While working our way through the East coast Maria ran across this article on the “10 best vacation cities for beer lovers“. We were quite pleased to see that we had already visited eight of them (Fort Collins, Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle, Asheville, Burlington, and both Portland’s) but were a little puzzled to see Charlottesville, VA on the list. We hadn’t heard of any of the breweries listed for the city and had never thought of Virginia as a big craft beer state in general. What made this city such a beer destination? Well, we decided to find our for ourselves.
With a little pre-visit investigation revealed that a lot of Charlottesville’s craft beer charm comes from the small towns right outside the main city. A string of breweries have cropped up over the past 6 years along the Blue Ridge Mountains which are affectionately known as the Brew Ridge Trail. The city is also home to the University of Virginia which lends a young and energetic vibe to the city’s historic charm.
The trip started with a brewery visit we didn’t even plan. We pulled into the city at night, which makes it harder to orient yourself when you’re in a place you’ve never been. Maria noticed an open curb on a tucked away street near downtown that we tucked away in for the night only to wake up the next morning to find a large banner across the street that read “Champion Brewing”. Our brewery seeking skills had just crossed over to a whole new level! We’ve spent so much time seeking out breweries that Stanley now has a magnetic pull towards the brewery. We had no idea that we slept outside the brewery the whole night and I can guarantee that is the first time that’s happened! The brewery hadn’t opened yet, it was actually the day they received their entire brew system which looks like a 3year old at christmas, so we didn’t stick around, besides it was time to hit the Brew Ridge Trail!
Starr Hill Brewery
We started our tour at Starr Hill Brewery, one of the more prominent breweries in the area which currently resides in Crozet, VA. Starr Hill used to be the pride of Charlottesville when it opened in 1999, but had to move out in 2005 when their plans to distribute bottles clashed with a city law that prevents beer produced in the city from being sold outside city limits.
The brewery owns a large hangar like structure in Crozet’s industrial district and are producing a lot of beer out of it. You enter the brewery through side door that looks like it should be an employees only entrance and are lead to a tasting room tucked into the corner between the bottling line and a wall of palettes filled with empty cans waiting to be filled.
We spent a good amount of time talking it up with one of the bartenders as we tried samples of their beer. He took time to explain each brew and the back story behind them even as the tasting bar filled at a steady pace. One of the more uinque beers plays tribute to Charlottesville’s historic past. The Monticello series is a wheat and corn based beer that was inspired by local resident Thomas Jefferson and is based on a recipe he “might have used” to brew during his time at the Monticello estate. Tours were running while we sampled but we were having too much fun drinking and chatting with other patrons. Ultimately we left with a couple of six packs and better understanding of what makes Charlottesville tick. We were also disappointed to hear that AB InBev owns a significant portion of this brewery now too.
Blue Mountain Brewery
We stumbled upon an Octoberfest celebration at our next stop, Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, VA just a 15 minute drive from Starr Hill. On a beautiful fall day we were able to sit outside and enjoy the music and festivities with a great view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the side of the building they have a good sized hop farm that just seemed like a natural fit for the environment. We had heard from several people that the food here was awesome and needed something to accompany our sampler tray so we ordered a Octoberfest sausage plate and some fries…Yum!
The bluegrass band, Driftwood, provided the perfect backdrop for the day, there were lawn games being played, and the patio was dog friendly. We would have had a good time even if the beer wasn’t stellar, but it was in fact, fantastic. After trying the Octoberfest Maria declared it her favorite Octoberfest of the season and abandoned the sampler for full pint of it. I enjoyed their barrel aged beers, one was a Belgo ale (Local Species) and the other an Imperial Stout (Dark Hollow) aged in Maker’s Mark barrels.
Blue Mountain has recently opened another brewing facility further down where they run their barrel aging program and were running tours to and from there on this particular Saturday. We decided to relax and enjoy the patio before we ended up getting a growler of the Octoberfest and one of their gourmet pizza’s to go before we made our way back to a campsite where there just happened to be a little music festival. Score!
Wild Wolf Brewing Co
The next day Maria and I picked up where we left off on the Brew Ridge Trail and hit up Wild Wolf Brewing Co in Nellysford, VA. This is the newest of the breweries on the trail and but has already established itself as foodie / beer venue. As usual we had to see for ourselves and ordered some food to accompany our early morning beers samples.
We had one of the friendliest bar tenders we’ve had on our trip and she was quite knoweldgeable about the beers and what the brewers were doing on the brew system that you could see through the glass behind the bar. While the food was spot on the sampler tray was hit and miss but had some really interesting options such as the Ginger Lager and Blonde Hunny Ale.
We observed a steady flow of patron’s getting growlers filled through out our visit and on more than one occasion 3 or more growlers were filled for one person. Obviously they are doing something right to have that kind of loyalty and demand at such a early stage of their development.
Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co
Devil’s Backbone Brewery in Roseland, VA is literally 4 minutes down the road from Wild Wolf and sits on a large open lot that is frequently used for festivals and events. The brewery resides in a cabin like structure complete with taxidermied game and fowl adorning the walls. We bellied up to bar and sampled a couple beers before I got a pint of Eight Point IPA that I had been impressed with several days earlier at a bar in Winchester, VA. Quite tasty and award winning.
Devil’s Backbone might one of the more well known breweries in the area as they won 8 medals at this year’s Great American Beer fest including Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the year. We had visited before GABF and was rather impressed when we saw the long list of awards. They single handedly put Virginia craft beer on the map for awards this year.
The brewery actually has two locations in Virginia. The brew pub produces more of the seasonal and experimental beers while the Lexington location focuses on their flagship bottled beers the Eight Point IPA And Vienna Lager. It was cool place to have a beer and the outdoor patio gives you a excellent view of the mountains.
When we arrived in Charlottesville we asked “where should we go for craft beer?” and a the one place that kept coming up was Beer Run. Beer Run is an amalgamation of a bottle shop, tap house, restaurant and cafe. To finish off our trip we stopped by on our way out of town and were able utilize the out door patio to get some work done while having some drinks.
The bottle selection was amazing but you aren’t limited to carry out since they have a large selection of bottles that can be capped and drank on premise. If that is not enough Beer Run hosts 17 taps of rotating fermented goodness with local favorites as well as craft brands from around the US such as Firestone Walker and Lagunitas.
We just happened to be around when Beer Run owner Mama V was there and she invited us to sample some beers at their weekly staff meeting. It was quite interesting to learn how distribution effects the level of selection and how Beer Run makes a point of seeking out the best beers to carry while weighing in the needs of it’s customers. This place is truly a beer geeks dream and needless to say we didn’t leave empty handed!
It was the perfect way to end our trip through one of America’s top vacation cities for craft beer. Sure, Charlottesville has a lot of breweries but quantity alone doesn’t make it a great place to visit. The atmosphere created by an energetic beer culture is present throughout the area. Bars and restaurants are proud to serve local brews and the community is proud drink them. Throw in some gorgeous mountain views and a music scene that is bigger than the city’s size should merit consideration when planning where your next beer trip takes you.
Has anyone else found a hidden gem of a craft beer city recently?