Over a Pint: Virginia Beer Company
Virginia Beer Company’s Robby Willey and Chris Smith created a passion for beer while the two friends were attending The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Since then, the co-founders of the brewery fell in love with the town, which led to them doing volunteer work for the college – and other events that had them spending time at many of the local bars.
Willey remembers the times at the Green Leafe Café when that was the only places in miles that served up more than just micro breweries. “They had 40 taps, which was unheard of 10 to 15 years ago,” says Willey. And since the two had paying jobs by that time, they were able to explore some of the more expensive beers and higher-gravity beers they weren’t able to enjoy while still in college.
During that time, the two started to fall in love with craft beer, and the town of Williamsburg. The idea of a brewery didn’t pop up until 2009, and it wasn’t until March of 2016 that their dream became a realty. Triangle Around Town caught up with Willey one day at the brewery and talked shop – below are some excerpts from that interview.
A lot of brewery owners got their start home brewing. Is that how you got your start as well? Chris was living in New York and they had some amazing craft beer bars there. That launched us into our home brewing campaigns – but I can tell you, nobody would have paid their hard earned cash for any of my home brews. I’m a great idea man, but as far as my recipe development, not so much. Chris and his wife shared a passion for it. But at the end of the day, we all agreed that unless one of us was going to quit our job to become a professional brewer … we’ll just hire one.
That led to you hiring Jonathan Newman into the ranks, correct? Jonathan joined us from the Sweetwater Brewing Company in 2014. He was in a consulting phase when he was with Sweetwater for about a year. He was sending test recipes up to us. When he came here, he started brewing on his 3 vessel system.
What are you brewing with today? We’re on a 30-barrel system. The idea behind it was Jonathan came from Sweetwater and that’s a 330-barrel system – one of the biggest breweries in the Southeast. But his original gig was at Jackalope Brewing in Nashville and they were on a 15 barrel. We pretty much said we wanted the flexibility with making small batches and distributing our flagship brands.
You came to Williamsburg with only one craft brewery in town – Alewerks. How did they take your arrival as the new kids on the block? In 2013 we went to Alewerks and asked if we can meet the brewer and the owners. At the time, the owner, Chuck Haynes, was kind enough to host us. He’s an old-school guy and actually grilled us on the turmoils of the industry – the long hours, the small margins and the shadow of trying to grow under “the King.” (Anheuser-Busch maintains a facility in Williamsburg, Virginia).
So they helped with getting you on the map there in town? Yeah. We brought bottle samples that we shared with Alewerks, and their brewmasters thought highly enough of the samples that they actually hosted us about a year before we opened for a collaboration brew. That olive branch extension was huge for us. It gave us a reputation in the greater Virginia area.
What was the collaboration? The first one was called Red Rye IPA. It was made with locally-sourced rye malt. The second one we did was called Grisette Revival, which we tried to do a traditional grisette for an August craft beer festival.
Since you moved into town, Williamsburg has opened up to more area craft breweries. Brass Cannon did open before we did, but they were in Toano, about 20 miles up the road. They’ve been open about three years before we opened, but have moved to Williamsburg since. There’s also Billsburg Brewery and the Amber Ox Public House. What we’re lacking is a cidery. We almost landed Buskey Cider in Richmond. The original plan was for it to open in Williamsburg, but the deal for the property didn’t work out.
What are some of VBC’s stand out beers? I know IPAs are a big thing, so I’m sure you have a large selection of those available for the public. There’s the Deadbolt, our DIPA. It’s a 5 hop beer that kind of punches you in the face with 9 percent ABV and good hop flavor and aroma. That’s by far one of our most popular seasonal beers. And it has a blood orange variant, which has blood orange puree which bumps it up to 10 percent ABV. Another poplar one that comes out in January is Fresh Powder. It’s 100 percent Citra DIPA with lupulin powder.
It seems with some breweries, they spew forth release after release of IPAs. Do you think that’s a wise thing to do? It’s one of the top selling styles across the country. At some point you can’t stop the market research. The Brewers Association puts out a release with the top 20 beer styles every year, and for the past several years, and probably the next several years to come, IPAs are the top style. We have a rotating IPA series as well as our flagship series.
We started off the IPA series calling them “green” beers, but with eventually 12 different green beers, it was getting hard to tell them apart, so we started calling them Experimental IPAs. For example, High Heat was brewed back in 2017 on the 5-barrel system, but it moved so quickly that we decided to bring it back in 2018 with a cool red, white and blue bomb pop label.
The Virginia Beer Company is located at 401 2nd Street in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s hours are Monday, Wednesday and Thursday: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday: 12 p.m. to 9: 30 p.m.; Sunday: 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.; closed Tuesdays.