Beer entered the realm of human existence around the 5th century BC, roughly the same time as the invention/discovery of bread. One can only imagine it was some kind of heaven-sent happy accident. And we’ve been lucky to enjoy the beverage ever since. Several hundred years later, big corporations figured out how to manufacture huge quantities of beer very quickly, but the selection of beer – the types – remained relatively skimpy. I remember, for example, when Guinness was a luxury beer. And when, if the bar also had Bass on tap, you could get a Black and Tan. Guinness – and I still like it, don’t get me wrong – was this exotic, dark, mysterious, fancy beer consumed by college philosophy majors and poets. It wasn’t Keystone or Natty Light – the beer for everyone else.
I traveled overseas a lot during college, and I remember a youth hostel I stayed in that had a 24-hour bar downstairs. They served Guinness on tap and the most awesome grilled cheese sandwiches. I remember waking up at like two in the morning with a hankering, throwing on my bathrobe and slippers, and playing Rummy with a bunch of other Guinness-swilling cheese-munching revelers. I was in hog heaven. To this day, I want that. I want access to good beer, good food, and good people at any given time. I doubt with Virginia’s ABC laws that I’ll ever find such a paradise in this state, but who knows? Virginia’s been at the forefront of beer evolution, in case you didn’t know.
I learned this and other fascinating information about the craft beer movement when Brandy and I saw From Grain to Growler, a short-film documentary by Aaron Stanley and Megan Troy about independent beer brewers in the Old Dominion. Sometimes things come full circle: the whole craft beer phenomenon hearkens back to traditional breweries of yesteryear, with a modern technological sophistication. In other words, the “little beer guy” now has access to what the big beer companies have had for a long time: technology, equipment, reach, and ease of distribution. This is all due to a few passionate brewers who pushed for legislation that would open doors for the little guy.
I was so excited to see a movie about beer that I nailed down a babysitter like two weeks in advance. I made the kids do calisthenics and take extra vitamins to make sure they wouldn’t get sick that day. Okay, just kidding about that. But I did hound Brandy (“Can you go? can you go? can you go?”) about it til she was near the point of slapping me.
And so we went. Of course we had to swing by Capital Ale House first. Brandy’s got this new camera lens that doesn’t zoom, so she has to physically lean forward and back to get the right shot, and wouldntchaknowit, she knocked over her beer. I predict about twenty more spilled beers before she gets used to that thing.
Then on the way into the theater, she banged her flash on the door frame, which is pretty much like banging YOUR CHILD’S HEAD. Thankfully we made it to the front row without injuring ourselves or anyone else and plopped down. The film started and I was taking notes like crazy: that short little thing contained TONS of information shared by TONS of beer experts. Following the film was a lively panel discussion that included representatives from Three Brothers, Midtowne Bottle Shop, Pale Fire Brewing, Champion Brewing, and Lickinghole Creek. Here’s what we learned during the film and the awesome panel discussion that followed:
Currently, Virginia is 4th in craft beer production. In 2010, there were about 40 brewpubs in Virginia. These were places that brewed their own beer but also sold food. They operated like a restaurant but sold their own beer. Everyone loves a brewpub, yes, but staffing and operating a full-on restaurant just to get to sell your craft beer is kinda expensive. So in 2012, the Virginia Senate passed SB 604, which essentially granted “vineyard rules” to breweries: brewers could sell their beer on site, but without having to provide a full food menu. Like at a vineyard, customers can buy snacks or bring in outside food, then enjoy freshly-brewed beer. With Harrisonburg’s outrageous food truck presence, we have a nice little set up: food trucks roll up to breweries like Three Brothers or Three Notch’d or (coming soon!!) Pale Fire, hungry patrons buy some grub to go with their suds, and everyone’s happy. So Yay! to everyone who lobbied for that bill. Because of it, it’s much easier for brewers to stay in business, hone their skills, and enjoy their passion.
During the panel discussion, several questions were answered. One was, “Who is your beer hero?” Answers ranged from craft beer pioneer Sierra Nevada to Russian River and something called Toad Spit. Panelists were asked what beer logo they’d have tattooed on themselves: Big Sky, Firestone Walker, anything by Flying Dog, and Tim chimed in with the original Calhoun’s logo. And when they’ve had a really rough day, which beer do they want the most? One panelist answered, “The one I can get in my mouth the fastest.” Amen, brother.
We learned a great deal about farming and beer, too. Apparently hops is very hard to grow in Virginia; still, our craft brewers try to use as many ingredients from local farmers as they can, which has led to some interesting collaborations. I have a sneaking suspicion that beer fanatics are just trying to get their daily fruit and veggie servings through their beer, what with blueberry beer and pumpkin beer and such… I don’t know… call me paranoid. But farmers have certainly inspired brewers. Which brings me to what I affectionately call Beer Porn. Get ready for these stimulating facts!
* One brewer named his new brew after Jerry Garcia because when he tasted it, “smoke came to mind.”
* Three Notch’d and Adroit collaborated on a Bloody Mary beer called Bloody Roots. Yes. A Sunday morning beer.
* Three Brothers’ Rum Barrel Aged Belgian Dubbel will remind you of Bananas Foster. And it’s won awards, people.
* Port City Revival Stout contains oysters.
* The panel agreed that the weirdest name they’ve ever heard is the Woodbooger Belgian-style Brown Ale by Strangeways.
* Many of these ideas came to the brewers because they couldn’t sleep one night, or they dreamed it. So, no, you’re not the only one who wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about beer.
In short, it’s hard to brew a beer from start to finish with ingredients all from Virginia, but thanks to dedication, the willingness to sweat and lose sleep, hard-fought legislation, cooperative farmers, and just plain inspiration, we’re getting there. Let’s celebrate those victories, and all victories, and heck, let’s celebrate our troubles, too, at one of our local breweries: Three Brothers, Three Notch’d, and coming soon, Pale Fire and (rumor has it) Back Bay Brewing from Virginia Beach. Let’s face it: Harrisonburg loves beer. We have at least three big beer festivals each year, we were voted Best Beer Town by Blue Ridge Magazine for Pete’s sake, and we have beer-related events constantly, like this Tour and Taste one this Saturday, and now this Beer and Book Share (OMG I AM GOING TO FAINT) on October 19. Thank you to Megan and Aaron for so eloquently conveying the evolution of craft beer in our state, and thank you to all our local craft brewers for being a HUGE part of that, and thank you, Beer, for ALWAYS BEING YOU, and always being there.
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