Beer Reborn

by MIKE HIXENBAUGH
photography by RICH-JOSEPH FACUN

Two decades before the craft beer explosion swept Hampton Roads, one of the nation’s most celebrated microbrews flowed from old dairy tanks in a tiny plant off London Bridge Road.

It was 1986, long before Sierra Nevada and New Belgium became staples on grocery store beer racks, and a 26-year-old Allen Young had just landed in Virginia Beach. He joined a ragtag group of beer lovers with radical plans to sell German-style specialty beers on the East Coast.

Together they started Chesapeake Bay Brewing Company and soon became rising stars in a fledgling industry, winning a gold medal in the inaugural Great American Beer Festival taste contest the very next year and establishing a cult following in the brew pubs of suburban Washington.

“We were like rock stars up there,” a more grizzled Young says now, recalling the response in D.C. after the little-known brewery unveiled its signature Chesbay Double Bock. “But down here – down the street from where we were actually making this stuff – we couldn’t get anyone to buy in. We were brewing a dark, malty beer in a strictly Budweiser kind of town.”

Allen Young

Only a handful of Beach pubs agreed to sell the award-winning beer. Six-packs of the brewery’s other offerings – Chesbay Amber and Chesbay Gold – collected dust on store shelves. Within a few years, the operation was shuttered.

“We were way ahead of our time and on the wrong coast,” Young says. “They weren’t ready for us.”

He left Virginia Beach in 1990 to work at another brewery, in an Ohio college town. When he returned in 2006, something had changed.

A beer revolution was brewing in Hampton Roads.

Weeks before Allen Young and his friends tapped their first barrel, Chris Jones and his wife, Diane Catanzaro, were falling in love with beer in a dimly lighted Norfolk parking lot. It was their first time attending a meeting of the Hampton Roads Brewing and Tasting Society. The club’s half-dozen members were gathered around a white van behind a bar on Colley Avenue and pouring samples of homemade brews into plastic cups.

Catanzaro remembers sipping a bold blueberry ale – it was unlike anything she had ever tasted – and asking the club’s president how he’d made it. In this spot behind what’s now Public House, he whipped out a notepad and enthusiastically read through a list of ingredients and detailed brewing instructions. Within weeks, Jones and Catanzaro were working on their own batch. “What we were making was so much better than anything you could buy in a store,” she says. “Back then, if you wanted to drink a good beer – anything with a little bit of color and taste – you had to make it yourself.”

The couple became evangelists for craft beer. They invited friends to drink their creations – sometimes brewed using hops grown in their backyard. They served nothing but imported specialty beers at dinner parties and chastised guests who insisted on bringing six-packs of Bud Light. Some friends called them beer snobs; others joined the home brewing club.

“Change takes time,” Jones says, sipping homemade India pale ale at home in Ghent. “It’s a long-term investment in your friends to get them to go from drinking swill to drinking things that are wonderful. They have to try it a couple times. Eventually they come to realize how a good beer ought to taste and smell. We’ve seen the same process play out in the domestic beer market.”

Jones and Catanzaro swirl and sniff beer before sipping from small glasses and speak in terms a wine connoisseur might use to describe the flavor and texture of a drink. For years, the only decent beer they bought came from vacations in Belgium. Now they can walk a few blocks and get some of their favorite beer, straight from the craft brewery on 25th Street.

Kevin O’Connor’s father scoffed when he came home from college in 1995 and said he wanted to open a brewery in Norfolk. “You’re just an Irish kid who’s been drinking too much,” his old man told him.

Every home-brewer-turned-wannabe-businessman who had come before him had failed in South Hampton Roads – including Steamship Brewing Company in Norfolk. A few startups lasted only weeks before closing. O’Connor took his dad’s advice and, though he interned at Steamship that summer, set his dream aside. He eventually earned a degree in business management from Old Dominion University and went to work in sales for a local food distributor.

