What is the “ideal” craft beer experience?

Posted by  Alex Hannagan   in  Opinion     2 years ago     1496 Views     Comments Off on What is the “ideal” craft beer experience?  

A funny thing happened on the way to the brewery.  First, someone had poor bladder control and forced us to stop because they refused to use port-a-johns.  Next, another rider complained they were hungry, and we had to hit a drive thru as no food trucks were scheduled (and that was before the baby woke up screaming for a bottle, too).  Then we realized the dog had drunk too much water, and had to stop next to a tree on the side of the winding rural road.  Finally, right as we pull up to the barn housing this farm brewery, the skies opened up in torrents of rain and drove all the revelers inside a suddenly packed tasting room.  And the dog wasn’t allowed inside, but nor could we leave the windows cracked too far open now…

Of course this didn’t all happen on the same trip.  But I imagine you didn’t have to know that to wanly nod your head.  It does beg the question, however, of just what we should expect from brewers (and their facilities) apart from a gracious invitation to imbibe their righteous suds.  As a dreaded millenial, I often find myself debating just this topic with others while ignoring older generations’ pleas that we “shut up and drink a beer.”  I find the question important precisely because craft beer is exploding in the Commonwealth, and the experience of craft beer is changing along with it.

My very first brewery visit was accidental.  We were in fact visiting a winery outside Purcellville called Corcoran, and as we’re entering the estate we pass a barn advertising locally brewed beer.  Inside the musty confines sat a few high tabletops, a bustling bar counter, and a chalkboard.  The only bathrooms were attached to the main farmhouse, and it took several signs just to find those.  But my mother and I did the flight anyways, and I still have that growler from Corcoran (my first, and originally filled with Corky’s Irish Red) four years later.  It turned out that was among their first production batches, and everyone they ambushed en route for wine the guinea pigs.  The brewery has since moved from the farm into Purcellville proper, with a modern seating area both inside and out, menus with beer descriptions, light food, games, and even climate control (gasp!)  Whether or not this made the beer any better is debatable, but owner Jim Corcoran noted at the time of the announced move that “people come out for beer and barbecue.  It’s a mellow crowd, enjoying the cornhole, playing ball, and being friendly.”

Old 690 bar

The taproom at Old 690 feels like a warm, inviting barn complete with munchies and TVs.

But even in and around Purcellville, Corcoran’s approach is not a one-size-fits-all template.  VBR has made recent (and increasingly frequent) trips to its neighbors in Adroit Theory and Old 690.  While Corcoran eschewed a warehouse space and converted a defunct tavern restaurant for their purposes, Adroit Theory embraced the industrial park feel at a location just blocks away.  Pulling around the back of what looks like an old shipping and loading dock, you enter the cavernous expanse only to be bombarded with metallic growls and shredding guitars echoing from above.  A banner spouting a creed better suited for headbanging dominates the space above the tasting benches, and on that rainy day we kept our jackets on in the frigid confines.  And whereas both Corcoran and Adroit sought a more urban feel, Old 690 literally bought the farm.  But even having only been open a bare 90 days on our first visit, we were greeted with TVs, a dog competition, a food truck, and a lengthy beer list which puts entire beer programs at some restaurants to shame.

adroit theory

Those garage doors at Adroit Theory are great to open in the summer, but on a (shockingly cold) late April Saturday we lugged sweatshirts in to beat the chill.

So within one short Saturday drive, three young breweries took different approaches:  urban + trendy, industrial + devil may care, rural + warm.  That’s just Purcellville, but those styles are replicated throughout NOVA and in some cases, expanded upon.  Looking at Ashburn, both Old Ox and Lost Rhino are in industrial parks with relatively small tasting rooms.  Their main departure point in amenities comes in how they utilize their back rooms:  Old Ox opted for additional seating and a projection screen (on one occasion broadcasting playoff hockey) with a food truck outside, whereas Lost Rhino put in a kitchen serving beer-infused nachos, BBQ, and sandwiches.

The industrial park vibe at Forge in no way dissuades families or happy hour revelers (nor should it – it’s all but baby proof!)

Heritage tap room

Also with the warehouse feel, Heritage was standing room only on a rainy Saturday afternoon on this visit.

Old Ox’s strategy puts them in league with a host of other “warehouse” breweries, from Port City in Alexandria, Forge and Fair Winds in Lorton, Heritage in Manassas, and the emerging Ocelot in Sterling.  It’s a barebones experience, but one which allows for events such as trivia nights, yoga, and even athletics (Joggers and Lagers, anyone?)  For Old Ox, though, the strategy goes beyond events flexibility to one of location:  as with Corcoran, they deliberately posted themselves near (or in the former’s case, on top of) biking and nature trails.  Initially skeptical of the idea of biking for hours and stopping off for an Imperial Stout, I’ve noticed bikers, joggers, and even walkers hopping in for a quick pint (or two) while cooling off in the A/C.  So clearly, not everyone will need everything a brewery might offer, but what if one tried to go that extra mile?

