Today’s start-up breweries don’t want to be mere beer factories; they aspire to be beer destinations.
Central to that plan is a tasting room. It’s not just a place where guests sip samples out of plastic cups. It also serves as a storefront for selling growlers and six-packs to go; a laboratory for testing new recipes; and a community room where locals can jaw over sports, politics and the merits of the local beer.
“It used to be that there were tasting permits for grocery and liquor stores but not for breweries,” recalls Brandon Skall, chief executive of DC Brau in the District. “We actually wrote the legislation to allow tasting rooms and hired a lawyer to lobby the city council.”
On a given Saturday between 1 and 4 p.m., the brewery offers free tours and tastings that attract 300 to 500 visitors, many of whom pay to fill growlers while they’re there. “We like to have a food option for our guests,” says Skall, so he invites food trucks such as BBQ Bus and CapMac to back into the brewery’s loading dock and offer their wares.
“I don’t think we’d be in business if not for the tours and growler fills,” says Skall.
Ditto for the District’s Chocolate City Beer. The brewery will top up 100-plus growlers during a Saturday open house, says co-founder Jay Irizarry, accounting for up to 20 percent of weekly sales. Business will probably increase once Chocolate City receives a permit to offer samples: “People aren’t necessarily going to commit to a growler without a taste first.”
Dave Coleman, president of 3 Stars Brewing in Takoma Park, expects to serve his first beer by late June. But his tasting room is set to open Friday. Long before the first glass gets slung over the homemade, L-shaped bar, Coleman will operate the 500-square-foot space as a home-brew supplies shop, with merchandise that includes hop pellets, dried yeast and glass carboys. “There are easily over a thousand home-brewers in D.C.,” estimates Coleman, and a dearth of local suppliers to serve them. He foresees amateur beermakers hobnobbing at the brewery, swapping advice with their peers and soliciting tips from 3 Stars’ brew crew.
Baying Hound Aleworks in Rockville operates a tasting room with a five-seat bar that can accommodate 30 to 40 visitors, says owner Paul Rinehart. He charges $5 for a tour. Guests can buy bottles and growlers (up to 288 ounces per customer) to go. Rinehart also can apply for up to a dozen special-events permits per year that allow him to sell pints over the bar. “It’s great for gathering consumer data on new releases,” he reports. This Thursday through Saturday, he’ll offer several test brews, including Haile Selassie Stout, brewed with coffee beans from a local Ethiopian market.
District brewers can offer a visitor up to 12 ounces of free beer, but it can’t be consumed at the brewery. The recent passage of SB 604 will allow Virginia brewers to sell beer for on-premises consumption without applying for a restaurant license, a privilege already accorded the state’s wineries. On May 15, Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell dropped by Richmond’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery to sign the bill into law and toss a few hops into a kettle.
Eric McKay, a founder of Hardywood, says the law will promote tourism and encourage more start-ups. What’s more, he blogs, “With more breweries from the western part of the country looking to expand to the East Coast, more favorable beer laws will certainly make Virginia more competitive in attracting $20 million to $100 million-plus in expansion projects.”
Steve Crandall, owner of the Devils Backbone brewpub in Roseland, Va., said he’s hiring three additional employees to staff the tasting room at his new production brewery in Lexington, Va., where his Vienna Lager and Eight Point IPA are packaged for the Northern Virginia market. Crandall says he hopes to host more events like the recent 600-guest fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity at the Lexington brewery.
Bill Butcher, founder of Alexandria’s Port City Brewing, plans to throw a “pint party” on July 1, when SB 604 goes into effect. The change in law couldn’t come at a better time: he’s adding a second bar and doubling the taps.
The new law has limitations. Breweries can sell only beer they make, not guest beers from other breweries. Lost Rhino Brewing in Ashburn will be able to dodge that restriction by applying for an on-premises license, says co-founder and head brewer Favio Garcia. The brewery also is installing a kitchen. Chef Becky Jordan, who used to work at the Capital Ale Houses in Richmond and Fredericksburg, will dish up a menu that includes cheese plates, barbecued duck tacos and Thai shrimp salad. “It’s not your typical pub fare,” laughs Garcia, who says the kitchen should be operational by the first week in June.
Garcia will serve an experimental hoppy wheat ale dubbed Wild Farmwell Wheat. Garcia brewed the beer with the help of local home-brewers Peter Lee and Jasper Akerboom, scientists at nearby Janelia Farm Research Campus. Akerboom, a microbiologist, isolated a local yeast strain that was used to ferment the beer, which Garcia describes as “hoppy like an IPA” and earthy, but “not quite as sour as a lambic.”
That’s typical of the business strategies small beermakers are employing: Offer your customers something unique and they’ll beat a path to your brewery, no matter how far out in the ’burbs or backwaters.
Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.