Kevin O’Connor

Years passed as O’Connor foundered in an unfulfilling job. In his free time, he drank specialty beers and scribbled detailed business plans on bar napkins. He watched from afar as microbreweries opened in every progressive city in the country. His own city lagged far behind.

In 2005, the girlfriend who would later become his wife told him to snap out of his funk. “You brew beer in the backyard,” she told him. “That’s your passion. Why don’t you just quit your job?”

He did, and soon he was learning the industry while volunteering at St. George Brewing Company in Hampton – until then the region’s lone microbrewery success story. Later he took a sales job with a specialty beer distributor, where he learned firsthand the challenges of getting craft beer onto store shelves.

He squirreled away what he could and borrowed money from family and friends. He leased a dingy warehouse, bought used equipment online and traveled to Rhode Island to load more than a dozen tanks onto a flatbed truck. With the help of friends, he installed the system himself.

The list of microbreweries to launch, then fizzle, had grown even longer by the time O’Connor filled the fermenters at his 25th Street plant for the first time. He filled his first barrel of Norfolk Canyon Pale Ale in April of 2010, and his friends at Cogan’s Pizza agreed to sell a sample batch on tap that weekend.

If history were a guide, O’Connor’s little brewery would sputter. He had already calculated how much money he could recover by scrapping his equipment. He looked around the bustling pizzeria, seeing a room full of college students and young professionals.

He hoped this time would be different.

The brewery Allen Young helped open in Virginia Beach years earlier was pieced together using old equipment from a shuttered R.C. Cola plant, scrap dairy tanks and refurbished parts harvested from decommissioned Navy vessels.

The brewery’s signature creation, the Chesbay Double Bock, was revolutionary in these parts – a strong yet smooth brew with a low hops profile.

“It was a hit with beer enthusiasts, but we were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” says Young, who brewed his first batch of beer as a squeaky-voiced middle schooler. “At that time we were about the same size or bigger than Sierra Nevada out in California. If we had been on Chico Bay instead of the Chesapeake Bay, we might be telling a different story right now.”

Sierra Nevada went global; Chesapeake Bay Brewing went under.

Sixteen years later, in 2006, Young took a call from an old colleague. A Gordon Biersch restaurant was going to open at a new development in Virginia Beach called Town Center, and the chain restaurant’s manager was looking for someone to run its microbrewery.

“By then the craft beer craze had swept just about every major market in the country, but it still hadn’t taken off in Hampton Roads,” Young says. “This region was sort of the last great frontier for craft beer.”

He had always believed a microbrewery could succeed in South Hampton Roads. He came back to prove it.

Bottling at O’Connors Brewery

Kevin O’Connor emptied 15 kegs that opening weekend at Cogan’s and at another nearby bar, much more than he’d expected. Six months later, he was sitting on a stool at A.W. Shucks Raw Bar and Grill when he heard his name spoken at the other end of the bar.

“You got any of that O’Connor beer?” a burly shipyard worker asked.

The bartender poured a pint of O’Connor’s Green Can Golden Ale, then motioned toward the man who’d brewed it. The worker with a gray beard and dirty jumpsuit sprang out of his seat, walked toward O’Connor and greeted him with a slap on the back.

“I’ve been drinking Bud Light since I was 12 years old,” the gruff old shipyard worker said. “And I’ve got to hand it to you; I’m a craft believer now. I love your beer. It’s all I drink.”

O’Connor knew then he’d made it – even in this blue-collar port town.

More than two years later, he can’t keep up with demand. With O’Connor and his small staff often working 18-hour days to stay ahead of orders, his modest plant is churning out more than 1,000 kegs and 15,000 bottles a month. Thanks to a previously unheard-of partnership with a major beer distributor, Hoffman Beverage Company, O’Connor’s creations can be found at dozens of grocery stores and on taps across the region – from local bars to Applebee’s restaurants.

