A growing craft beer and liquor sector in the Historic Triangle’s economy is creating jobs and another reason for people to visit the area.
Along with creating a unique product to attract both residents and tourists, the businesses often develop a synergy with local restaurants, which carry their products. They also serve as a destination, where beer tasting and brewery tours happen at the same site.
“It’s not just production — it’s a real art, creating a lot of these specialty craft beers and limited editions,” York County Director of Economic Development Jim Noel said about craft breweries. “It’s a really fun experience, and just to be in that atmosphere where they’re making the beer is interesting to a lot of people.”
Craft Beer in the Historic Triangle
Since Virginia’s longest-running craft brewery opened in Richmond in 1994, more than 60 other brewing operations have started across the state, including a few in the Historic Triangle.
AleWerks Brewing Company, which has a large brewing operation and a taproom in Ewell Industrial Park off Mooretown Road in Upper York County, started in 2006.
“For the first three years, a lot of people didn’t know we were here,” said AleWerks Brewing Company Manager Chuck Haines. “The movement was just starting to gain steam in the area. Nowadays we’re a pretty attractive draw when people are in town going to Busch Gardens or Colonial Williamsburg. A lot of people just come for us directly. It’s been really nice.”
Since opening its doors nearly eight years ago, AleWerks Brewing Company has expanded its operation, built a new taproom and struck a deal with Colonial Williamsburg to brew beer for the living history museum. The brewery also received top prizes at the 20th annual U.S. Beer Tasting Championships.
In 2012, Brass Cannon Brewery, a Toano-based craft brewery, sold its first keg of beer to Buffalo Wild Wings in New Town. Its owners met while studying at Old Dominion University and brewed their first batch of beer in February 2008 as a homebrew. Eventually, the group decided to start its own operation featuring brewing and a taproom in the Toano Business Center on Richmond Road.
The two breweries are the only operating small-scale alcohol operations in the Historic Triangle, but that is soon to change.
The owners of the Virginia Beer Company have their eyes on the Historic Triangle as the setting for their first brewery. Both owners are College of William & Mary graduates who are happy to return to the area.
“We’re looking for a 12,000- to 15,000-square-foot facility,” said Chris Smith, a co-founder and managing partner of the Virginia Beer Company. “We’re choosing a location that will be able to draw a lot of people.”
He said his Historic Triangle brewery will include brewing operations, a taproom, tours, indoor and outdoor seating, lawn games and more. After looking up and down the East Coast for a place to start a brewery, Smith and his business partner settled on the Historic Triangle.
“A lot of the industry is about telling a story,” Smith said. “This is where we met. This is where we hatched this plan. It feels like home to us and is a community we want to support.”
Smith and his business partner recently hired a head brewer from Atlanta-based Sweetwater Brewing Company. They hope to start operations in the Historic Triangle next year.
Distilleries Also on the Horizon for Historic Triangle
The rise in locally owned, small-scale alcohol operations is not limited to beer.
The City of Williamsburg announced in June that Copper Fox Distillery had agreed to purchase the former Lord Paget Motel from the city for $600,000. If city council signs off on a special-use permit, the former motel will be converted into the second location for the Sperryville-based craft distillery.
[stextbox id=”news-sidebar” caption=” ” float=”true” align=”right” width=”250″ bwidth=”1″]Craft Beer
The Brewers Association, a national group promoting small and independent breweries, estimates craft brewers contributed $33.9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012, while providing more than 360,000 jobs.
BA defines craft brewing as small, independent and traditional. That means annual production of less than 6 million barrels of beer, independent ownership and use of traditional and innovative brewing practices. For example, craft beers are traditionally made using traditional ingredients like malted barley while nontraditional ingredients are added to give a distinct flavor.
The American Distilling Institute defines craft spirits as having come from independently-owned distilleries with maximum annual sales of 52,000 cases. The product must be distilled and bottled on site.[/stextbox]
“Everyone knows Williamsburg,” said Rick Wasmund, the owner of Copper Fox Distillery. “I think there’s synergy between our operation and the tourists here. For the tourists and residents alike, we’re not like anything else around here.”
Copper Fox Distillery produces several products at its location in Sperryville, including whiskies and gin. Wasmund said he hopes to eventually produce 80,000 cases of liquor a year in Williamsburg, which is nearly double the quantity produced in Sperryville. The Williamsburg location will offer tours, tastings and a retail shop.
The Williamsburg Distillery in James City County is slated to start operations at a location on Merrimac Trail by winter as long it obtains a federal distilling permit. Owner Michael McDaniel told WYDaily in June he hopes to produce 20,000 bottles of liquor in the distillery’s first year.
