First came the wine lovers, flooding dozens of Loudoun County tasting rooms in search of favorite local varietals. Next came the foodies, visitors who craved a gourmet bite to accompany their glass of cabernet franc.
Now, with an exponential rise in the number of local craft breweries across Loudoun, fueled in part by a new state law that grants farm-based breweries the same privileges as their winery counterparts, Loudoun has identified its latest tourism target: beer lovers.
As the number of craft breweries and nanobreweries in Northern Virginia has soared over the past few years, beer enthusiasts in Loudoun — already well established as a popular, scenic destination for fans of locally grown products — have helped lead the charge, capitalizing on relaxed regulations that make it easier to pursue dreams of brewing small-batch, locally sourced ales and lagers.
“In the last year alone, we’ve seen probably six or seven breweries open up, and I know we’ve got at least three or four more in the works this year,” said Brian Jenkins, director of marketing for Visit Loudoun, the county’s tourism association. By the end of the year, he says, the county will be home to about a dozen breweries.
Among the newest to join the crowd is Old Ox Brewery, which opened its Ashburn tasting room in late June.
“We saw that craft beers were increasingly in demand in this area, and the state of Virginia and Loudoun County were making strides toward making this a more craft-beer-friendly place,” said Chris Burns, president of Old Ox. Burns, a former IT contractor, and his father fell in love with brewing as a hobby about seven years ago, he says, and ultimately decided that the family would pursue their passion on a professional level.
The industry’s growth was strengthened by state legislation in 2012, when the state changed a provision governing on-site consumption at brewery tasting rooms, allowing the sale of pints of beer rather than just tasting samples.
“Once that happened, it made having a small-scale brewery very profitable,” Jenkins said. “You don’t have to worry about a food service operation to sell pints anymore, and that made it a very attractive endeavor.”
Burns agreed. “Having the ability to share pints with your customers right out of your tasting room is an incredibly important way to connect with your customer. It’s a great marketing tool, and it’s a great revenue stream.”
Since the law was revised, the craft beer industry in Virginia has seen 75 percent growth in the number of breweries, driving a statewide economic impact of $623 million, according to Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, a group composed of small, independent breweries in the commonwealth.
Farmers and winemakers who were interested in branching out into the brewery business were also encouraged by a law governing farm breweries that went into effect just this month.
“The state had already put in a similar law for the wineries, because counties were having trouble with zoning issues, and the state really wanted those farm wineries to start popping up,” Jenkins said. “So they passed a law that trumps those county ordinances.”
The new law, which went into effect in Virginia on July 1, extends similar benefits to farm breweries, provided that they grow and use their own agricultural product — such as hops or barley — in their beers.
Janell Zurschmeide, an owner of Dirt Farm Brewing, which is expected to open in the spring, said the new legislation made her family’s vision of opening a farm brewery attainable.
“In the beginning, we realized that there was no zoning to allow farm breweries in Loudoun, so we quickly put on our brakes,” she said. “Then it was brought to our attention that this Senate bill was already in the works, and that was honestly our saving grace.”
Zurschmeide and her husband — both part of the family that founded Great Country Farms in Bluemont, and co-owners of Bluemont Vineyard — joined the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild in Richmond to lobby their elected leaders in support the farm brewery bill, she said.
“We talked about how it’s a fast-growing industry, that there is demand for it, that it’s creating jobs in an otherwise rural area,” she said. “We talked about the tax revenue it would bring, the tourism, and the idea of preserving farmland; that aspect is really important to us, too. If this land gets scooped up and developed, we lose the opportunity to build these wonderful businesses.”
County officials are also in the process of considering zoning amendments that would make it easier for breweries to open on farms, and the Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on those amendments this year. Zurschmeide said she is optimistic that there will be no additional county-level hurdles; the only reason there was a legal issue to begin with, she said, is because no one had envisioned the possibility of farm-based breweries and wineries when the zoning rules were first written.
“But now, we all know that our customers are educated, they want to know where their food and drink is coming from, they want to see it sourced locally and made fresh,” she said.
Loudoun tourism officials are interested in learning even more about those customers, Jenkins said: who they are, where they’re coming from, how much they spend when they visit, what food or activities they’d like to accompany a hoppy IPA or pumpkin ale.
“We see these breweries popping up, and naturally we need some marketing information to be able to market to these folks,” he said. “Our breweries didn’t have big e-newsletter lists or big followings yet, so I spoke to our tourism counterparts at the state, and they didn’t have a whole lot of information on it, either.”
With the help of a state tourism grant, officials are conducting a “beer traveler survey” to compile information about the patrons of local breweries, he said.
“We’re finding that it’s basically the male version of the female wine connoisseur that we see at a lot of our wineries,” he said. “Craft beer people are usually foodies, they’re highly educated, they have high incomes. They’re different consumers than your regular domestic beer drinkers.”
And they keep coming in droves. Even the newest breweries are often shocked at how quickly their product is in demand, Jenkins said.
Burns said the mounting attention, and competition, is welcome news.
“A saying that you keep hearing in the craft brew business is, ‘a rising tide lifts all ships,’ and that’s absolutely true,” he said. “As long as we’re all producing high-quality beers, and we can maintain that positive collaborative nature, it’s really going to increase the amount for agro-tourism that we get to the area. I think that’s going to be great for all breweries.”