Opportunities to enjoy craft beer in central Virginia are getting easier by the day with a choice of breweries just minutes away from any part of town.
Want variety in what you bring home, though? Many grocery and specialty beer stores now have an area where shoppers can build their own six-pack of beer from a single selection display, so instead of committing to six bottles or cans of a specific brand or style, consumers can sample six different types for one set price. This aspect of indulgence has become more enticing since Wegmans entered the local market in late May. Its impressive “Craft Your Own 6-Pack” section includes 125 offerings and is affordably priced at $9.99.
“Most of the product you see on the shelves here is stocked and supplied by three different distributors, plus Wegmans corporate integrates other beers into the mix as well,” said grocery manager Mike Gaumond. “But when it comes to the ‘Craft Your Own 6-Pack’ section, we control that ourselves and want to provide customers with a high-quality selection.”
That “6-Pack section” is actually a cooler with five shelves, and each shelf holds 25 different beers. “There is a strategy as to how they are presented,” said Gaumond. “The top shelf is for cans only since there is a big demand from people who want to bring beers to the beach and places that don’t allow glass. The second shelf is for seasonals so that is filled with summer styles right now. The third is strictly for local brews from Virginia and the bottom two shelves are for a general variety of craft beer.”
How does one navigate a cooler filled with 125 different beer options and whittle that down to just six? A group of local craft beer industry employees and enthusiasts accepted a recent invitation to meet at Wegmans to build their own six-packs. After perusing the offerings and carefully picking their six, one common thread resonated clearly among the group — there was no right or wrong answer as to which beers were deemed more worthy than others.
“The best beer in the world is the one in your hand,” said P.J. Seay, a longtime brewer at Legend Brewing Co. One of his chosen six, not surprisingly, was a Legend Lager. “I work there so you could say I’m cheating, but back in the day, some 20 years ago, Legend Lager was the first beer I drank that I truly enjoyed and it started me on the road to what I do for a living. That beer will always be special to me.”
Kirk Candler of Trapezium Brewing Co. in Petersburg had not sampled any of the six he chose, but knew of the breweries and had tried their other offerings. A former home brewer, he selected Factory Girl from Parkway Brewing Co. first. “I’m a hophead and I’m also from Salem, where Parkway is based, so since Factory Girl is a Session IPA, I wanted to give it a try and give them a shout-out.” He also chose Lil’ Hellion from Brothers Craft Brewing in Harrisonburg for a different reason. “I’ve never had it and don’t know much about it, but I like lagers,” said Candler. “The label was attractive and that’s why I went for it. Packaging will do it.”
David Hunter started the Fans of Virginia Craft Breweries Facebook group three years ago and it now has 9,200 members. He has a method for filling his six-pack container. “I start with the Virginia beers that I’ve never tried, like Parkway’s Factory Girl. Once I finish off those options I go to the ones I haven’t had in a long time, like A Hopwork Orange from Blue Mountain (Brewery) or Z Dam from Legend,” said Hunter. “Then I move on to some of the older standards like the Old Chub Scotch Ale from Oskar Blues (Brewery in Longmont, Colo.), which is hard to find in Richmond.”
Maggie Pearson, an assistant brewer at Chesterfield’s Steam Bell Beer Works, also included Old Chub in her collection, but that choice was based on her brewing background. “I got my start in Colorado working at Breckenridge Brewing and since Oskar Blues is out that way, too, I really got into their Old Chub beer.”
She moved back to Richmond and worked at Brew Gastropub and 7 Hills Brewing Co. before joining Steam Bell. Her eclectic selections included Raven’s Roost Baltic Porter from Parkway, which she described as “one of my go-to beers,” and Not My Job, a Southern English Brown Ale from Rockville’s Midnight Brewery. “That is my favorite Brown Ale because it is nuttier than normal,” added Pearson. “The name is also a classic running joke among employees at Steam Bell — it’s not my job!”
Will Herring has owned Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream for almost 14 years, and he added craft beer to the mix there six years ago. He was the only person to choose Flying Dog Brewery’s Gonzo, an Imperial Porter brewed in honor of Hunter S. Thompson, and Anchor Brewing’s California Lager. “I treat Gonzo as a dessert beer,” said Herring. “It has a high alcohol content and it’s a great storytelling beer. Anchor, on the other hand, is a pioneer in craft brewing,” he added. “Their lager is a great, refreshing beer and I’ve sold quite a bit of that over the years at Crossroads.”
Bob James works at The Tobacco Company restaurant and has been a fan of craft beer going back to the days of Richbrau and Mobjack Bay Brewing companies. He chose more canned products than anyone else, but there was no particular strategy in that decision. “I just chose six beers I had not tried before and five of them happened to come in cans,” said James. “There wasn’t a particular style I went with either. I wanted to try a variety, and if there happen to be one or two I really enjoy, I’ll come back and buy a six-pack of that specific beer. That’s the beauty of building your own.” One of the cans he opted for was Blue Mountain Brewery’s A Hopwork Orange IPA, which also made it into both Herring’s and Hunter’s final six.
Mikey Bourquardez has been a sales representative at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery for the past 31/2 years and, like Seay, he was not bashful about choosing a bottle from his workplace. “The Hardywood Pilsner is my go-to beer. It’s awesome this time of year. It’s a summer sipper, and it’s clean and refreshing. You can easily knock back a few of these with your friends.” He also is a fan of Strangeways Brewing, located several miles away, and added their Albino Monkey (Belgian White Ale) to his collection. “It’s a great stepping stone beer for people who want to join the craft movement. It has bubblegum characteristics, which help make it unique.”
Janie Grinnan, Beth Stinnett and Kathy Jones work together and are casual craft beer drinkers who banded together to select their six. Fruit seemed to be a focal point for the trio — watermelon, grapefruit, and even more watermelon. New Belgium’s Heavy Melon Watermelon Lime Ale was a unanimous selection. “We like the lighter type beers that have seasonal flavors, especially when it’s warm out,” said Stinnett, who waits in a line outside Hardywood every November to purchase Gingerbread Stout the first day it’s available. “My taste in beer changes with the time of year and since we’re in July, fruit won out.”
Of the participants, David Hunter might have summed up the craft beer experience best. “I was a Stella Artois drinker for many years until I tried beers from Hardywood and Midnight Brewing in 2013. After that, I started the Facebook group as a vehicle to develop an audience for Virginia breweries. I want people to seek these places out and try their products.”
Contact Darrell Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.