Richmond Beer Tour: Brewing up a Fascinating Historic Tale
If you were to take a look around you on a Richmond Virginia beer tour, you could accurately say this is a time of brew pioneers, folks pushing the limits of proper suds making in this exploding beer scene. The fact is, Richmond has a immense tradition of producing and imbibing fine suds. Like the rest of the country, Richmond has a long and complex history with alcohol, a history that has remained largely untold due in no small fact to a systematic, government led attempt to wipe beer producers off the map. As the famous moonshiners of Franklin County helped prove, it's hard to keep a proud Virginian imbiber down!
The recent surge in River City breweries is something that mirrors similar trends in America at large. While this uptick is indeed as dramatic as it sounds, it can also be seen as a return to equilibrium and a recovery from the trauma caused by the zealous Temperance Movement. America did have a previous heyday of brewing, beginning with those early English colonists who used the ingredients of the abundant new land to try to reproduce those styles they had left behind. Evidence points to Richmond’s first large scale brewery getting caught up in the chaos of historical bad guy Benedict Arnold’s burning of Richmond in 1781- right after his soldier’s drank every tavern in town dry!
After a lull in beer making in the early 1800s due to the irresistible popularity of sugar cane Rum from the Caribbean, American beer culture was re-invigorated with the influx of German immigrants and other continental Europeans, who brought their deeply rooted beer cultures with them. In fact, it was at this point that America had its most breweries in history, with 4,131 on record at one point! By the Civil War, Richmonders were making beers they were proud of, suds they thought were as good or better than those of the North, where the majority of German immigrants had settled. The Richmond Dispatch noted the quality of this beer in this article from October 13, 1863:
Real Lager beer. - We have received from the City Brewery a sample of the beer made there. It is fully equal to Northern beer, having strength, softness, and a foam equal to cream ale. Before the war beer was just displacing whiskey in the popular stomach, and the good effects were becoming apparent. Compared with the poison now sold at the rum mills under the name of whiskey, the worst beer would be welcome; but when a man can get such an excellent beverage as that made at the City Brewery he ought to be willing to drop the poisonous compound of oil of vitriol, nails, strychnine, &c., which is sold to him for one dollar per drink as bourbon, old rye, &c.
As the Civil War ended, Richmond was again a burned out shell of it’s former self, razed to the ground in the Evacuation Fire of April 3, 1865. In the midst of the chaos and period of martial law that followed, there were few places to even get a drink, let alone people making them, after that fateful night. But from the ashes, rose the economic phoenix of modern Richmond. Immigrant’s flowed into the city again, particularly German immigrants, who brought with them their legendary desire for beer. Entrepreneur David G. Yuengling left his father’s brewery, which remains the oldest in America, to try his luck at brewing in Richmond. Building a massive facility capable of making 400 barrels of beer a day, he was quickly joined by other eager capitalists. At one point, there were 5 large-scale, locally owned breweries, churning out world-class beer on an industrial scale. Alas, this was not to remain the case. Following the economic fits and starts of the larger economy of Richmond in the post war era, all five would eventually close, and just when a new generation of brewers got the whole thing figured out, the dark curtain of Prohibition blanketed Virginia in 1916, a full year ahead of the rest of the nation.
After repeal in 1933, only one brewery, Home Brewing Company, soldiered on as the local choice in the face of stiff competition from national name brands like Schlitz and Pabst. This trend matched the decimation that was taking place nationwide. After a nearly fifty year prohibition-induced repression of anything but the blandest light lagers, only 44 breweries were making and distributing all the beer made in the United States. But in the late 1970’s, as discontent and love of craft beer grew strong enough to overwhelm the fear of failure, and a few brave beer pioneers finally began to challenge the brewery establishment. What started in fits and starts eventually sparked an enthusiasm for craft beer that still remains a vibrant movement today. Today there are close to 2,000 breweries in America, and growth is expanding, and the numbers do not seem to be tailing off. American taste for beer, and its reputation as a beer maker has also drastically changed in the past quarter century; now America has become known for its bold experimentation and willingness to not only revive the boldest traditional styles, but also to push the boundaries of conventional beer making in every direction. In Richmond, pioneers in the craft beer movement like Legend Brewing Company across the James in Old Manchester are being joined by young upstarts like Strangeways Brewing, who are making interesting beers that are turning heads throughout the beer world.
All this goes to show that beer is no stranger to American life, and actually represents a very American dynamic of new experimentation upon old traditions; of communities simultaneously upholding the integrity of their culture while extending hospitality. In the craft of beer, styles and flavors are inextricably linked to the cultures and lands from which they came. Yeast strains, hops, and spices and grains all carry distinct flavors based on their cultivation and a certain place, and they cannot be used without referring to their original location. Belgian yeast strains, Kent Golding Hops, Cascade hops, Fuggle hops—the taste cannot be separated from the locale of their origin and development. In a way, a single pint of American beer is an iteration of that larger American experiment of a harmonious whole formed from diverse parts. At the very least, beer’s effects as a social lubricant certainly played a big role in helping such diverse people’s survive the cultural clashes and tensions of their new land.
Many of the breweries around Richmond today are playing into this history of producing based on what is at hand, as well as showing a very modern take on the locavore movement. Ardent Craft Ales recently made headlines when they teamed up with the Virginia Historical Society to follow a 300-year-old recipe for persimmon beer. Using wild persimmons sourced from local CSA farm Bellair, they made a tasty concoction that had not been experienced in over 3 centuries! Another new brewery on the scene, Licking Hole Creek Crafty Brewery, is billing itself as Virginia’s first farm brewery, attempting to grow as many ingredients as possible on site. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery used locally grown ginger and honey in their Gingerbread Stout, which was recently given a tasting score of 99 by Beer Advocate, one of few breweries anywhere to earn such an honor.
At the beginning of the 21st century, beer plays no less significant of a role in the community, although in different circumstances. Today it plays out as environmentally conscious practices, investment in struggling areas, involvement and support of music and arts communities, and countless other creative local initiatives. Where great beer is celebrated and enjoyed, the wider community is also engaged, celebrated, and enjoyed. In this, Richmond, Virginia is no exception.
If you enjoyed this post, going on our River City Brew Tour might be the perfect day out! Learn about the science and art behind brewing and the fascinating history of Richmond. Its like a Richmond History Tour and Richmond Brew Tour at the same time! And there is a canal boat ride too! What more could one ask for?