Breweries and bars turn Leesburg into the craft beer capital of Northern Virginia

November 14, 2013

It’s a great time to be a beer lover. New breweries are popping up while established brewmasters are experimenting with styles from around the globe. Beer bars spreading the gospel of craft beer are celebrating ales from their back yards as well as from across the ocean. Restaurants are offering special dinners that pair local produce with award-winning beers.

And all of this is just in Leesburg.

Loudoun County’s seat is better known for its antique shops than for its night spots, and the county itself is a destination for wine, not lagers. But the historic town has a growing concentration of beer-centric establishments. MacDowell Brew Kitchen and Crooked Run Brewing both include nanobreweries that produce just enough beer to sell on site. Leesburg Brewing Company, a joint venture from the owners of the Leesburg Vintner wine shop and the nearby Corcoran Brewing Company, is due to become a brewpub in December. In the meantime, it’s just serving great local beer.

A few miles from downtown, in Lucketts, Roger Knoell’s Barnhouse Brewery sells beers from his back yard one weekend a month. He hopes to begin supplying bars with his products soon.

Loudoun County isn’t the first Northern Virginia suburb to create a bustling beer scene. Nearly every other month brings an announcement of a brewery in the works. Just in the past 15 months, we’ve heard about Corcoran Brewing and Adroit Theory in Purcellville, Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, Old 690 Brewing in Hillsboro, Portner Brewing in Alexandria and Prince William Brewing in Gainesville. Manassas’s BadWolf nanobrewery opened in June, and Lovettsville’s Mad Horse Brewpub had its “Grand-er Opening” to welcome a new brewer this summer. These join such established breweries as Lost Rhino in Ashburn, Port City in Alexandria and the Sweetwater brewpubs in Sterling, Merrifield and Centreville.


Jake Endres, an award-winning homebrewer, used Kickstarter to fund the Crooked Run nanobrewery, which had its grand opening in Leesburg’s Market Station on Nov. 9. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The mix of breweries and beer bars in Leesburg, however, is richer than in most other towns. One factor behind the growth is the number of breweries and beer bars that already call Leesburg home, such as Tuscarora Mill (lovingly referred to as “Tuskies”), which has been selling craft beer since 1985, and the six-year-old Vintage 50 brewpub.

Brewer Jake Endres says that when he was looking for places to open Crooked Run, “having such good craft beer bars around me” was part of the attraction of coming to Leesburg’s historic Market Station. “You can go to five different places in one night,” he adds. “That’s unusual in western Loudoun, where everything is usually spread out.”

“It’s like gravity,” explains Shawn Malone, a co-owner of the beer-centric Tuscarora Mill and Fire Works Pizza, which sit next to each other at Market Station. “It just attracts other [craft beer] businesses, and it shows no signs of letting up. When you look at Fire Works and Tuskies, you think they’d cannibalize each other, but they’re both selling buckets of beer.”

And once visitors get used to good beer, they only want more, making Leesburg ripe to continue its sudsy growth, Malone argues.

“Every day, I’m trying a great new beer that I haven’t had before,” Malone says. “We always say that once you get hooked on something good, whether it’s food or wine or beer, you can’t go back to what you had before. People are trying more good beer, and it’s opening their eyes.”

It’s time to open yours, too. Here are six stops for your very own Leesburg beer crawl.

Breweries

Crooked Run Brewing

205 Harrison St. SE, Suite B (Inside Market Station). Leesburg. 571-918-4446. www.crookedrunbrewing.com. Open Tuesday-Thursday 4 to 10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 1 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 1 to 6 p.m.

Jake Endres didn’t set out to be a brewer. The 26-year-old majored in political science at James Madison University, but fate intervened. “I graduated in the middle of a recession,” he says. “I spent six months applying for jobs and got nothing.” Instead of relying on his degree to make a living, Endres turned to his homebrewing hobby.

