A brewery that went into production here early last month is bucking the trend toward mergers and consolidations in the beer industry.
The Chesapeake Bay Brewing Co. is a tiny company that produces Chesbay, a lusty beer aimed at drinkers who take their brew very seriously.
The driving force behind Chesbay is Jim Kollar, the brewery's managing director and one of five owners. The others include Kollar's wife Marilou, his brother Frank, and Lou and Roz Peron. In their other lives, Jim Kollar, a former linebacker with the Penn State football team, is a veterinarian; Marilou Kollar is a clinical psychologist; Frank Kollar is an administrator at Mansfield (Pa.) State College; Lou Peron is an orthodontist, and Roz Peron is earning a master's degree in industrial psychology from Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
Jim Kollar had been brewing beer successfully at home for several years and had attended a brewing course at the University of California at Davis when he decided in 1980 to open his own brewery. After purchasing land at an industrial park in the Lynnhaven section of Virginia Beach, the Kollar brothers and Peron started construction, doing all but the masonry work themselves.
Jim Kollar originally planned to be his own brewmaster, tapping a local laboratory for any chemical analysis work needed on the beer. But he changed his mind, thus increasing his expectations about the quality of the product. He hired a young Bavarian brewmaster, Wolfgang Roth, and an assistant brewmaster, microbiologist Barry Nolf.
"I think our beer is a world-class product," Kollar now says proudly.
It certainly is German in style. Just as German breweries are forbidden by law -- The Reinheitgesbot or German Purity Laws -- from using additives in the brewing process, Chesbay is made only from grain, water, hops and yeast.
The beer, which sells for $4.59 a six-pack, is an amber-colored, yet clear, bitter (hoppy) lager, labeled with the familiar seagull that marks the path to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel that connects Norfolk with the Virginia Eastern Shore.
Currently, the brewery can produce nearly 1,000 cases a week, and the demand, thus far, has outstripped the supply. Kollar acknowledges that some of the beer's popularity could spring from a combination of curiosity and Tidewater-area loyalty to a local product. "Get back to me in January, and we'll see if the sales level off," he says. Nonetheless, the company, which has two buildings -- one for its brewery and another for equipment and storage -- is adding a third building and hopes to obtain as many as 12 new fermentation vats to supplement the three now in use.
Chesbay can now brew 3,000 barrels (31 gallons each) per year, which ranks it about 34th among 40 U.S. breweries in production. Alongside Anheuser-Busch (60.5 million barrels in 1983), Miller (37.5 million barrels) and Stroh's (24.3 million barrels), Chesbay is a drop in the beer bucket. However, to put Chesbay's size in perspective, 3-year-old Newman's, a microbrewery in Albany, N.Y., produces 2,800 barrels per year.
Because Chesbay beer is not pasteurized and contains no preservatives, the company must keep tight controls on its outlets. It is concerned that retailers keep the beer cooled -- "at about 50 degrees," says brewmaster Roth -- and that the product be sold and drunk promptly. "Under normal conditions it will keep about three months," Roth adds.
Larry Sutton, president of Hoffman Beverages, the exclusive distributor of Chesbay, says the firm now has about 100 accounts for the beer. "We haven't really pushed too hard to expand because of the limited availability of the product," he says. "We've been concentrating on the Virginia Beach area because we don't want to spread it too thin."
However, Sutton also distributes the beer in the Ghent section of Norfolk, a trendy, professional district considered a prime market area. And Phillip's, the large bar-restaurant at Norfolk's Waterside complex, "asked for it because they had calls for it," he notes.
Sutton, whose company serves Virginia, the District, Maryland and North Carolina, says, "The acceptance has been good. People have sold out and asked for more."
Kollar credits two people with providing expertise and inspiration for the brewery. One was the late Harry Leonhardt, who had been a brewery engineer at the now-defunct Champale Brewery in Norfolk. Leonhardt counseled Kollar in equipment needs and usage. Kollar's other guru is Austrian brewmaster Michael Braitinger, of the Brauerei Muhlgrub. Braitinger not only serves as an unpaid consultant -- Chesbay pays his air fare when he visits -- but also recruited Roth to become Chesbay's brewmaster.
Roth, a graduate of the Ulm School of Brewing and Malting Science, was the master brewer at Waldhornbrauerei Plochingen. He recalls that he was attending a master brewers' meeting in Germany when a "former teacher asked if I was interested in going to Virginia Beach to start a brewery." Roth contacted Braitinger and came over twice this spring before going home to get married and then coming back to undertake Chesbay's operations.
"I would do this again," he says. "I just hope American beer drinkers go back to drinking good beer."
Kollar has several bottles on a table behind the hospitality room bar. A sign reads "Do Not Touch."
Were they the first bottles off the line? he is asked.
"No," he replies. "All Harry [Leonhardt] ever asked was that he be able to drink the first beer we produced. He died before that was possible. So, the first two bottles were poured over his grave."