why isn’t he getting the additional insurance? Can I pay for the additional insurance for him?

Well first off those two breweries just happen to be Russian River and Lagunitas. Secondly, both are a completely different beer experience. Russian River’s original location in Santa Rosa is very small, about the size of an Applebees with high ceilings. Nestled in storefront, it has some tables, hightops, and one long bar. Know your order, know the rules, find a place to sit. Not much time to soak much of it in unless you hit it early on a week day or when a hacky sack tournament is going on (sorry, only hippie joke of the day). Lagunitas is a different story. Almost buried in an industrial park, you swing behind the metal buildings to find a whole conglomerate of  buildings, highlighted by a mini amphitheater and a trellis porch covered in lights that is absolutely breathtaking. It is spread out and cozy while intimate as well.

The Lagunitas model is what I like to call a ‘Beer Campus’. Several buildings grouped together offering a wide variety of features, making it a one stop shop when it comes to planning out your day. When breweries get to big for their britches, they need to expand. Russian River’s answer was to open another production facility in Paso Robles. Lagunitas expanded out to Chicago, but their location in Petaluma has become a multi-sensory experience. Come for the beer, stay for the (1) food, (2) music, (3) merchandise, (4) beer. It’s the theme park model: Offer everything and keep them there spending money longer.

Until yesterday, this was a predominantly foreign model to Virginia. Then Hardywood had to drop a huge bomb on the Virginia Craft Beer Scene by announcing not only a new location/brewery outside of Richmond in Goochland, but a $28 million dollar facility that will encompass the ‘beer campus’ model, with most of it to be open in 2017.

If this plays out like they think, Hardywood has really hit a home run with this. First off, it is the first full time, multi-use facility like this in Virginia. I can hear my friends yelling down from the Appalachians, but having THAT much room that you can throw up campsites and stages for special occasions & festivals is a little different. Secondly, location & location. The actual location is just past Short Pump near 288. The area out there is creeping down 64 and in 2-3 years, you will see a larger community of people living out there. Young people. Young people, statistically, not drinking macros anymore, but craft beer. Also location has to do with one of those little four ingredients in beer: water. Your source is not change much if any, a problem that bi-coastal Stone or Green Flash will/are encountering when they open in Virginia next year. And speaking of the 800 pound gorilla in the room, while the Stone plant has a separate tasting room, I don’t see most of the bells and whistles Hardywood is featuring in either of those 2 breweries facility plans.

Front of Sierra Nevada Brewery in Asheville, NC

I spent last weekend touring one of the most beautiful breweries I have ever been to, period. Sierra Nevada’s new digs right outside of Asheville, NC is a sight to behold. Now, I know the scale is completely different, but let’s check the list off. New state of the art brewery that does not look like a pre-engineered metal building? Check. Full dining capabilities? Check. Landscaped outdoor area for games and a dedicated concert/events pavilion? Check. The list goes on.

So is this a great move for Hardywood and, subsequently, Virginia? The model has had a proven track record in varying locations and breweries. There is always the question of when that craft bubble is going to burst, but this project should indoctrinate Hardywood as a permanent Virginia institution. Secondly, growth is costly, and being in construction myself, I know it is not cheap. I would expect the big boys to be watching this process as well in case things go too well or too poorly.

Stepping out of our ‘party trolley’, Doris tells us to have a great time.  I exit down the lacquered wood steps to this behemoth of a brewery and watched families by the droves show up for dinner on Friday night. Ten years ago and you would have been driven out of town by torch and pitchfork, being is such a red, rural county in North Carolina. Nowadays, nobody thinks twice. Hardywood can be that next destination place in Virginia, and hopefully, in time, be the leader that spurred other craft breweries to think outside the box.