Endres started making his own beer when he was 21. With hundreds of batches under his belt, he won medals in competitions as far afield as South Carolina, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Last year, Virginia passed a law that allows breweries to sell full pints of their beer on site without the need for food service, which is required at bars. Endres has no desire to open a restaurant, but he loves beer, especially artisanal Belgian and American ales. So he decided to give brewing a shot while he had “no wife, no kids, no mortgage.” He wrote a business plan and posted a pitch on Kickstarter in February. In a month, he’d raised $11,000. “There are people clamoring for any kind of beer you can imagine,” he says. “People are really stoked to have craft beer coming from Virginia.”

The space that Crooked Run occupies in the rear of Market Station is about the size of a finished basement. It’s a charmingly bare-bones operation: The tasting room contains a bar, six barstools, a couple of picnic tables and a fireplace and hearth (covered with fermenting vessels). Hops are strung along the Christmas lights overhead.

Crooked Run regularly has four beers on tap, drawn from a list of 21 recipes that Endres felt were “nailed down.” The name of his Summer Night raspberry saison may be unseasonal, but the swirl of sweet chocolate and rich raspberry flavors seems perfectly suited to cool weather. The Hellfire black IPA has big tropical fruit flavors and a smooth, malty bitterness, while the Wishing Well dry stout is a classic example of the style. Endres says he’s stoked about Stoicism, a “white Belgian quadruple” he’s making this fall that’s cold-steeped in lightly crushed coffee beans, and Seek Truth, a strong Belgian-style tripel aged with cherrywood.

Customers are welcome to hang out over a few pints, which sell for $5 to $6 each, and bring their own food from nearby restaurants. Grab a sampler ($6 for a flight of three beers) and find something you want to take home. Endres sells 32-ounce growlers instead of the usual 64-ounce jugs (“You don’t have to drink five beers back to back, especially if you open it by yourself”) for about $8 per fill. Everything is 20 percent off from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays during the growler happy hours.

The grand opening was last Saturday, but Crooked Run remains a work in progress. “I’m still trying to get things together,” Endres says. “I just got barstools in a few weeks ago.”

Barnhouse Brewing

13840 Barnhouse Pl., Leesburg. 703-675-8480. www.barnhousebrewery.com . Open one weekend a month. Next open days: Nov. 23-24. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Roger Knoell is living every homebrewer’s dream. Until a year ago, he was experimenting with pale ales, porters and pumpkin ales, making 20 gallons at a time at his home in Lucketts. “We were providing kegs to friends who had kegerators or were having parties,” he says. “Then people I didn’t know and had never heard of were calling me and saying, ‘Hey, I had your beer at so-and-so’s house. How could I get more of it?’ Brewing is a passion of mine, but then we realized we might be able to do something with this.”

“This” is a new 1.5 barrel brewing system, which makes about 47 gallons of beer per batch. Knoell is taking the recipes he’s tweaked the past 18 years of homebrewing using local products, such as hops grown in his back yard, or honey and corn from Loudoun farms. The Good Gourd Almighty pumpkin ale gets its fresh flavor from pumpkins picked at the nearby Temple Hall farm, so while there’s some spice, there’s less of that sweet pumpkin pie taste that so many commercial brews have. Additionally, some porters and stouts are also aged in whiskey barrels from the Catoctin Creek distillery.

Now there’s no way around this: It can be a bit weird to visit Barnhouse, which is essentially in the basement of the Knoells’ home. In the summer, visitors could picnic on the vast lawn behind the house, or play horseshoes and bocce. But in the winter, the taproom can be a little cramped, though there’s a fire pit outside. Loudoun County zoning laws mean that Barnhouse can be open only one weekend a month, using a “special event” permit. Knoell says recent open houses have brought in anywhere from 50 to 100 people to sample beers and fill growlers. “People love coming out to the country,” he says. “It’s more like a winery experience, rather than just sitting in a tap room.” Knoell charges $10 for most growler fills and sells custom ceramic swing-top growlers for $17.

