Breweries of Central Virginia

an Introduction

By: Chris Campanelli


For any contemporary beer drinker, anyone who pays attention to what’s served in their local restaurants, and anyone attentive to revitalized urban neighborhoods, the craft brewing craze should be self-evident.  After a nearly fifty year prohibition-induced repression of anything but the blandest light lagers, and a few big companies dominating the market, there were only 89 breweries in the United States making and distributing all domestic beer.  The discontent with this embarrassing status quo eventually gave rise to the grassroots homebrewing movement of the 1960s and 70s, and this in turn inspired a few brave beer pioneers to challenge the brewery establishment and start the first microbrewies.  What started in fits and starts in the mid 1970’s sparked an enthusiasm for craft beer that still remains a vibrant movement today.  

A Brewers Association survey released in 2015 counted 4,144 distinct domestic breweries, and the numbers do not seem to be tailing off. With the release of these latest numbers, it is now official: this is the highest count of breweries America has ever seen! This monumental achievement represents a radical change in the way beer is seen in America, and reflects a dramatic change in beer tastes as well. America has become known for its bold experimentation and willingness to not only revive the boldest traditional styles, but also to push the boundaries of conventional beer making in every direction.  In the span of just over thirty years, America has gone from a non-factor in world beer culture to being a major player and contributor.  

This recent surge is indeed as dramatic as it sounds, yet it can also be seen as a return to equilibrium, a recovery from the trauma caused by the zealous Temperance movement.  After all, America did have a previous heyday of brewing, beginning with those early English colonists who used the ingredients of the abundant new land to try to reproduce those styles they had left behind.  After a lull in beer brewing in the early 1800s due to the irresistible popularity of sugar cane Rum from the Caribbean, American beer culture was re-invigorated with the mid-century influx of German immigrants and other continental Europeans who brought their deeply rooted beer cultures with them.  In fact, it was at this point that America had the most breweries in its history before this year, with 4,131 on record!  

All this goes to show that beer is no stranger to the American beverage palate, and actually represents a very American dynamic of new experimentation upon old traditions; of communities simultaneously upholding the integrity of their culture while extending hospitality.  In the world of craft of beer, styles and flavors are inextricably linked to the cultures and lands from which they came.  Yeast strains, hops, grains and spices all carry distinct flavors based on their cultivation in a certain place, and they are often named by the place of their development or most common use:  Antwerp Ale Yeast, Edinburgh Scottish Ale Yeast, Kent Golding hops from East Kent, England, Cascade hops from the Cascade Mountains in Oregon.  In a way, a single pint of American beer is an iteration of that larger American experiment of a harmonious whole formed from diverse parts.  At the very least, beer’s effects as a social lubricant certainly played a role in helping such diverse peoples survive the cultural clashes and tensions of their new land.

At the beginning of the 21st century, beer plays no less significant of a role in the community, albeit in different circumstances.  Today, beer’s involvement in community plays out as environmentally conscious practices, investment in struggling areas, participation in and support of music and arts communities, and countless other creative local initiatives.  Where great beer is celebrated and enjoyed, the wider community is also engaged, celebrated, and enjoyed.  In this, central Virginia is no exception.

Central Virginia’s experience of local breweries started in the late 1990’s with the establishment of a brewery in the old grain building on South Street, and another in the Starr Hill neighborhood off of Main Street.  South Street Brewery focused entirely on being a destination brewpub, while Starr Hill Brewery involved itself in the music scene, and positioned itself for wider distribution.  For nearly a decade these two breweries were the main purveyors of craft beer in central Virginia, which paved the way for a second wave of new breweries in the mid to late 2000’s.    

In this section of our book we will seek to provide an extensive look at many of the breweries in the central Virginia area, as well as a few of the greats that are farther afield.  Our hope is to give a snapshot of the offerings and experiences from each, and to show how these stories of local culture, particular vision, pioneering individuals, and great beer have played out in our area.  

As a final note, this book is to be used as a glimpse of what our vibrant region has to offer.  We hope it will spark some curiosity, perhaps raise some interest in the cultural aspects of this movement, and give you some facts to relay friends.  But of course, words are pretty poor carriers of an experience so grounded in the senses, and we certainly hope you’ll find a chance to come visit, and taste what all the talk is about.