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After more than three years of searching for the right space in Williamsburg, buying and installing state-of-the art equipment and transforming a former auto body shop into a brewery, two College of William & Mary graduates are weeks away from opening The Virginia Beer Co.
The Virginia Beer Co. began brewing its first batch of craft beer Jan. 24 and plans to brew eight total before opening to the public around mid-March.
The first batch – the start of a series of single hop session beers – is being brewed in a five-barrel system, a set of equipment co-owners Chris Smith and Robby Willey said will not only help their brewery stand out in an industry burgeoning in the Williamsburg area but allow their customers to have a unique experience each time they visit 401 Second St. in York County.
With a five-barrel and a 30-barrel system producing beer simultaneously, the brewery can use the smaller system to offer a variety in its taproom throughout the year and the larger one to produce beers for both the taproom and distribution.
They do not have plans to launch with a signature beer; instead they expect customer demand to determine one over time.
“We have a lot of room for creativity with this equipment, which will be great for the customers because of the variety and especially fun for me,” said Jonathan Newman, Virginia Beer Co.’s brewmaster who gained much of his experience at the renowned SweetWater Brewing Company in Atlanta, Ga. and helped open Jackalope Brewing in Tennessee. “With both systems, we’re essentially two breweries in one place. It allows me to experiment a lot while brewing large batches.”
That experimentation will allow for the educational experience Virginia Beer Co. wants for its customers.
Newman, who spent 10 years as a high school English teacher before following his passion for brewing, wants casual beer drinkers and beer connoisseurs alike to feel comfortable asking questions while enjoying their craft beer offerings.
With the brewing lab and taproom all under one roof, they plan to conduct tours and teach curious customers about what they are drinking and how it was made.
“We look at the taproom as an education space, where we can talk about beer and talk about the process to educate customers and start a conversation,” Newman said.
In renovating the building, Smith and Willey used a warm color scheme in the taproom in an effort to make guests feel comfortable as soon as they walk through the door. The setup of the taproom – with tables of varying sizes to allow customers to mingle with other guests, if they choose – and the accessibility of the brewery’s lab is meant to encourage a friendly, social and interactive atmosphere.
“There is an industrial activity going on but the end result is something that can be enjoyed by someone who knows nothing about beer and up to a craft beer aficionado,” Willey said.
A guest’s educational experience won’t begin and end with the brewing process alone. With décor made from wood and metal salvaged from a Windsor farmhouse, remnants of the building’s former life as an auto body shop on display, and brews that will use locally sourced products as often as possible, Virginia Beer Co. aims to tap into the Williamsburg area’s love for history and love for local.
“It’s another conversation piece for people,” Willey said. “We want people to learn more about all the farms, communities, businesses that have helped us.”
That spirit of collaboration extends to fellow breweries. As Virginia Beer Co. worked to ready their brewery for the public, they partnered with York County-based AleWerks last summer on the award-winning Public Frenemy #1 Red Rye IPA.
With its first brew in the works, The Virginia Beer Co. is now on the fast track for a not-yet-announced grand opening later this spring. The accelerated timeline comes after a slower-than-anticipated search for the right space in the greater Williamsburg area and a deliberate buildout process that focused on sustainability.
“We all agreed from Day One we would put the necessary money and time into making quality beer,” Smith said. “That is something we will be able to pride ourselves on forever. Anybody who comes in here is not going to have a beer that tastes bad because we didn’t put the time and money behind it.”
Since Smith and Willey decided in 2012 to leave their finance careers behind and open a brewery in Williamsburg, their focus has been more than just getting Virginia Beer Co. up and running. They have spent time building relationships within the Williamsburg community and the brewing industry, both of which have welcomed them, they said.
“The reputation of this area is that it’s so staid and unchanging, but it’s just not a fair reputation these days,” Smith said. “[Locals] were extremely open to breweries locating here and we received no pushback, only support.”
Smith moved back to Williamsburg first, showing up to City Council meetings, Economic Development Authority meetings and networking events to build strong relationships both with the area’s decision-makers and the business community. He is now a member of the Williamsburg Area Destination Marketing Committee’s public relations committee, helping them shape a possible Spirits Trail campaign in addition to helping the group’s overall focus on attracting tourists to the area.
The City of Williamsburg appointed Willey to its Economic Development Authority, which focuses on both incentivizing new businesses to locate in the city and assisting its existing businesses. His four-year term began last summer.
As active alumni even before they moved back to Williamsburg, both Willey and Smith – who graduated in 2005 and 2007, respectively – have become more involved with William & Mary since their return as volunteer members of the Annual Giving Board of Directors.
“We already feel at home here, it’s where Chris and I met and it’s where we established our love of beer,” Willey said. “The community and William & Mary have done a lot for us, so we decided we wanted to open a business that hopefully brings a lot of attention to the community in return.”