Cheers to Beer, People and Purpose at The Virginia Beer Company
Like a lot of college guys, Robby Willey and Chris Smith liked to go out for a beer as students at William & Mary.
Even after they graduated, Smith, working in corporate finance in New York, and Willey, a financial consultant in the D.C. area, would compare notes about their latest greatest brew. Always egging each other on, they had the lightbulb moment in 2012 to start a brewery of their own that wasn’t just about beer but people and purpose, too.
That led to the birth in 2016 of The Virginia Beer Company, a brewery, taproom and beer garden located in The Edge District in Williamsburg.
“We had a passion for the industry and it wasn’t necessarily the flavors, though we love consuming craft beer, but it also was the welcoming nature of the industry,” Willey said. “The craft beer industry is really collegial. People from Brewery A hang out with people from Brewery B and they collaborate with Brewery C and there’s this whole community outreach part.”
With brewmaster Jonathan Newman signed on, The Virginia Beer Company decided to brew beer in a diverse way: with four year-round beers on Day 1 complemented by a boundary-pushing rotation of limited edition beers from Experimental IPAs to Barrel-Fermented Brett Saisons to Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts.
Virginia Beer Co. operates two brewing systems — a 30-barrel production scale system and a smaller one at 5-barrels. That allows Newman and the production team to make beers in mass quantity that are distributed across Virginia, in New York, and around the world (France, Netherlands, England, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand) and available in grocery stores, restaurants, and bottle shops; but also experiment with innovative beers on a smaller scale.
For those, “We like to use local partners, super hard-to-find ingredients, brewing styles that aren’t as readily available and use our taproom to test them out,” Willey said. “We let our regulars and our visitors tell us with their comments and their feedback and field data what sparks their interest. Basically, our visitors help us determine what kind of beer styles we’re going to send out into the world going forward.”
The variety of Virginia Beer Co. beers is endless. In recent years, Newman began experimenting with sours and a beer called Liquid Escape emerged to represent the company’s bridge to sours. The popular flavor is a mix of a sour ale and a non-sour ale with lemongrass and Australian sea salt.
“It’s tart; it’s refreshing; it’s very approachable, low carb,” Willey said. “If you like it, your next step is to drink something a little more sour and work your way up.”
Willey’s favorite, Elbow Patches, is a year-round oatmeal stout that’s an ode to classic dark beers with hints of chocolate and coffee. The name dates to the patches men used to wear on their jacket sleeves; Newman was a teacher before a brewer, who once fashioned that look.
Smith prefers beers more reminiscent of the historical recipes from England. His mother is British so he is passionate about English style ales not readily found in the region. He prefers the Purley’s ESB (extra special bitter), referenced after a family member in Britain.
The “people” part of the business doesn’t just refer to Virginia Beer Co. customers. Smith and Willey genuinely appreciate their entire team and highlight all of their whimsical personalities on the company website. Taproom manager and business developer Luci Legaspi is a military brat and student athlete graduate of the “school of hard knocks.” Director of sales Michael Rhodes is a social media junkie, and brewer AJ Stauber is a golfer and gamer.
At the height of the pandemic last year, Virginia Beer Co. retained all of its team members with Smith, Willey, and the brewery’s management team getting creative about finding hours for everyone when the taproom closed due to state restrictions.
A series of ongoing renovations provided plenty of work; folks transitioned to painting, hammering and designing to spruce up the old building on Second Street. Back in 2012, the pair didn’t really look beyond downtown when seeking a location but expanded the search when they couldn’t find anything fitting their needs. The home they decided on at 401 Second Street was built in 1960 by the C&P Telephone Company. Once upon a time, it was also a lot for used cars.
“This brewery space had a number of different lives,” Willey said. “We loved the idea of refurbishing something. The building hadn’t been active for 15 years. It feels very Williamsburg to take a building that used to be active and put it back into use.”
The need to touch-up an old building after four years of use helped to retain 100% of the brewery’s team during the pandemic in 2020. The potential for the Edge District has them excited for the future.
“We’re a hop, skip and a jump from downtown Williamsburg. We turn the other way, we’re close to Busch Gardens,” Willey said. “We’re surrounded by restaurants that have been here before us and now new restaurants. There’s a thriving food and beverage scene on this corridor with easy access points to more food and beverage scenes left and right of us. It’s a great stopping point to and from your next adventure.”
In a short time, The Virginia Beer Company has evolved into what Smith and Willey set out to do. They took the best aspects of their corporate experience and with help from Newman, Legaspi, Rhodes, and many others, combined them with the best aspects of craft beer & brewing.
Last year Virginia Beer Co. introduced 125 plus canned varieties. Despite what was going on in the world, the brewery was able to donate more money and gifts-in-kind to local nonprofits than any year prior. They hope to build on that creativity, perseverance and community spirit in 2021, which kicks off the brewery’s sixth year of operation.
“We wanted to create this force for good in the form of a brewery,” Willey said. “Five years later, we’re proud to be sharing beers and cheers here in Williamsburg and around the globe, and we have many more rounds of both yet to be put out in the world.”
Beer. People. Purpose. That’s The Virginia Beer Company.
The Virginia Beer Company is located at 401 Second St. Hours are Monday-Thursday, 3-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday noon-9:30 p.m. and Sunday noon to 9 p.m. Call 757-378-2903 for information.