World Class Beer in a Backwoods Brewpub

151 Nelson Brew Tour

With the exception of the Moosehead from Jackson Hole over the fireplace, the Devil’s Backbone mountain lodge brewpub is ornamented with trophy worthy game from Nelson County.  Owner Steve Crandall’s vision was to create a Wyoming style lodge in celebration of and in harmony with his love for Virginia’s beautiful outdoors.  Five years after its start, Crandall’s vision has come to life with hikers, bikers and weekend visitors coming from Route 151 or streaming down from the Wintergreen Mountain Resort to enjoy the beautiful Devil’s Backbone lodge and artisan pub fare including house smoked meats and fresh, local ingredients.   But for all this, the main reason the Devil’s Backbone name is known throughout Virginia and surrounding states is brewmaster Jason Oliver, who uses the location to brew internationally award winning German, Belgian, and English style beers.

Oliver has been brewing for seventeen years, and has been with Devil’s Backbone since the start in 2008.  In a craft beer culture that often emphasizes experimentation at the expense of excellence, Oliver stands out for his willingness to studiously learn from established styles and methods.  His traditional beers are of such quality that he beat out European breweries to win the Gold medal at the World Beer Cup for his Vienna Lager style beer.  And yet, his breadth of knowledge and experience serves not to inhibit but to enhance experimentation, as evidenced by the 100 + styles of beer brewed in the first five years of production.

Oliver’s experience is recognized elsewhere, and he is regularly invited to collaborate on beers both nationally and internationally. After winning awards from the World Beer Cup in 2010, Oliver was invited to Bamburg, Germany and went as a visiting brewer (think visiting professor) to produce a Rye Pilsner for German distribution.  The following winter, Jason was invited down to Thunder Road Brewery in Melbourne, Australia, to help brew a series of “hop aroma driven beers.”  Two weeks after his return, he shoved off once more for the U.K. as a guest brewer at a pub in East Anglia, where he concocted an American Amber Ale for U.K. distribution.  With this kind of experience and recognition, it is little wonder that Devil’s Backbone has become the most widely distributed Virginia Craft Brewery in its short five-year existence.

Driving all the passion and expertise is a simple disposition, likely shared by anyone reading this article.  As Oliver puts it, “I really like to drink beer.”  Giving due respect to the complex and boundary pushing movements within craft brewing, Oliver is comfortable with honing the familiar.  “There’s nothing wrong with having some good, drinkable, traditional beers that are very solid, very well built, and are not gimmicky.  I find them a little more exacting as a brewer to make; there’s less to hide behind with a lower alcohol beer.”  This emphasis on what’s enjoyable is at once a provision for the uninitiated craft beer drinker and a philosophy of excellence.  Oliver puts all his best work and attention into making beers that are more interesting and flavorful than their mass produced counterparts, but are not so edgy or gimmicky as to be unpalatable.  This approach welcomes the typical Nelson County beer drinker, and creates a range of choices for visitors.  

With all this accessible, award winning beer, and Crandall’s initial vision for a wilderness lodge, Devil’s Backbone Brewpub has successfully become a hub for the community that pre-existed it.  Since the fall of 2009, the earthy, music loving county has been annually treated to a weekend long outdoor music festival called The Festy.  The weekend is full of food, drink, tent camping, bonfires, and of course, music.  Devil’s Backbone has also begun to host cycling, mountain biking, and cross-country races on its property, which they anticipate will become annual events.  

In recent years, the word about Devil’s Backbone has spread by mouth around campfires and in the shelter trail-logs up and down the Appalachian Trail.  Starting as a trickle of visitors in 2010, through-hikers now come down the mountain in droves for an evening stop.  This is a development which the busy staff are thrilled about.   Even though the restaurant doesn’t open until 11am, summer mornings often find it filled with through-hikers being treated to an impromptu $5 breakfast.  It’s a sweet moment where the dream of a brewery as a communal hub snaps into focus as the proprietors and customers seem really more like hosts and guests, enjoying the kind of life and community that are particular joys of the outdoors.  

In 2012, Devil’s Backbone opened a much larger production facility near Lexington Virginia, in an effort to keep up with an ever-increasing demand for their beer.  The Eight Point IPA and Vienna Lager, along with a few seasonal offerings, are now being brewed at the new facility, and those two flagship beers have already won awards from their new production home.  Looking up at the chalkboards over the bar listing their beer awards, Oliver comments: “we won the Gold from this facility, and we now won it from the new location.  We take pride in knowing that even as we expand to meet customer demand, we will sacrifice nothing in terms of quality.”  

Producing a regionally renowned, world class craft beer, Devil’s Backbone maintains the integrity of its work, and customers can taste this in many places up and down the east coast.  But what really makes Devil’s Backbone great is the experience and community, which they have developed in harmony with their natural surroundings.  For that experience, and for the constantly rotating draft beers served only in house, customers must travel Route 151 in Nelson County, Virginia and set foot in their wilderness lodge.  It’s a worthy trek!