Happy Ales to You
On Virginia's Brew Ridge Trail, tourists are all about drinking in the local flavor while enjoying the views.
I’d spent the afternoon kicking up the loamy scent of fallen leaves as I hiked the steep Appalachian Trail leading to Spy Rock. The payoff was an exhilarating, 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge. But as sunset approached, I was bone-tired and thirsty.
Then, a mile or so down the highway from the trailhead, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, I stumbled upon a vision: Blue Mountain, an artfully designed microbrewery surrounded by mountains that serves its own beer and offers a full menu for hungry hikers.
That first pour of Blue Mountain’s Full Nelson Pale Ale two years ago began my love affair with “hoppy” beer, flavored with the herb-like hop vine that lends a bitter but delicious edge to the brew. I also loved the “flight,” the sampler of six brews on tap that day, all lined up on the polished bar: the light lager, the medium-bodied ales and finally, the rich, satisfying, dark stout that was my favorite of the bunch.
I later would learn that Blue Mountain was part of the “Brew Ridge Trail,” one of the tastiest marketing gimmicks I’ve encountered before or since. A knockoff of the winery tours that have become a staple tourist attraction in the area, the Brew Ridge Trail showcases five breweries and a cider maker within driving distance of one another. Each has thrived since the concept was launched in 2008, and two—Blue Mountain and Devils Backbone—are expanding production.
Over the course of two days, I would make my way to all but the cidery, and leave with just one complaint: Two days isn’t enough time to savor all those brews.
South Street Brewery
106 South St., Charlottesville
Open 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
Situated in a brick, turn-of-the-century hay and grain warehouse in downtown Charlottesville, South Street Brewery is the historic center of the Brew Ridge Trail. I was sitting there with Jacque Landry, the pony-tailed, 41-year-old brewer, who was describing the nuances of each sample before me with the familiarity of someone whose beer-tasting buds have been honed over decades. It was easy to imagine him comparing brew techniques with the other pioneers of Virginia’s microbrew boom.
Landry was among the first of the group, hired on as South Street prepared to open in 1998. He’d moved from Denver, where he’d gotten to know other brewers, including a man named Mark Thompson. In 1999, Thompson opened Starr Hill Brewery down the street in Charlottesville, though it has since moved to Crozet. Eight years later, Taylor Smack opened Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton.
The brewers, joined by two others on the “trail”—Devils Backbone and Wild Wolf—still collaborate, most notably on the annually produced and collectively brewed Brew Ridge Trail Black IPA (India Pale Ale was the original beer shipped from England to the colonies). And the brew-geek culture continues: Landry says locals who come in to fill their growlers, the popular half-gallon jugs made for carryout, ask for home-brew advice all the time.
Though tours are not the norm, occasionally he’ll give interested beer-lovers a closer look at South Street’s tiny brewery, which consists of a single row of nine stainless-steel tanks and two brewing vessels squeezed under brick archways behind the bar.
Even if you’re not an aficionado, South Street’s refined-rustic restaurant/brewpub, with brick fireplace, exposed beams, wood floors and high-backed booths, is a cozy place to while away an evening. Besides the seven brews on tap, a full menu features bar snacks, sandwiches, salads and entrées such as fish, ribs and ravioli. There’s also live music every Wednesday.
Starr Hill Brewery
5391 Three Notched Road, Crozet
Open from noon to 6 p.m. Fridays, tastings only; and from noon to 5 p.m. for tastings on Saturdays and Sundays, with tours at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m.
When Starr Hill opened in Charlottesville in 1999, it took over a space just vacated by Blue Ridge Brewing Company, which had opened in 1987 as the self-proclaimed first brewery-pub in Virginia. For a while, Starr Hill was associated with a music hall next door, and it maintains close ties to the area’s music scene, supplying beer for festivals throughout the region.
But when it moved in 2007 to an industrial area in tiny Crozet, 12 miles from Charlottesville, Starr Hill dropped its brewpub and focused on production. It’s now a great place to come for Beer Brewing 101, complete with samples.
Tasting room manager Shelley Moss led my tour through the cavernous brewery, explaining the brewing process along the way. We saw—and smelled—the different beer barleys in one room (from a bin of oaty-smelling light roast to a chocolaty darker one). The barley has more flavor than the corn typically used by giant breweries, Moss says, and roasting it intensifies the taste.
In another area, I climbed up to a platform to peer into the enormous stainless-steel “mash” tanks, where a mechanism resembling an oversized ice cream paddle stirs the barley (the vats used to wet the barley with water before fermentation were empty this particular day). Other 1,500-gallon tanks with fermenting beer emitted a pleasant, yeasty smell. And I Love Lucy-like conveyor belts held beer bottles lined up like soldiers, ready to journey through the fill-cap-and-label machine.
Moss says Starr Hill handcrafts each of its 12,500 barrels a year, shipping them to 10 states and supplying local restaurants and bars. “We baby each batch. Our guys are analyzing it like this,” he says, demonstrating by taking a swig of beer.