To achieve that end, equipment is being installed at the location, where colonial recipes will be used to brew craft liquor including rum and whiskey. Accompanying the distillery will be a small gift shop and tasting area.
Small-Scale Alcohol Operations Boon to Local Economies, Tourism
The success of the existing breweries and the influx of planned operations have local officials excited about the opportunities they present.
Noel said he and his economic development counterparts in James City County and Williamsburg all agree the operations are good businesses to have in the area and that the Historic Triangle is a viable place to create a beer, wine and liquor destination as other municipalities have done, primarily in western Virginia.
“I think [these operations] will add to the attractiveness of the area and help us with our overall tourism goals,” Noel said. “And it’s good solid business. A lot of these are very profitable, there seems to be a lot more sales of craft beers, craft ciders and boutique alcohol and wine. They’re becoming more and more popular. It’s good business development.”
James City County’s Office of Economic Development Director Russ Seymour agrees.
“These businesses are a good attraction, not only from a tourist standpoint but from a local standpoint,” Seymour said. “When you get these groups together and look at some of the successes with Brass Cannon and others, these are becoming destinations to bring people into the area.”
The growing craft beer industry is estimated to have contributed $33.9 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012 according to the Brewers Association, a national group tasked with promoting small and independent breweries. By welcoming more of those businesses to the Historic Triangle, the hope is to capture a larger slice of the revenue.
The City of Williamsburg estimates Copper Fox will produce about $216,000 of tax revenue for its first six years followed by about $86,000 annually after the sixth year.
Noel, Seymour and Williamsburg Director of Economic Development Michele DeWitt all said they have been in talks with people interested in setting up shop in the Historic Triangle.
“We have heard a lot of interest in craft breweries and distilleries in the city,” DeWitt said. “It started two or three years ago.”
The small-scale operations are a welcome addition anywhere in the area, Noel said, because they contribute to the area’s perception as a tourist destination. He praised Copper Fox for selecting the Historic Triangle as the home of its second distillery.
“They’re a proven entity, they’re expanding here, and they’ve got a track record of success,” Noel said. “That’s a tremendous plus for them to relocate here. Once this evolves more we’ll try to promote that more and hopefully try to create a local spirits trail in the triangle. We’ve already started to discuss that.”
The Historic Triangle is already a stop on the Colonial Virginia Wine Trail. The Williamsburg Winery is one of four wineries on the trail, a concept encouraging visitors to travel from winery to winery to sample each of them.
The trail has been a useful program for the Williamsburg Winery, according to Michael Kimball, who works in marketing and sales development for the James City County-based winery.
“What we like about it is that it shift some of the focus away from the Charlottesville area and lets people know that, hey, there is a legitimate wine trail with four really excellent wineries in Virginia on this side of the state,” Kimball said.
He said the trail provides structure and serves as a road map for people who want to experience what the four Eastern Virginia wineries have to offer. The eastern part of the state is still far behind the western part in terms of diversity in alcohol production.
In addition to numerous wineries, western Virginia is also home to the Nelson 151 Trail, the Red, White and Brew Trail and the Brew Ridge Trail, each of which features several craft breweries.
“[The Historic Triangle] is most definitely a viable area for a beer or spirits trail,” DeWitt said. “We’re already a tourism attraction. This enhances what’s already here.”
Haines, the manager of Alewerks, said he sees potential in the Historic Triangle to replicate what has been done in the western part of the state.
“A lot of people have got some big plans, and we’ll see how it all pans out, but it’s a pretty exciting time,” Haines said of craft brewing and distilling in the Historic Triangle.
Smith and Wasmund agree about the value of having multiple operations in the same area.
“Brewing is a really collaborative industry,” Smith said. “Everyone is really friendly about it.”
In addition to the tourism opportunities, the craft operations also create jobs. Alewerks currently employs around 15 people, while Smith said he hopes to create more than 20 jobs by the time his brewery has been in operation for three to four years. Wasmund said he has not yet determined how many jobs the Williamsburg distillery will create, however it will be more than the Sperryville distillery, which employs 12 people.
“These are very skilled positions,” Seymour said. “The more you learn about it, the more you realize that there is a lot of work and a lot of skill and quite a bit of science that goes into these types of operations.”
Seymour also said craft breweries and distilleries have a ripple effect on the community, bringing in visitors who may then patronize other businesses such as stores and restaurants. He said even if visitors do not use others services, any visit to the Historic Triangle showcases what the area has to offer and could lead to additional visits in the future.