Brewer Spotlight: Innovation, Education, and In-House Quality Control Make The Virginia Beer Company Stand Out
If you participate in the world of beer Instagram, you may have noticed a colorful chorus of cans storming your feed. The Virginia Beer Company has a strong homebase in Virginia, but has begun spreading its wings with a keen eye focused on New York. New Yorkers are now benefiting from the brewery’s plan to grow its distribution. Suddenly, we can get our hands on VBC’s IPAs ranging from dank and bitter to tropical and juicy; their roasty and chocolatey stouts; their beautifully simple Berliner weisses bursting with fruit; their crisp, bready, spicy, citrusy wheat ales--need we go on? (And who’s thirsty?)
With The Virginia Beer Company on such a fast and exciting rise in the beer world, we figured it was high time to catch up with the brewery. After all, if you haven’t already tried VBC, chances are, you’re about to. We chatted with brewmaster Jonathan Newman to find out just why The Virginia Beer Company is winning over so many beer fans, and why it’s a unique “brewery to watch” in the craft beer scene.
When did The Virginia Beer Company open up to the public, and at what stage in its development did you join the team?
Jonathan: The brewery opened in 2016. [Cofounders] Chris [Smith] and Rob [Willey] were college buddies at William & Mary, and then went off and did their finance and consulting jobs. I think it was 2012 when Chris moved back to Williamsburg and they started getting pretty darn serious about [their idea for a brewery]. Neither were brewers; they’d homebrewed a couple times. They would be covering the business and marketing side.
I met them in 2013...I was looking for the right fit, with people that wanted to be the business and marketing side, because I’m not an insurance guy, I’m not a marketing guy, I’m a brewer. So, I was looking for someone with their skill set, and they were looking for someone with my skill set. I moved here in August of 2014 to work with them full-time. At that point, we didn’t have even have a building or any money yet.
So, you came from another great brewery, SweetWater, in Georgia. What had your journey been in craft beer leading up to VBC--when did you find it and how did it become more than a hobby to you?
Jonathan: Straight out of college, I was a high school teacher. I went to Sewanee in Tennessee and spent a summer abroad studying in Oxford, England. I fell in love with English pub culture...I realized that beer was more than the cheap stuff I was drinking at the frats. For the rest of college, I was drinking better beer.
So, fast forward, I’m an English teacher and a homebrewer, it’s five years in, and I’m a grumpy 27-year-old. That’s not healthy for anyone. I started looking to get my foot in the door brewing, and got my first job at Jackalope [Brewing Company]. I called [Jackalope cofounder] Bailey [Spaulding] looking to scrub floors and she said, “Meet me for a drink.” I met her for the first time and had a beer and she said, “Can you do the brewing?” I was like, “Sure!” It was not what I expected.
I worked there for about a year and at that point, I wanted to see if I could get a bigger brewing job, somewhere where I could really be taught the reins. SweetWater had a job opening, and I used to go the SweetWater taproom all the time. It turns out that a friend of mine that I had studied abroad with, it was his job opening up. He put in a good word for me and I went down there and, a couple months later, I wasn’t an English teacher anymore.
Other than beer, VBC has a focus on philanthropy. Why is that important to the brewery and the team and how does play out in regular practices? What sort of causes has VBC worked with?
Jonathan: About a year in, we realized we didn’t have a mission statement. We were sitting around, like, “What’s important to us?” Beer, obviously, and our people--our people in the brewery and also the people in our community--and having a purpose. Beers that are brewed with purpose and brewed well and all that, but also beers that are brewed for a purpose. It’s on our cans now: BEER, PEOPLE, PURPOSE. This is what we’re about, it’s these three core ideas.
We’ve done a lot of events and fundraisers in our taprooms, anything from pitbull rescues and memorial funds--you name it, we’ve done it, all the way to beers for Pride Month. It’s all the things that matter to us, personally, and are often important in our local community, as well. It’s kind of something that is organic for us. It was a unspoken thing for a while, and now it’s got a name on it.
You have this “brewery within a brewery” concept in order to foster creativity and be able to experiment--can you talk a little about how that works and why that was key for VBC?
Jonathan: When we opened in 2016 and as we were planning it well before that, we knew we wanted two things: we wanted variety, but we also wanted distribution. We wanted to be able to eventually sell in New York City and beyond. We needed a bigger brewhouse to produce the volume we wanted to but there are some handcuffs with a bigger system. So our production system is a 30-barrel brewhouse, we have 60-barrel and 90-barrel fermenters. In order for us to keep that variety we wanted, we needed a smaller brew house, as well. From day one, we opened with a five-barrel brewhouse and a 30-barrel brewhouse.