That winery experience is what he hopes to capture more of in the future: He hopes to build a separate tasting room on his property, and the goal is to eventually open a “farm brewery,” similar to Loudoun’s farm wineries. Knoell also is collaborating with other small brewers on a Loudoun Brewery Trail, similar to the county’s Wine Trail. “Wine has been the king for a long time in Loudoun County,” Knoell says, but his visitors show him that’s changing. “People come out to wineries one day, but they do breweries the next day.”

Brewpubs

Vintage 50 Brewpub

50 Catoctin Cir. NE, Leesburg. 703-777-2169. www.vintage50.com. Open Monday-Thursday 3 p.m. to close, Friday-Sunday 11 a.m. to close.

Since opening in 2007, Vintage 50 has employed some impressive brewmasters, including Bill Madden, who now runs the award-winning Mad Fox Brewing in Falls Church, and Kristi Mathews Griner, now overseeing production at Capitol City Brewing Company. The man in the hot seat today is Bret Kimbrough, formerly of Growlers Brew Pub in Gaithersburg.

Twenty-five beers are listed over the bar. Only about a third of those are available, though, so look for the ones with a “Now on tap” tag hanging underneath. Start with the sampler, which gives you five ounces of any four beers of your choice for $10. Make one of them the Velociraptor Rye IPA, which mixes citrus and caramel notes with a good bitterness, and the hoppy Point of Rocks Pale Ale.

The place itself is rather plain — it’s on the first floor of an anonymous office building near the Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets, and decorated to match the setting. There’s a small patio with heaters for smokers, but this is a place you come for food and drink, not to party. (The food is filling pub grub.; for snacking, try the pretzel with beer cheese or, if you’re starving, the large platter of house-made potato chips smothered in beer-braised pork, gravy, mozzarella and melted cheddar.)

Vintage 50 is one of the most affordable brewpubs you’ll run across: Most house beers are $4.50 a pint, with one or two higher-alcohol options for $5.50. Everything is far cheaper if you can get there from 3 to 5 p.m. daily, when everything is $2. The price rises to $3 from 5 to 7 p.m. Growlers are $9 or $10 per fill, though one “brewer’s choice” beer is half-price on Wednesday.

MacDowell Brew Kitchen

202 B Harrison St. SE, Leesburg. 703- 777-2739. www.macdowellbrewkitchen.com. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

The Friday after Thanksgiving will mark the one-year anniversary of MacDowell Brew Kitchen’s first house beer, brewed on-site by the Mud Hound Brewing Company. It’s also the bar’s third birthday. But if you drop into the bar, you might not see any Mud Hound beers among the 25 taps. “We have such a small system,” laments co-owner Nils Schnibbe. The brewery makes only a half-barrel, or 15.5 gallons, at a time. “We put it on Facebook when [the beer] goes on tap, and then it goes so quickly.” Schnibbe is hoping that a three-barrel system will be in place by February, allowing five or six house beers to be on tap at all times.

Even without the “Brew,” MacDowell is a worthwhile beer destination. The 25 draft lines are loaded with choices from such Virginia breweries as 3 Brothers, Devils Backbone and Starr Hill, as well as hophead favorites Stone, Lagunitas and Flying Dog. Tap takeovers hosted by such smaller breweries as Natty Greene’s or Perennial are a regular occurrence. Don’t see a handle you like? An additional 125 choices are available in bottles. The building’s second floor is being renovated to expand the dining room and add 50 more taps. (Schnibbe is hopeful work will be finished before Nov. 29.)

The inside is nice, if bland. I’m drawn to the patio, an odd place that feels like the set for a Jimmy Buffet video. A thick layer of sand blankets the ground. Palm trees soar overhead. T

Two halves of a fishing boat called the Sea Witch are the centerpiece: Its rear serves as a three-sided bar counter, surrounded by stools, as a bartender pours from taps in the middle. A few feet away, the ship’s cabin contains tables for dining. A thick layer of sand blankets the ground. An enormous alligator, carved from a tree trunk by local chainsaw artist Patrick Burns, occupies another part of the lot, near a couple of toy dumptrucks that children play with in this giant sandbox. The patio was almost removed this summer because of a zoning dispute with the town, but more than 2,000 people signed a petition demanding it stay put — so it did.

