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Virginians in Name Only

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

When Old Dominion Brewing in Ashburn abruptly shuttered its pub Aug. 25, citing declining business, loyal customers feared that the brewery would soon follow. Coastal Brewing, Old Dominion's parent company, assured otherwise.

"Right now there's been no talk of that, and we have a lease that runs quite some time in Ashburn," Casey Hollingsworth, Coastal's vice president for sales and marketing, told the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News in September.

"We are here to stay," brewer Jesse Brenneman wrote in an e-mail Oct. 6.

On Oct. 21, however, Coastal announced the brewery's closure, which chief executive Garry Williams said will probably occur by the end of March. In the months to come, Coastal will tote enough tanks to its other plant, Fordham Brewing in Dover, Del., to brew 20,000 barrels of Old Dominion beers there.

"What it comes down to is it's not economically feasible to operate in Ashburn," Hollingsworth said. The rent at the industrial park there, he noted, is more than three times the rent in Dover. Nor is it ecologically sound: "Going back and forth between Ashburn and Dover is a waste of fuel." Hollingsworth said he wasn't privy to the board of directors' decision to close the brewery until four days before the announcement. Old Dominion's brewers weren't informed until the day the press release went out.

Although Anheuser-Busch holds 49 percent of Coastal Brewing, Hollingsworth asserted that the St. Louis brewer did not dictate the closure. "No pressure was needed," he said. "The issue is based on economics." He said the Dover plant will continue to brew all of Old Dominion's current brands using the same recipes.

But the Old Dominion brew crew will not remain intact. Head brewer Favio Garcia says he will not make the move to Delaware, although all employees have been offered work there. "I have family in the D.C. area," he explained.

That's a pity.

Since buying the brewery in March 2007, Coastal has angered Old Dominion fans by canceling the brewery's summer festival; dropping most of the company's contract brands, including the popular Tuppers' Hop Pocket Ale and New River Pale Ale; and closing the pub. But the quality of the beers has not changed.

Jerry Bailey, who helped found Old Dominion in 1989, said this year's edition of Dominion Oktoberfest was the best the brewery has ever produced. Garcia has tweaked the recipe for Dominion Pale Ale, adding more Pacific Northwest hops for extra aroma. More recently, he brewed a Baltic porter as the brewery's winter offering. The stronger, more robust take on the porter style should be hitting area shelves soon. Garcia said he based it on a brew Old Dominion made in 2004, upping the hops and adding rye.

Even if Coastal can maintain the quality standards, however, the question remains: Will customers maintain their brand loyalty to Old Dominion beers when they're no longer made in the Old Dominion?

That question, posed to subscribers to DC-Beer (an e-mail list of local beer aficionados), elicited mostly negative feedback.

"I've tried to keep an open mind about OD, but all of the events of the past few years makes it a little hard," complained Chuck Triplett. "I won't reject good beer from OD, but I likely won't seek out their products unless I hear of something stellar from them."

"They're not a local beer any more, so any loyalty I had has flown out the window," responded Lynne Ragazzini. "I'll drink more Victory and more Dogfish. And Bell's. . . . Fare thee well, dear Dominion. It was fun while it lasted!"

Aaron Hermes noted he would have preferred it if the brewery had "ended up with someone who intended to keep it local." In fact, a former Old Dominion employee tried in vain to work out a deal. Unsuccessful suitors reportedly also included former local beer baron Gary Heurich and Vermont's Magic Hat Brewing.

Old Dominion will continue to host a monthly open house at least through the end of this year, Garcia said. The next one will take place this evening. Show up after 6 for a brewery tour and a tasting that will include oak-aged beers not normally available to the public. Check out http://www.olddominion.com for directions.

Jerry Bailey, who still holds the title of president of Old Dominion but had no voice in the decision to close the brewery, doubts he will be there to pay his last respects. "It was a piece of me for so long, it was almost like being in my own living room. But now, I'd feel like I was trespassing."

Greg Kitsock's column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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