Mr. (and Mrs.) Smith Go to Charlottesville

Cville Brewery Tour

Of Central Virginia’s many new breweries, Champion is the only one to seek a location in the city center rather than the scenic countryside.  Whereas mountain views and bucolic open spaces have drawn many breweries down along Rt. 151 in Nelson County, Champion has situated itself in an old commercial/industrial facility just two blocks from the downtown pedestrian mall.  Owner Hunter Smith is certainly aware of the beauty and appeal of that country setting, as his family owns and operates Afton Mountain Winery along that same wine and beer corridor.  But in the years that Smith and his wife helped with operation of his family’s Afton winery, they were thinking about beer, and they were thinking about the city.  

“I've been wanting to open a brewery for as long as I can remember, definitely since 2006.”  While contributing to the family business, Smith also began home-brewing, and studying.  He took classes at PVCC and shadowed Jason Oliver from Devil’s Backbone, and then went out to the Siebel Institute, the premier American brewing school in Chicago.  While he studied and brewed, the idea of a brewery in the city, with all the rich possibilities inherent in that, began to take root.  

In the eight short months since its December 2012 opening, Champion has already demonstrated what’s involved in that vision.  “In 5 years I'd like to see us as a fixture in the Downtown hangout scene....I like to picture us at the forefront of the beer scene in Charlottesville.”  City food trucks with names like The Pie Guy, Hanu Truck, Blue Ridge Pizza Co., and Smoked BBQ Co. can easily drive over and park outside for a few hours to serve the food needs of this beer-only establishment’s customers.  As the trucks grow familiar with Champion’s various offerings, they naturally have begun to suggest pairings (the spicy pork tacos from Hanu Truck and the Melee Session IPA is a good place to start).  Just beyond the brewery walls are the 30 plus independently owned restaurants of the downtown mall, with all the creativity of that culinary community.  Smith says  “I’ve enjoyed getting to know many of the other food and drink personalities around town, and working together to create a beer with someone whose expertise is in another field of the food world is a lot of fun...all of the amazing chefs and brewers in the area create a deep pool of ideas.”

Being a fixture of the downtown scene also means simply being present for the happenings of the community.  Champion was there when The Bridge, a community Arts initiative and gallery across the street, celebrated Bastille Day with a re-enactment of the storming of the Bastille to “release creativity into the community.”  As this fortuitously coincided with the brewery’s release of their Belmont Brown ale, the event naturally turned into a neighborhood block party, enriching both events.  Another big perq for Champion guests is its proximity to the Charlottesville Pavilion, so Champion’s patio-sitters can overhear performances by the likes of Bruce Hornsby, Willie Nelson, and Phoenix, gratis.  

Hunter Smith and his wife may have set out from the family wine business in Afton, but Champion is a family business in its own right. Hunter’s wife Danielle is the operations manager and CFO, and if this weren’t enough, she also cares for their infant son and a toddler daughter while Hunter throws all his energy into making the Brewery work.  Danielle’s brother Jonathan is Hunter’s right hand man in the brewing process, a process which they are engaged in at every possible moment.   In the front of house, Hunter and Danielle’s long time friend Drew Carrol heads up the Tap Room and retail.  Drew is a natural mediator of that family feel to the larger clientele, as he is also a long time friend of Charlottesville beer—evidenced by his recognition as Runner-Up for the Best of Cville award in 2012 for Best Bartender.  He’s the kind of person who knows everyone in town, so a room full of customers is simultaneously a gathering of friends, and he’s more like a host at a cookout than a proprietor of a business.

Having made 25 different styles in these eight months since opening, the love of craft is central to Champion’s operation.  You can expect both bold experimentation and faithfulness to lesser known traditional styles to be at the heart of Champion’s work.  But Hunter Smith and Company are also venturing upon the great, organic things that can happen when beer is a part of the close quarters of city life.  These evidences of early flourishing hold great promise for the years ahead.  


Berr Making Philosophy/Mission:

“I was hoping to fill a gap in newer, bigger styles, and also in some older ones that hadn't been revived as of yet….My approach to brewing is a combination of being interested in producing traditional beers to style, in the interest of doing things historically correct, and also in trying to come up with beers I've never heard of before, like a Black Smoked Kolsch.”

Flagship Beer:

Missile IPA. 65 IBU, 7% ABV.  An American India Pale Ale, with firm bitterness and intense citrusy hop aromas. Made with 2-row pale ale malt and dry-hopped with Simcoe, Cascade, Summit, and more for the full experience of an American IPA.

Other Notable Beers:

Killer Kolsch. 22 IBU, 5% ABV.  A hybrid-style beer, this ale is fermented at lager temperatures that produce a clean, bright beer, with mild hop characteristics and irresistable drinkability. 2-row pale malt and Vienna malt combine with Hallertau hops.
Face Eater Gose -- 4 IBU, 5% ABV.  A rare German style, the gose is a slightly tart wheat ale made with salt during the brewing process. Our version has flavors of melon with yeast esters and a firm finish provided by Himalayan pink sea salt.