A beer lovers’ paradise

Craft breweries expanding in Charlottesville

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Print this page by Carlos Santos

Beer enthusiasts are getting thirstier for Virginia’s craft beer.

A boomlet of tiny breweries — and one cidery — have opened up shop in Charlottesville, Albemarle County and nearby Nelson County, drawing visitors delighted at the chance to enjoy the taste of local beers.

The breweries include Starr Hill in Crozet, Wild Wolf in Nellysford, Blue Mountain in Afton, Devil’s Backbone in Roseland and South Street in Charlottesville. Their beers, like the breweries, have vivid, even romantic names, such as Northern Lights, The Love, Amber Ale, Festie, Alpha Ale, and Smoke. Craft beer is considered to be any beer brewed in a traditional manner for a distinctive flavor and distributed regionally.

The breweries are doing so well that Blue Mountain, Wild Wolf and Devil’s Backbone are all planning major expansions. 

“The breweries are growing at a noteworthy rate,’’ says Maureen Kelley, the director of economic development and tourism in Nelson County. “Our strategy is to recruit these businesses and grow them.”

The beer lovers, she said, will follow.

Why Nelson County?  “Water is the number one ingredient for beer. Our water is as pristine as our landscape,” says Kelley.

To the list of tiny breweries, add one tiny cider-maker, The Albemarle CiderWorks in North Garden.  The cidery produces hard cider from old-timey varieties of apples to create “full-bodied” ciders it claims rival those made in Colonial times.

The breweries and cidery have been tied together in a marketing strategy dubbed “the Brew Ridge Trail.”  Visitors, most of whom are crazy for craft beer, take to the trail with “growlers’’ instead of water bottles. Growlers are glass jugs, some as big as 64 ounces, which beer lovers fill with craft beer. Some craft beer operations sell their beer in growlers instead of six packs.

Neil MacDougal of Albemarle County “hikes” the Brew Ridge Trail regularly. “I’ve been fortunate to taste the good beers of the Brew Ridge Trail, and I keep going back,” he said. “When we grew up, beer was beer. Now we have a choice. That’s what we love.”

Owner Mary Wolf opened Wild Wolf Brewing Co. just nine months ago, but she already plans to expand into the old Nelson County High School at Nellysford, opening a restaurant by November. Plans also call for building a 15-barrel brewing system in a new facility behind the old high school which will connect to the restaurant.  She hopes to turn the business into Virginia’s “only true beer garden” with ponds, waterfalls and lush plants at the brewery site.

Wolf says craft breweries are “part of the fresh and local movement. I think there’s an increased interest in home brewing because people want their beer to taste fresh.”

Starr Hill opened in 1999 in Charlottesville as a restaurant with a tiny brewery. In 2005, the brewery moved 10 miles west to Crozet. “We kind of started it all here,’’ says Melanie Rhodes, the tasting room manager. “Other people have gotten on the wagon now.”

Starr Hill, like most microbreweries, offers visitors a tasting room “where in-house, test beer is served,” she said.  Sales of beer and merchandise alone — such as T-shirts, hats, pint glasses and posters — average $6,000 a week, she said.

As for the cider-makers, Kelley says only a handful exist in the state. The cideries are considered farm wineries even though they produce hard cider. Hard cider — which contains 12 percent alcohol — is becoming a popular drink, she says. The taste depends on the variety of apples and the “distillate science” used.
CiderWorks calls its Jupiter’s Legacy cider a “fruity blend of classic American cider apples.” Its old Virginia Winesap cider is “spicy, floral, and fruity, slightly tart with a lingering finish. It pairs well with white meats, fish, poultry.”  The cost is $16 for a 750-milliliter bottle.

Another cidery — Bold Rock Cidery — is just breaking ground in Nelson and is expected to be open by the end of the year. The cidery will include an apple juice processing area, a cider pub and restaurant, and a gift shop. It too will be added to the Brew Ridge Trail.

“It’s an up and coming industry,’’ said Kelley of cideries.

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