I happily “analyzed” several of the eight beers on tap that day, enjoying the free samples with a handful of other visitors better versed in beer vernacular than I—many already had favorites and had come to fill their growlers. (Starr Hill limits drinking to six samples—no pints—and sells growlers and bottles only.) My favorite: the Double Platinum IPA, brewed with two types of barley and three types of hops, including one, Cascade, that lends a bitter but refreshing hint of grapefruit. Other tasters have awarded medals to many of Starr Hill’s selections at Great American Beer Festivals since 1999.
Blue Mountain Brewery
9519 Critzers Shop Road
(Highway 151), Afton
Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Tours from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays.
By the time I left Starr Hill, I was hungry for lunch, so I headed to Blue Mountain Brewery, the place that had introduced me to “Brew Ridge” beer. This time, I went behind the bar to the 15-barrel brewery, where brewer Matt Nucci and his partners, Taylor and Mandi Smack, give tours on Saturdays.
Nucci explained the same process I had learned about at Starr Hill, but since I knew the basics now, it was easier to pick up on the details. The water used to wet the barley is important, Nucci said, and Blue Mountain’s comes from a nearby well. I watched him climb up beside his mash tank and had to laugh when, instead of showing me a built-in stirring mechanism, he reached for a plastic paddle that looked as though it belonged on a kayak, and stirred.
Nucci said he adds hops toward the end of the process, and he boasted that Blue Mountain is one of only a few breweries that grow their own. He and the Smacks initially planted 300 of the vines, which grow on trellises in two fields near the brewery each summer. My old favorite, the Full Nelson (named for the brewery’s home, Nelson County), features two of the same hops varieties as Starr Hill’s Double Platinum: the Centennial and the grapefruity Cascade.
I tried another flight with my lunch, since the samples depend on what’s on tap, and discovered another favorite: pumpkin ale, offered only in the fall. While other pumpkin ales are flavored with the nutmeg and cinnamon commonly found in pumpkin pie, this one is flavored with pureed pumpkin, which gives it a rich, gourdy flavor reminiscent of toasted pumpkin seeds. It was perfect with my sandwich: bratwurst from Nelson County’s Double H Farm, boiled in Blue Mountain Lager and served with sauerkraut and house ale mustard. It was so juicy and messy that I had to apologize to the friendly couple sitting next to me at the bar, but they just smiled and turned to their equally messy pulled pork.
The menu also offers wraps, salads, pizzas and desserts. And in addition to the bar, there is plenty of seating in a light-filled dining room, as well as a patio where you can enjoy the mountain view alfresco.
Devils Backbone Brewing Company
200 Mosbys Run, Roseland,
at Routes 151 and 664
in Nelson County
Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to closing.
Devils Backbone is a relative newcomer to the brotherhood of breweries, having opened in 2008. But its accolades (2010 Champion Brewery and brewmaster titles at the World Beer Cup in Chicago) and ambience (think hip hunting lodge) have won it a loyal following.
The beer here is outstanding. Of the 10 on tap—described as ranging from “intense, hoppy finish” to “hints of toast and toffee”—I decided Blue Ridge Hop Revival Ale was my favorite, an earthy, dark brew that features Cascade hops, this time grown at Devils Backbone.
But it’s not just the beer that makes this place so successful: The Wild West interior—with ceiling, floors and walls repurposed from old barns, and stuffed game peering down from the walls—is a great conversation-starter. I met several regulars who had driven the 45 miles from Charlottesville to fill their growlers and tip a pint or two—many stay at the nearby Wintergreen Resort or at vacation condos nearby. Outside, the expansive stone patio is equally conducive to making friends, with open-air fireplaces and ponds complete with chirping frogs.
The menu features veggies from local farms, meats smoked in-house, pasta that is hand-cut. I was thrilled, too, to find burgers and sausages from Polyface Farms, the star of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan’s treatise on the politics and pleasure of eating locally. (Polyface is just 50 miles away.)
The driving forces behind “the Bone” are Steve Crandall, a 55-year-old developer and avid outdoorsman who shot many of the animals mounted at the brewpub, and head brewer Jason Oliver, who has been there since the brewpub’s inception. Crandall plans to open a 30-barrel brewery and bottling facility in nearby Rockbridge County in 2012.
Wild Wolf Brewing Company
2773A Rockfish Valley Highway, Nellysford
Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
The tiniest stop on the Brew Ridge Trail, this “nano-brewery” is also the area’s home-brew supply shop, stocked with equipment and ingredients for do-it-yourself beer and soda.
When I pulled up to the shop, sandwiched between a tax office and an art gallery in a strip along the highway, co-owner Danny Wolf was out front, brewing a small batch of beer on the sidewalk. His mother and co-owner, Mary, offered me a taste in a plastic cup, then invited me in to try the five other brews on tap. At this point in my tour, I was more interested in the root beer, also brewed onsite. Rich and cloyingly sweet with local honey, it was like dessert in a cup.
Danny Wolf brews beer (and root beer) in three 15-gallon kegs, and sells it by the growler-full, but the Wolfs were hoping by this fall to have opened a full-scale “biergarten” combining their hand-crafted beer with seasonal fare in a historic school building about a half mile away.