It’s pretty great from a creativity standpoint. It’s close to 300 beers we’ve done over the four years...It’s fun for me to have an outlet, and the stakes aren’t as high. If it’s not great beer, we won’t serve it, but at five barrels there’s much less risk than at 60 barrels. The smaller brewhouse also serves as a research-and-development brewery. Lots of our larger scaled-up seasonal or one-off beers, that we’ll do 60 or 90 barrels now started as five-barrel batches. It’s proof of concept: if it flies through the taproom, we’re not idiots, we’ll scale that up.
How does the concepting process go for what you’re going to brew? Where do you get inspiration from and how do you balance styles that seem to be in demand with new things you want to introduce?
Jonathan: A lot of the balance for our brewery is between what we want and what the public wants. I would love to brew a bunch of 4% English bitters and have a tap wall of English bitters but we would never be able to sell them all.
It’s a give-and-take. If you’re a brewery that just makes everything the public wants and you don’t believe in it and don’t care about it, I think that shows. A lot of the British beers are for us, and a lot of the hoppy beers are also kind of for us. I love IPAs so we brew a lot of those. Lately, we can't keep fruited sours more than a week, they’re flying. I don’t love fruited sours, but the public is really clamoring for them, so we’re going to brew them--but also tell them that English bitters are really good. There’s a balance there. You have to have that authenticity. This is beer we care about.
We also do that with our Brett beers. Most people around us didn’t know what the heck Brettanomyces was when we started, so there’s that education part of a lot of the beer we brew: this is what it is and this is why you should care about it, taste it and tell us what you think.
Why do you think VBC stands out, what makes it special?
Jonathan: The craft beer world has to be the most fast-changing world of business I’ve seen. It seems like the tide of public opinion and hype and all that can change on a dime. I think one thing we’ve done is that we haven’t chased that. We haven’t chased the hype styles and all that. We try to stick with what we do and what we do well and be authentic. I think it works. It’s kind of intangible, but i think our authenticity and commitment to quality for a brewery our size is pretty second to none. We do our lab work in-house, checking beer spoilage--our lab quality program for a brewery our size is pretty absurd. That’s another intangible our public doesn’t see, but none of our beer goes to New York that isn’t going to be good when it gets there.
What can people expect from VBC over the next few years or so?
Jonathan: We’re spending a lot of time in front of the canning line. We’ve been very fortunate in this time period, this unprecedented time period in this country and world and, more specifically, the beer industry. We’ve managed to keep everyone on staff, we didn’t have to let anyone go--we managed to actually grow.
The foreseeable future is packaged beer, and keeping people interested. Longer term, the bigger picture is continuing to grow at home and keep roots where they are--that’s our footing--but we’re also looking beyond that. We’re really hoping to grow in New York and see where that can go, and keep our eyes open for these big opportunities, and try to stay nimble. As you grow it becomes harder to pivot, to make these big changes when you have to. But I think we’ve done a good job of being a bigger brewery that can still react, pivot, and reinvent.
Check out some of Jonathan’s favorite VBC beers on TapRm:
While it may seem cliché to say I love our flagship IPA, I simply do. It is consistently my favorite beer we make. I always come back to it, and it is always in my refrigerator. I love the hazy, juicy hop character--mangos and pineapples with just a touch of grapefruit in the finish. Unlike most hazy IPAs out there, and unlike many of ours, it finishes nice and dry. No lingering sweetness here: it is dry, crisp, and easy-drinking enough to have a few beers on a nice afternoon.
Head Count is a really fun IPA. I was going for a lime and coconut kind of thing, with the Motueka and Sabro hops. It is one of the more tropical IPAs that we've made, I think. Sabro is such a fun new variety--it is really unlike any hop I've ever used. Prominent notes of coconut and even a little cedar-like woody character from the Sabro dominate the aroma, with a nice soft and full-bodied finish with a touch of sweetness. Simply a really cool beer, that is super unique.
“Liquid Escape has to be one of my favorite day-drinkers. It is light, crisp, and has a subtle tartness that just makes it super crushable. The lemongrass really adds a nice depth of flavor and refreshing character that keeps a pretty simple beer interesting. It's great just drinking from the can outdoors in the sunshine, but also goes great at the table with spicy Asian foods. Definitely a fun, easy-drinking and versatile beer.”