Saturday, September 24, 2022

From College Town Brewery to Overseas Exports: Virginia Beer Company Co-Founder Reflects on 6 Years of Business

Robby Willey, co-founder of Virginia Beer Company, reflects on the past six years since its opening. (WYDaily/Molly Feser)

WILLIAMSBURG — When Robby Willey and Chris Smith opened Virginia Beer Company (VBC) on March 26, 2016, the idea of “community” was at the mission’s forefront.

What started as a concept around 2009 for the William & Mary alumni to leave their careers and open a brewery in their college hometown has since become a brand recognized state-wide and even reaching other countries.

“It’s crazy to think that it’s been six years,” Willey said. 

It’s likely a surprise to most people considering the institution that VBC has become in the community since opening its taproom and beer garden at 401 Second Street, in what is now known as Williamsburg’s Edge District.

Willey and Smith felt like Williamsburg was an opportune spot in Virginia to be part of the rapidly-growing Virginia craft beer scene, but their ties to W&M was really what brought them here.

“We had ‘Tribe Pride’ kind of flowing in our veins,” Willey said. “And so it was like, let’s make a good business decision, but also kind of the Homer decision of let’s go back to our college town and open a brewery and hopefully be lauded as heroes for doing so.”

The name “Virginia Beer Company” also allowed the brewery to be an open canvas with room to grow, Willey said.

Not wanting to be pigeonholed into one beer or branding, Willey and Smith worked with VBC’s Brewmaster Jonathan Newman to figure out what styles of beer to offer.

The process was, as Willey described, “…a really slow build up and then, all of the sudden, just out of the gates and don’t look back.”

In the last six years, the brewery has gone from a team of seven to 20.

“I think one of the things we’re most proud of has been the growth of the VBC family,” Willey said. “We’ve had really strong retention in terms of staff. We’ve been able to promote from within in a lot of cases, which is really cool.”

VBC’s creativity and constantly-evolving variety of beers comes from a team of people with a like-minded passion for philanthropy and community. VBC’s popular Pride IPA, “Friends of Dorothy,” for example, came from leadership team members who are part of the LGBTQ+ community and wanted to create a beer that represented inclusivity and positivity.

“It’s gone from just me, Chris, and Jonathan trying to come up with the beer ideas and branding, to this whole team of people that we can trust and rely on,” he said. “We’ve built this brain trust with people who have grown with us. They’ve bought into the VBC mantra and the vibe here, and then they’ve added their own personalities to that vibe. I think we’re a much more well-rounded business because we have more voices.” 

Everyone has a voice, Willey said. From names, (they have a Slack channel just for beer names) to labels, to events, the every team member has the opportunity to give input.

One of the team’s biggest accomplishments has been their international export business, VBC Overseas, which has brought the Williamsburg craft beer to other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Japan.

VBC’s niche in telling stories behind the beers and giving back to the community now reaches craft beer drinkers across the world.

“It’s been an interesting balance of trying to make the message feel global without losing the Williamsburg focus, which is what made us popular and successful in the first place,” he said.

The company’s mantra of “Beer, People, Purpose,” especially carried weight during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We never closed,” Willey said. “We’ve been very blessed because we were able to protect everyone during the pandemic. Everyone was able to keep their jobs. We actually grew during the pandemic, and brought on more production team members and added to our sales team.”

When the world seemed to shut down in March 2020, VBC remained open with a “brew-thru” in the parking lot.

The brewery’s beer garden, which Willey and Smith insisted upon having “for the atmosphere” when first opening, came in handy once restaurants were able to transition to outdoor-only dining.

Despite some transitions and changes over the last couple of years, VBC remained open and reinforced itself as a staple in the community. Just two weeks ago, VBC’s staff was able to remove their masks for the first time in two years.

The brewery was also able to grow its beer program dramatically during the pandemic. With its own canning line, VBC was able to pivot to small batch can releases; releasing one to three new can releases each week.

The brewery has held several community events over the last two years, but nothing quite as grand as VBC’s upcoming 6-Year “Freeversary” event on Saturday, April 9.

“We haven’t done this since 2019,” Willey said. “So it’ll hopefully be kind of a throwback to some of the bigger parties we used to have.”

Named after VBC’s popular Free Verse line, the Freeversary celebration will feature live music, food trucks, speed quizzing from Squared Away Entertainment, shuttle service from noon to 7:30 p.m. and a brand new Free Verse variant release, “Easy Verse,” with a limited run of the first-ever 16 oz. six-packs.

The event is stretched out over the whole weekend, to “ease” everyone back into normalcy.

VBC’s beer garden has become a gathering place for the community. (Courtesy of Robby Willey)

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Willey said.

Friday, April 8 will see a release of the Long Way Hazy IPA; a collaboration with Bearded Iris Brewing. VBC will also close out the weekend with its post-celebration Hangover Brunch on Sunday, April 10, introducing a small batch Coffee Brown Ale in collaboration with Edge District neighbor, Column 15.

VBC will start the celebrations early, however, with its Waypost 2022 Anniversary Imperial Milk Stout Variant can releases, starting Saturday, April 2. The 2022 vintages of VBC’s annual anniversary stout releases include Blackberry Brandy Waypost, Cascara Waypost, Mexican Chocolate Waypost and Sidecar Waypost.

“We’re making up for almost three years of lost party time,” Willey said.

Now in its sixth year, VBC is preparing for some new changes to its look.

“We’re still obviously the Virginia Beer Company, but the idea is that the look and the feel of the brand has changed over six years,” Willey said. “It’s grown with us in terms of not just being Williamsburg, but being state-wide, international, having beer in New York, going from seven employees to 20 members of our family. We’ve changed.”

By late April or early May, all four of VBC’s core beers, including Free Verse and Elbow Patches, will get a complete package refresh. While the shape of VBC’s logo and color schemes will still be incorporated, the look and the feel of the cans will be different, Willey said.

“We’re excited to hit the ground running with these anniversary release, parties and kind of showcase how year six and beyond is going to look and feel a little different,” he said.

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