Enter Caboose, the burgeoning gastropub also situated right on top of the W&OD Trail, only about 20 miles down the road in Vienna.  In a new shocker, I’ve now witnessed bikers in full ensemble lug their gear the 50 feet from the trail to the side of what’s actually a gastropub setting, throw back a few pints and shrimp and grits, and laughingly pedal off into the distance.  Clearly, the old urban legend of waiting 30 minutes before going swimming doesn’t apply any longer, but since some of those laughing hyenas were in my group, I asked my friends what drove (or pedaled?) them to bike from Arlington down to Vienna.  Their response:  the beer’s good, but the food is great.  And as I was scarfing down a dripping double burger that was without hyperbole the best I’d had in years, it made me evaluate my past few years of brewery hopping.  Maybe Jim Corocran was on to something when he said that people come for “beer and barbecue,” but given the successes of all these NOVA breweries, is it really “beer + food?”

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The cheeseburger at Caboose Brewing Co.  I had to change my shirt after that grease monster.

If the last thousand words elicit nary an answer, I think it at least frames the question.  As I alluded to earlier, owners and brewmasters are considering how best to attract more beer drinkers, which is why I think we need to as well.  They’re looking for casual beer drinkers, because odds are you and I are already going because the beer is good.  The question among ourselves is how to choose which good beer to seek out, and odds are cornhole, vaulted ceilings, and “walkability” aren’t necessarily in our scoring criteria.  Still, glancing out across the fabulous NOVA beer landscape, as well as plans for some of our neighbors down in RVA, the trends for craft beer producers are pretty clear at this point (we’ll spare the rest of this winding examination from the concurrent explosion in both bars serving craft beers and the beer programs in said bars).  I see three basic categories they all fall into, revolving around the idea of beer + food:

  1. Brewery – a production facility with a tasting room.  The strategies for attracting visitors may diverge from there, but once you’re plopped down the focus is on the beer.  Any other amenities are typically provided by another vendor (e.g., a food truck).  This is the predominant trend (for now), and some we’ve not mentioned so far would include Bad Wolf in Manassas or Crooked Run in Leesburg, and some recent openings would include Aslin in Herndon and New District in Shirlington.
  2. Brewpub – a production facility with a kitchen serving basic “pub fare” such as appetizers and sandwiches/burgers.  In addition to a place like Lost Rhino or Corcoran which places an emphasis on production, you’d also find Capitol City Brewing Company and chains such as BJ’s Brewhouse which focus as much (or more) on the restaurant experience while having production on-site.
  3. Gastropub – a production facility with an attached restaurant serving elevated/trendy fare.  This definition is a little more technical than Webster’s Dictionary, which simply calls it “a bar that serves good food and high-quality alcoholic beverages,” but it’s compatible from a brewery perspective.  Examples in this category include Mad Fox in Falls Church, bluejacket in Wasington, DC, the aforementioned Caboose, and some chains such as Gordon Biersch where you’d feel reasonably confident that the $$$ steak with märzen sauce you just ordered is actually going to be worth it.

So why beer + food?  There are other experiences that can make a beer go down quicker or taste a hundred times better (such as mowing the grass, watching sports, procrastinating, or simply the end of the work day), but food is so essential to our daily experience that you almost can’t have beer without it…unless you’re a monk and your beer literally serves as bread or you’re insane enough to design a diet around such a concept.  In my mind, if I’m visiting an establishment for the purpose of suds I’m not trying to show up, knock a few back, and find a ride to help me stumble home.  In a lot of cases, I want to extend my visit and hang out, and that is noticeably hard if one can’t easily gird themselves with protein and carbs (or isn’t interested in an extensive set of tasting samples).

fair winds beer fest

Let’s go get sour on some Krauts!

Case in point, back in September I ambled over to Fair Winds to pick up some growlers ahead of a particular tailgate experience.  Lo, I saw the above flier advertising that they’d be showing the inestimable Beerfest the very next night, and while I bemoaned the fact I’d be using my “daddy points” for the weekend to take the family down to watch some UVa football, at the same time I pondered the logistics of such an event.  That’s the sort of movie we watch at home over a few brews, laugh among friends, and choke down greasy food to fortify our tolerances prior to heading home.  Fair Winds is no slouch when it comes to having food menus for delivery services (and the occasional food truck) on hand, but that’s not necessarily the same as a watering hole like spacebar tossing a movie on the screen while you’re plowing through some grilled cheese, is it?  The advertised brats on the grill are certainly a start, if not exactly a full menu.  A week later I was back to pick up a sixtel and it happened to be Trivia Thursday, and sure enough a few intrepid trivia buffs were gnoshing on some pizza, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the draw would be larger if food were a more integrated part of the experience?  Back in college, the entire VBR crew frequented Mellow Mushroom, a pizza chain known equally for its (then) extensive beer list, awesome food, and epic trivia nights for which frats sent entire pledge classes to secure tables.  The pizza was so good, and the memories from all those visits so good, that the joint served as the spot for the Groom’s Lunch for one of our weddings.