During the winter months, the Key West vibe is slightly diminished, as customers sit around large fire pits. Musicians play Tuesday and most weekends. “Life moves pretty fast here, so we wanted to have a beach feel, where people could just kick back,” Schnibbe says.

Beer Bars

Tuscarora Mill

203 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg. 703-771-9300. www.tuskies.com. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

Tuskie’s, as it’s known to everyone in town, is the godfather of the Leesburg beer scene. When the restaurant opened in 1985, “we had Bass, Anchor Steam and Pilsner Urquell on tap, which was pretty cutting-edge at the time,” remembers Shawn Malone, who owns Tuskie’s with his brother, Kevin. They expanded the draft beer selection to 21 taps in 1992, and the following year, they held their first beer dinner with Sierra Nevada. The dinners, in which beer is paired with wild game or strip steaks, have been monthly fixtures ever since.

The Malones have since opened three other restaurants with a craft beer focus: Magnolia’s at the Mill in Purcellville and Fire Works Pizza in Leesburg and Arlington. The Leesburg Fire Works, which has 12 taps and 100 choices in bottles, is next door to Tuskie’s and across the street from MacDowell Brew Kitchen, making it a regular stop on the town’s beer crawl. But for me, Tuskie’s is the one to visit. On my last trip, the wide-ranging draft beer selection included big Belgian quads, hoppy West Coast IPAs and refreshingly mild brown ales. Bartenders recommend great flights of beer (pick three drafts for $7). And the beer dinners offer a combination of hearty local food and rare brews. The next one, with Bell’s Brewery on Dec. 3, will pair five courses with a selection heavy on stouts and seasonal brews. (All-inclusive tickets are $90 and will sell out in advance.) The bar snacks are great, and the atmosphere — dark wood, staff in white shirts and dark ties — feels classy.

Leesburg Brewing Company

2 C Loudoun St. SW, Leesburg. 571-442-8124. www.leesburgbrewing.com. Open 4-8 p.m. Wednesday, 4-10 p.m. Thursday, Noon-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

When Leesburg Brewing Company opened in May, the two couples behind it — Jim and Lori Corcoran, owners of Corcoran Winery and Corcoran Brewing in nearby Waterford, and Mike and JoAnne Carroll, the longtime owners of the Leesburg Vintner wine shop — promised that it would be a neighborhood brewpub. Almost six months later, those plans are going out the window.

Kevin Bills, the head brewer at Corcoran, says the plan was to move Corcoran’s small “pilot brewing system” to the basement of Leesburg Brewing Company. Unfortunately, “with a building that old,” Bills says, “the more you start to [work on it], the more you find.” The building can’t support all the equipment. “We’ve abandoned the brewery, and it’s going to be more of a craft beer destination,” he says.

The new business, which Bills says will be renamed Leesburg Beer Company next month, won’t be much of a change from the way Leesburg Brewing Company has operated so far. There will be more draft beers — Bills says 18 taps will flow in a basement bar — but it should remain a place to enjoy craft brews in a relaxed atmosphere.

Since the bar opened, “tap takeovers” on the half-dozen draft lines have been frequent occurrences, with Maryland’s Evolution Craft Brewing and Virginia’s 3 Brothers and Devils Backbone among recent participants. But you’ll also find Bold Rock Cider, DC Brau’s IPAs or even a selection of pumpkin beers from across the country.

Leesburg Brewing Company’s menu is loaded with comfortable bar food: A gooey grilled cheese with gouda and pesto; a burger that gets heat from chorizo in the patty and chipotle in the mayo; crispy beer-battered onion rings. The friendly bartenders are quick to offer samples of beers and to suggest other places you might want to visit, making this feel like a true neighborhood spot, regardless of whether brews are made on-site or on the other side of Loudoun County.

Fritz Hahn has covered bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
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