Boots at O’Connor and Smartmouth Cleaning Up

“Our business is not glamorous at all,” he says, standing in rubber boots outside his facility as an automated bottler hums. “It’s cold; it’s hot; it’s wet. The cool part is going to a bar and seeing people drinking your beer. They don’t see behind the scenes where you’re burning your arm or spilling chemicals on your knee or you’ve cut your fingers because you’re bottling right now. But we’re making it.”

O’Connor’s success seems to have paved the way for others. Three other microbreweries have started up in South Hampton Roads since early 2010, and at least one more is on the way.

Hundreds of people gathered at Town Center last fall for the inaugural Arts and Drafts beer festival. Each of the region’s microbrewers poured samples, and beer lovers danced to live music. Gordon Biersch, which organized the event, has been packed since the day it opened in 2006, says Young, at the time Biersch’s head brewer for the Mid-Atlantic region.

“It’s like a complete reversal from my days at Chesbay,” he says. “Now people show up at bars and stores, and they want to know what’s local. Hampton Roads might have been late to the party, but the market is blowing up now.”

Take Porter Hardy IV, who walked away from his comfortable life as a corporate lawyer last year to open Smartmouth Brewing Company in a 9,500-square-foot warehouse in West Ghent. The former home-brewer’s American amber was flowing at numerous pubs by late fall.

From left: Smartmouth’s Porter Hardy and Beach Brewing’s Justin MacDonald

And at Beach Brewing in Virginia Beach, Justin MacDonald and his wife, Kristin, celebrated the brewery’s two-year anniversary in October at a festival outside the factory on Horse Pasture Road. Like O’Connor, MacDonald has used skills learned while earning a business degree at Old Dominion University to market his specialty beer, which is on tap at several Oceanfront restaurants. MacDonald will have competition from Back Bay Brewing, a Beach startup that started selling a full-bodied red ale at a few restaurants last fall. Also in Virginia Beach, a pair of former soldiers who served in the Iraq war have been raising money to launch Young Veterans Brewing. They have plans for an entire line of military-themed brews, including a “Jet Noise Double IPA” and a “New Recruit Honey Blonde.”

On the Peninsula, St. George’s and Williamsburg’s AleWerks each reported seeing sales figures nearly double over the past few years.

And two years after The Birch bar opened in West Ghent, with all of its 21 taps dedicated to obscure craft beers, owner Ben Bublick and his wife, Malia, said they’ve seen their customer base grow beyond beer aficionados.

“I always drank Pabst Blue Ribbon before I started coming here,” one of those customers, Steve Billings, said between sips of an $8 witbier from Japan. “I’d rather pay more and try something new.”

People didn’t talk like that in the 1980s. Back then, Allen Young would have been happy to get a handful of nearby restaurants to sell Chesbay on tap. He came to Virginia Beach the first time to learn the tricks of the trade. He returned two decades later with a well-earned nickname: “The Kevin Bacon of Beer.” “In the world of craft beer, people measure their connections against the Six Degrees of Allen Young,” says Paul Hutchings, president of the Hampton Roads Brewing and Tasting Society. “That guy has worked everywhere.”

Along the way, he never forgot Hampton Roads.

“I always knew we could do it in this market,” he says.  “If we could just get the product in front of the sailors over at Oceana, or if we could get a grocery store to put our cases on a display rack, I knew people would buy it. That’s finally happening now.”

Need more proof? In January, Young accepted a sales job with a company that imports raw beer ingredients and sells them to craft breweries. As recently as 10 years ago, there wasn’t a market for the position in this part of the country, Young says. His new bosses wanted him to live someplace within a half-day’s drive of at least 50 breweries – a location at the center of the craft beer boom.

They agreed to let him stay in Virginia Beach.

A few months after moving here for the second time, Young was reminded that things didn’t always work that way. While browsing the racks at a long-established wine and beer shop on Laskin Road, he spotted a familiar-looking case sitting on a shelf.

Last known bottle of Chesbay Beer

He blinked hard and looked again.

There sat six unopened bottles of Chesbay Gold. Allen Young laughed when the store owner explained the 20-year-old relic.

Nobody ever bought the last six-pack.