fair winds corn hole

Fair Winds added games around Labor Day, proving a favorite for after work crowds

I don’t offer such observations to chip away at the overall experience of places like Fair Winds.  Heck, given its proximity to my office it’s one of the happy hour draws for my teams every few Fridays.  But one can’t help but compare it to our other happy hour spot, Yard House, which if you know is a hybrid bistro and watering hole chain with a massive beer menu.  In the 15 months since Yard House opened, it’s been packed to the gills almost every evening I’ve been there with the exception of a Tuesday, and I can’t help but think that the presence of (great) food is a reason why.  So why don’t breweries tackle food concepts more often?

As Bill Butcher, the founder of Port City, expressed in an interview with Virginia Craft Beer magazine in December,

I’ve never looked at this as an entertainment venue.  People do come here and have a good time.  We occasionally have live music.  We do other things such as beer yoga.  We have a fun run [Joggers and Lagers] every Monday night.  We do a lot of charity events.  So we’re always looking for ways to bring people together.  This brewery seems like a great way to do that, but we never want to compete with restaurants and bars in our area.  I see us as supporters  of theirs.  If they buy our our beer I’d rather go to their place and support them.  I never want to be a competitor to them.

Therein lies the rub.  The answer resides, at least in part, in the symbiotic relationship breweries share with restaurants and bars.  One produces the beer but needs avenues of distribution and marketing, and the other relies on extensive, occasionally exhaustive, and hopefully exclusive beer programs to entice discerning patrons.  So while it’s certainly in the interest of breweries to lure enthusiasts to taste their wares, it’s not necessarily in their interests to keep them, regardless of the higher profit margins to be had of a pint procured in-house.  Breweries are also inherently production facilities, and opening up floor space to tasting rooms (to say the least of kitchen, seating, and other venue space) takes up valuable room which could otherwise house barrel systems.  And floor space, particularly the closer you get in to metro areas whether in the 703, 804, or 757 areas, ups your operational costs considerably.

If that’s the case across the spectrum of VA breweries, then the “ideal” craft beer experience may simply come down to your own preferences.  I’ve been visiting Port City (brewery), Lost Rhino (brewpub), and Mad Fox (gastropub) fairly consistently the past few years, and each draws a decent crowd just about every time I’ve stopped by.  These are some randomly timed visits, as well, from Thursdays at 11am for nachos to Super Bowl Sunday for a keg pickup.  Food doesn’t seem to be the biggest factor for the overall crowd, even if personally it’s what draws me to extend my own visits.  For others, maybe it’s the (well worn) couches under the projection TV at Old Ox, the aforementioned yoga or jogging at Port City, or the corn hole sets and ultra sized Jenga at Fair Winds.

mad fox grilled romaine

The beer is always good at Mad Fox, but when our favorites aren’t on tap (or polite culture may frown upon it) there’s still some of the best food in the area to keep us coming at all times of day throughout the week.

Or, maybe, the craft beer experience is really about the beer.  What all of these destinations have in common is Great.  Freaking.  Beer.  And it’s all #drinklocal for that matter.  As noted earlier, we’re already going because the beer is good, but what draws even casual crowds is that the beer is good.  Not just here in NOVA, but throughout the Commonwealth we’re surrounded by award-winning breweries increasingly at the forefront of the craft beer revolution.  Events, food, and games may keep us at our destination for a while longer, but we’re there in the first place because the wares are truly worth the hassle of navigating a gravel road or shady industrial park.

Whether we’re nearing a saturation point in the market is a fascinating question, but what we have right now is a smattering of establishments each taking a slightly different approach to the “user experience,” the result being that almost no two tasting rooms or pubs are alike, accommodating an amazingly wide breadth of preferences.  It’s why even among the same work groups I’ve attended happy hours at Port City, Mad Fox, Forge, and Fair Winds (to say nothing of a host of restaurants/bars with good craft beer menus).  And those are just the breweries within 15 minutes of our office!

At that point, while I might prefer some (substantial) munchies to help me extend my visits, that has in no way stopped me from visiting more than 30 brewers on their home turf under a variety of conditions and constraints.  That all of these companies have been successful is what allows me to plan to hit another 7-10 this year while barely scratching the surface of all the Commonwealth has to offer.  Whether that’s for an hour as part of a day trip, or a long evening stay on a guys’ night out, I’m going there because they serve good beer.  The rest is just food and games.

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