The Malty History of Beer in Virginia
When American colonists landed in Virginia, beer was brewed using corn, a technique possibly learned from the natives. Grapes were also planted in hopes of producing a commercial product that could be shipped back to England. Alas, the wine was plonk.
No manner of effort produced a quality and sustainable wine industry in the Commonwealth until the 1970s.
Colonial Beer, A Drink and a Medicine
Thus, beer, cider, and hard alcohol became the everyday drink of our forefathers. Perhaps to their detriment. Colonial Americans drank about three times the amount of alcohol we do today.
Not only was it supposedly safer than hydrating on bacteria-filled water, but it also served as an early medicine cabinet to treat all manner of pain and emotional disorders. At least temporarily.
Thomas Jefferson noted the danger in hard liquor when he wrote, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap, and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.”
The Sage of Monticello would have also placed beer in the preferred category, but his patrician tastes favored wine.
But the reality behind “water is safer” is a myth. Water was cheaper than beer, and the location of settlements and towns was predicated on the availability of safe and plentiful water supplies.
Nonetheless, Virginians have always loved to hoist a glass of suds, and the practice has endured for over 400 years. And not because it was a safer drink. It simply tasted better than water and had the delightful side effect of easing worry, strain, and a host of other maladies.
Today beer consumption in Virginia is more popular than ever.
The Dawn of Brew
Beer has been brewed for over 7,000 years. Early producers hailed from Iran, Egypt, and Mesopotamia and spread worldwide from there. Since any grain containing sugars can be fermented, it’s likely a spontaneous fermentation caused by wild yeasts created the first brew.
In an unrecorded moment in libation history, one of our ancestors likely sipped a handful of naturally fermented beer from a stone bowl and fell in love with its malty flavor. He also may have wondered, “How did that happen?”
Searching for the answer was a quest of passion and resulted in one of the oldest of alcoholic drinks.
By the Middle Ages beer was one of the commonest of libations. It was consumed year-round by rich and poor alike. And as in Virginia is was widely brewed where wine grapes did not thrive.
Nonetheless, it was not universally approved of.
In 1256, the Aldobrandino of Siena opined that beer, “harms the head and the stomach, it causes bad breath and ruins the teeth, it fills the stomach with bad fumes, and as a result anyone who drinks it along with wine becomes drunk quickly; but it does have the property of facilitating urination and makes one’s flesh white and smooth.”
Hmmm…a seemingly a mixed bag.
But the long road to commercial beer success is now tasty history. In 2017, over 51 billion gallons of beer were produced globally. Our forefathers would be impressed.
Growth of Beer in Virginia
As farming became established in Virginia wheat and barley helped propel beer into the most popular of libations. Alehouses, taverns, and plantations everywhere produced and served both beer and whiskey.
Beer, however, was the everyday go-to drink and in a nod to the gentler sex, it was women who often were the brewers. This task was seen as integral to women’s role in caring for and feeding her family.
Over the decades Richmond emerged as the state’s brewing center. From the late 1700s onward the state capitol developed a rich history of beer production. The Civil War slowed the industry as the South shifted to a war footing. Then in 1916, Virginia went dry; three years before Prohibition became the law of the land.
One unique aspect of Richmond’s brewing past are the beer caves at Rocketts Landing.
Originally part of the James River Steam Brewery, the cave system was built in 1868 to provide cool storage temperatures, but the combination of advancements in refrigeration and the financial crisis of 1873 conspired to force the closing of the brewery.
Today you can peek into the caves, but there is little to see since they are blocked by a chain-link fence. They are located 4920 Old Main Street and present a fun—albeit brief—glimpse into yesteryear’s world of cold storage.
With the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, alcohol was back in bars and homes. But beer production was limited to a paltry 3.2% alcohol discouraging many brewers who were constrained from producing interesting and quality beers.
From the 1930s forward, beer in Virginia was primarily provided by a decreasing number of national breweries producing what some felt was a good cold glass of sparkling water. “This Bud’s for you,” was popular primarily because it was an easy sipper. Beer drinkers did not have access to richer, more flavorful options.
Virginia Beer Entrepreneurs
Then in the late 1980s craft brewers began to stir. Why?
In 1979 a Federal law was passed permitting brewing at home. States vary on exactly how much is allowed; in Virginia, it’s 200 gallons annually for a two-adult household. That’s about 2,000 bottles. But please, don’t go there unless you’re sharing.
With such dramatic growth in the hobby many nascent brewers began to slowly realize, “Hey, my stuff tastes pretty good. Maybe I should go commercial,” which they did in droves resulting in today’s commercial craft beer explosion.
It’s a classic example of free enterprise coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit being unleashed by market opportunity.
In 1980 there were 80 craft breweries in the United States. Today, 7,000 dot our sudsy landscape. Even small towns and villages often sport a wee brewhouse where locals gather to quaff artisan beer.
There’s never been a better time to hoist flavorful brews that are the polar opposite of the watery libations that have dominated our domestic beer world for decades.
Virginia’s role in the national explosion of craft beer parallels the Nation’s.
The opening of a few statecraft breweries in the late 1990s was initially seen as a fad that wouldn’t catch traction and fade quickly. What wasn’t considered was how delicious artisanal beer is compared with its mass-produced cousins.
Both wholesalers and retailers, however, took little interest in the product, believing it was too bold and of marginal quality. True enough, craft beer would take some adjustment for a palate raised on weak flavors and low alcohol. But the quality was consistently good.
What was not factored into the dismissal of the newbie beer was the passion and dedication of the mostly young brewers leading the craft beer charge.
However, without access to distribution channels, offered by wholesalers, craft brewers had to get crafty.
Mark Thompson, president and brewmaster at The Brewing Tree Beer Company in Afton, describes the solution in the Spring 2019 Virginia Craft Beer magazine, stating, “Things began to change in the early 2000s when a couple of craft brewers chose to start their own distributorships who sold only their breweries beer.”
Soon enough, the wholesalers began to take notice and started adding craft brew to their portfolios. The engine of change had been ignited. Today there are over 236 breweries in Virginia producing 405,465 barrels of craft beer annually.
The future of craft beer in Virginia
Given the success in utilizing wholesalers to move its product, small breweries will increasingly have limited access to the big boy’s distribution system. There are simply too many beers are out there today to find a home in wholesalers’ warehouses.
What more likely will occur is a shift back to smaller brewery production where craft beer will be sold only in taprooms absent a third-party distributor.
If so, that would be good news for consumers who would develop closer relationships with their neighborhood brewhouse and be treated like the prize customers they’d become.
And that’s a sudsy future we’ll hoist our glass to.
If you are looking for some great Virginia beer, check out these trails –
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