It’s Sunday evening, and after closing Silver Hand for the night, mead maker Glenn Lavender heads to the crowded Virginia Beer Company across town to chat with friends and grab a decent glass of beer. At a distillery a few blocks away, a law student banters with a couple out-of-towners over tumblers of Virginia whiskey, made from grain grown nearby and flavored with the potent smoke of fruitwood.
These scenes may be common in larger communities like San Diego or even South Hampton Roads, but they are relatively new to the area around Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
Not so long ago, greater Williamsburg was considered an old, small community where people came and went, and locals had few options for good drink. But life, and libations, changed over the past few years as this part of the country experienced a craft beverage boom.
Some 3.5 million visitors come annually, whether for the clip-clop of passing carriages, the momentary terror of thrill rides, or both. Increasingly, craft beverages are becoming part of that experience, too. Today the area is home to eight such producers: three breweries, two distilleries, two meaderies and a winery. Another brewery is on its way.
The push makes sense, says Karen Riordan, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. Williamsburg is the second most visited destination in the state, after Virginia Beach.
Anchored by the College of William & Mary, it has a vibe that brims with energy and creativity and besides, says Riordan, “it’s also where beer was first brewed in America.”
Brew kettles bubbled the moment Englishmen settled Jamestown in 1607 as colonists fermented beverages as an occasional alternative to the foul water. Some flirted with winemaking. Nearby, an English preacher even distilled a forerunner of what’s now bourbon.
But whatever burgeoning booze business there was proved no match for the sure profits of tobacco, so efforts to make alcohol on a large scale failed. That changed a few hundred years later, in the 1970s, when Anheuser-Busch opened its brewery and theme park. Ten years after that, the Williamsburg Winery started making its award-winning wine on land once sowed by English Colonists.
Craft beer arrived when Williamsburg Brewing Company opened in the mid-1990s, and while that brewery eventually closed, AleWerks Brewing Company opened on the same spot in 2006. Six years later, Brass Cannon Brewing Company began operation, spurred by the passage of a landmark state law allowing breweries to serve beer on premises.
That trend has taken off in the past year, with five establishments opening since late 2015: Melo Lion Meadery, Silver Hand Meadery, Williamsburg Distillery, Copper Fox Distillery and the Virginia Beer Company.
“Being the first type business in a community is the most difficult. You’re the first to encounter all the hurdles,” says Robby Willey, co-owner of the Virginia Beer Company. “The Winery and AleWerks did a great job laying the groundwork.”
And while the area is relatively new to the craft push, nearly all the businesses have won regional and national awards – even the newer ones. Brass Cannon’s Barrage Brown Ale took bronze in Veer magazine’s 2015 Golden Tap Awards and the Virginia Beer Company’s landed a second-place finish at the 2016 Virginia Craft Beer Cup in the Belgian Blond and Saison category for its Saison Tournante. Williamsburg Distillery’s Yorktown Rum took a bronze in the American Distilling Institute’s 2016 Spirit Competition, and a couple of Copper Fox’s whiskeys scored silver at the American Craft Spirits Association’s 2016 awards.
Every accolade helps build the area’s bona fides. “We have a community here anchored by attractions like Busch Gardens and Colonial Williamsburg, so people are already coming,” says Lavender, of Silver Hand Meadery. “Now all of us are working together to create a place you could spend all weekend and just do craft beverages if you want.”
Helping to that end is a natural camaraderie that has developed among the craft beverage makers in the area. Willey says there’s no room for cutthroat competition in a small town. Instead of seeing new establishments as rivals, he says, they’re welcomed as collaborators. “We’re excited to see more people because it introduces new ideas and new flavors,” he says.
Willey and colleagues have been gladly offering advice to the team that is opening Billsburg Brewery near Jamestown in 2017. Copper Fox’s master distiller, Rick Wasmund, began sharing some of his fruitwood-smoked malts with soon-to-be neighbors, as he had with other, more distant brewers, even before opening his second distillery in Williamsburg. In August, the Virginia Beer Company began serving an IPA made exclusively with Copper Fox’s peachwood-smoked malt.
Soon Copper Fox will be malting barley onsite at its new Williamsburg home and already, says Wasmund, they have more brewers asking for malt than he’ll have capacity.
This cooperation among artisans fits well with a local ethos that emphasizes hospitality, but another contributor to Williamsburg’s distinctive drink culture is the rich history of the area and how that plays into the beverages made here.
Brass Cannon chose the Historic Triangle because of its central location, but paying homage to the culture seemed like a natural fit, according to co-founder Phil Norfolk. His customers can choose from, among others, Muzzle Flash American Amber and Smoothbore Stout. Members of the military-heavy community have taken a liking to the theme, he says. One man gave the brewery an old cannonball.
AleWerks uses an English-style, non-mechanized brewing system to craft beers like Tavern Ale and Washington’s Porter. Over the past few years, AleWerks has teamed with Colonial Williamsburg to create several beers made from 18th century recipes, such as Old Stitch, Dear Old Mum, and Bristol Ale, which is likely closer to what Colonial Englishmen would have recognized as an IPA than the modern version.
John and Stacie Stoops of Hatfield, Pennsylvania, were in town recently on a trip combining business and leisure, and while looking for the Virginia Beer Company happened upon the Williamsburg Distillery, where Bill Dodson crafts spirits using historical ingredients – such as maize (a historic strain of corn) for bourbon and organic molasses for rum – which impart flavors closer to what liquor tasted like centuries ago, he says.
The Stoopses sample local drinks at every opportunity and appreciate Williamsburg Distillery’s connection to the rich history nearby. “The fact that he’s trying to make these the original way,” John says, “as they would have in Colonial times, really sets this apart.”