By Brian McNeill from the charlottesville daily progress
Published: August 25, 2008
Construction crews are putting the finishing touches on the Devil’s Backbone beer brewery located just down the mountain from the Wintergreen ski and golf resort in Nelson County.
Once the new 5,700-square-foot establishment draws its inaugural pint in November, it will mark the opening of the fourth such brewery in the greater Charlottesville area.
“There’s this density of small craft breweries in Central Virginia,” said Jason Oliver, the head brewer of the Devil’s Backbone who was formerly in charge of brewery operations for the Gordon Biersch Brewing restaurant chain in Virginia, Washington and Maryland. “And it’s growing.”
The Devil’s Backbone — a reference to the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains — joins Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Starr Hill Brewery in Crozet and South Street Brewery in Charlottesville.
Now, the region’s breweries and brewpubs are organizing a beer trail that would aim to attract beer-loving tourists from elsewhere in Virginia and surrounding states. The trail would emulate the state’s eight regional wine trails that promote Virginia’s numerous vineyards and wineries.
“Our industry is like the wine industry was 20 years ago,” said Mark Thompson, master brewer of Starr Hill, which produces the popular Jomo Lager, the Dark Starr Stout, the Love unfiltered wheat beer and other brews. “Wineries have come together and gotten lots of love. We can do that too … A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The Charlottesville-area beer trail is believed to be the first trail in Virginia that would focus primarily on locally brewed beer.
“We don’t know yet exactly what the trail is going to look like, but that’s OK,” said Maureen Corum, director of economic development and tourism for Nelson County. “People come here for the experience. They come for the recreation. They come for the scenery. These breweries fit right in with all that.”
Corum is leading the effort to set up the beer trail, which she expects to be more fully developed in the fall. Nelson County has already obtained the trademark for “Red, White and Brew” for use in future marketing campaigns.
The list of breweries that would be included on the trail has yet to be decided, Corum said, though Starr Hill, Blue Mountain and the Devil’s Backbone are natural fits because of their relatively close proximity to one another. Others, such as South Street Brewery and several breweries in the Shenandoah Valley, have also been mentioned as potential spots along the trail.
Tourism is a sizable sector of the Charlottesville region’s economy. In 2006, visitors spent an estimated $162 million in Charlottesville, an estimated $244 million in Albemarle County and $156 million in Nelson County, according to the Virginia Tourism Corp.
The state’s tourism agency also estimates that 1.8 percent of all visitors traveled to Virginia for winery tours or wine tastings. Virginia had 134 wineries and enjoyed retail sales totaling nearly $70.4 million in 2007, according to the state’s wine marketing office.
A similar market, brewers and local tourism officials hope, exists for beer.
“Culinary tourism is very popular right now,” said Allie Baer, interim director of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Central Virginia region has a lot to offer in the market-place.”
Richard Lewis, a Virginia Tourism Corp. spokesman, said the state would help market and promote the beer trail once it is established.
“Beer and wine connoisseurs love to do things like this,” he said. “It’s going to be great.”
One key selling point of the Charlottesville region’s beer trail will be the variety of beer available.
At the Devil’s Backbone, Oliver is planning to offer four styles year round: a German-style Helles golden lager, a Vienna amber lager, a hefeweizen and an American IPA. He also plans to offer two rotating taps of a Belgian-style beer, starting with a Belgian blonde, and a dark beer, such as a stout, porter or dunkel lager.
In addition to its home-brewed offerings, Oliver intends to have three taps devoted to beers brewed elsewhere in Virginia, starting with Blue Mountain and Starr Hill beers.
“We’re going to spread the love a little bit,” he said.
Unlike Starr Hill and Blue Mountain, Devil’s Backbone will probably not sell bottled versions of its beers, Oliver said. Rather, it will offer its beers by the keg and on-tap inside its brewpub and restaurant.
The Devil’s Backbone is the brainchild of longtime Nelson County custom homebuilder Steve Crandall. Crandall’s firm, Tectonics, is constructing the brewery, which is being built near the intersection of Routes 151 and 664.
Starr Hill, Blue Mountain and the Devil’s Back-bone, Crandall pointed out, each have a different vibe and complement the others. Starr Hill is mostly a production facility that offers tours and tastings. Blue Mountain offers visitors a winery-style experience, with mountain scenery, sandwiches and samplers of beer. The Devil’s Backbone will have more of a mountain lodge restaurant feel.
“We’ve got a different flavor with each of these breweries,” he said.
At Blue Mountain Brewery, located around 15 miles up Route 151 from the Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co., there is a similarly wide array of beer varieties. The brewery, which was opened in October 2007 by former South Street brewmaster Taylor Smack and his wife Mandi, offers its Blue Mountain Classic Lager, Rockfish Wheat, Full Nelson Pale Ale, Dark Hollow imperial stout and many other styles. Blue Mountain grows its own hops and incorporates other local ingredients, such as strawberries, in some of its beers.
“A lot of our business is tourist-oriented,” Mandi Smack said. “Having other breweries around us will only help.”
A beer trail, Smack said, could attract tourists from Richmond, Northern Virginia, Washington and elsewhere.
“It’s going to be great for the county and it’s going to be great for us.”
Like the Charlottesville region’s wineries, the local beer brewers are choosing to see the other breweries as part of the same team instead of competition.
“We can all benefit from getting organized,” Smack said.
Along with the varieties of beer, thirsty visitors will also be attracted to the region by the beers’ quality, said Josh Hunt of Beer Run, a beer-focused retail shop in Belmont.
“The quality of breweries we have around here is really fantastic. It’s an exciting time to be involved with beer,” he said. “It’s been an explosion of great beer.”