Frank Zappa once said, “You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of football team or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer.” By that definition, Williamsburg, Virginia—the birthplace of a nation—might just qualify to be a nation of its own. I’ll drink to that.
Beer has a long history in Williamsburg. It was among the essential provisions brought to the new world by the settlers of the first colony at Jamestown. One of those early colonists, George Percy, recorded that beer was consumed at the first feast at Jamestown in May 1607. Early attempts at brewing beer in the colony didn’t end well. They might have gone better if the Virginia Company hadn’t neglected to recruit a brewer for that initial voyage (they advertised for two brewers to accompany a subsequent voyage.)
Since 1972, Williamsburg has been home to a mega-brewery, cranking out the so-called “King of Beers.” Recently, the area has gained a reputation for its “craft” beers, which are produced in much smaller quantities. According to the Brewers Association—a trade group promoting craft brewers—craft beers are produced in breweries with an annual production of less than 15,000 barrels (460,000 gallons.) Across the U.S., demand for craft beers is growing: While the U.S. beer market shrank somewhat last year, craft beer sales were up 16% compared with 2014, accounting for 21% of total beer industry revenue.
Williamsburg (well, technically, they’re in York County) is currently home to three craft breweries, each of which offers tastings in their on-site taproom. I was more than happy to help each of them with their market research efforts. In addition to selling beer close to the source, each craft brewery also packages beer for distribution, so you can enjoy them at home and a variety of local venues, too.
The brewing process and ingredients vary somewhat depending on the brewery and whether the desired product is an ale, a lager or a stout. Brewing typically begins with milled, malted barley, although other malted cereal grains may be used. The malted grain is first combined with hot water and steeped in a tank called a “mash tun.” During mashing, enzymes convert the starches in the grain to fermentable sugars. After 1-2 hours in the mash tun, the resulting liquid wort is separated from the solids in a process known as lautering. The by-product solids, called “brewer’s grain” are sometimes sold for use in animal feeds.
The liquid wort is filtered and pumped to a brew kettle or “copper.” Hops are added, which contribute flavors and a bitterness that helps to balance the sweetness of the malt. The hopped wort is boiled in the brew kettle for around an hour. The sweet wort is then cooled and pumped to a temperature-controlled fermenter to which yeast is added to begin the fermentation process. During fermentation, sugars are converted to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide (I have it on good authority that the amount of carbon dioxide produced by brewing makes a negligible contribution to global warming, so drinking beer doesn’t make you a climate changer.) Beers may be produced by either a single fermentation process or they may undergo a secondary fermentation.
After the beer has reached its desired characteristics—which can take weeks or even months— it is either pumped to a tank which supplies the taproom or packaged for sale. Additional carbonation is sometimes introduced during the packaging process.
The entire brewing process is supervised by a brewmaster—who, by my reckoning, is 25% chemist/25% quality control guru/25% jack-of-all trades and 99% beer nerd (okay, the math may not work out, but I did it after a couple of beer tastings.) Brewmaster is a really cool job; you don’t need to wear a necktie and you get paid to drink on the job. If brewmaster had been featured at my high school career day I would probably be on the other side of this story.
If you’re interested in craft beers produced in Williamsburg or the process of brewing craft beers, it’s time for a field trip. You’ll find information about each local craft brewery below.
Williamsburg’s oldest craft brewery, AleWerks, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Beginning in a facility occupied by the former Williamsburg Brewing Company, company founder Chuck Haines grew the business to the point where it now occupies four separate buildings in the Ewell Industrial Park off Mooretown Road. Chuck recently retired and turned the reins over to Geoff Logan. Geoff, a professional musician turned beer guru, is well qualified to lead the team at AleWerks, having worked every position in the brewery including brewmaster—a position he still holds in addition to his position as general manager. AleWerks beers begin life in their direct-fired, brick clad Peter Austin brew house –a unique feature among Williamsburg’s microbreweries (the others use steam for heating.) AleWerks is the only Williamsburg craft brewery with its own automated bottling line, and the only one that conditions some of its beers in bourbon casks. They offer year ‘round, seasonal, and historical beers including beers brewed specially for Colonial Williamsburg.
AleWerks Brewing is located at 197-A Ewell Road, Williamsburg. Contact them for tour times, taproom hours and information: 757-220-3670 or email@example.com.
Brass Cannon Brewing
The Brass Cannon team includes CEO Tony Artrip, president Phil Norfolk, and brewmaster Scott Kennedy, all of whom were avid home brewers before launching Brass Cannon Brewing. After four years operating in a small factory/warehouse located in Toano, Brass Cannon Brewing is in the process of relocating to a new, larger facility located on Mooretown Road. The new facility is scheduled to open in early May. Production capability at the new location will be five times greater than at their former facility, and their new taproom will be three times larger. Go, beer!
Brass Cannon Brewing offers year ‘round, seasonal, and small batch brews. Their new location is 5476 Mooretown Road, Williamsburg, VA. Contact them for tour times, taproom hours and additional information: 757-566-0001 or
The Virginia Beer Company
Williamsburg’s newest craft brewery is the brainchild of company co-founders Chris Smith and Robby Willie, both William & Mary grads who left corporate America to make the world a better place by brewing better beers. The company officially opened its doors on March 26th in a facility that was formerly home to a vehicle maintenance service. The Virginia Beer Company has both a 5-barrel (155-gallon) pilot plant system for developing experimental brews and a 30-barrel production system. They feature an on-site taproom and an outdoor beer garden. Brewing operations are under the supervision of brewmaster Jonathan Newman who joined the company from SweetWater Brewing Company in Atlanta, GA. Jonathan is a graduate of the American Brewers Guild Intensive Brewing Science and Engineering program which makes him a beer nerd with serious credentials.
The Virginia Beer Company is located at 401 Second Street in Williamsburg. Contact them for tour times, taproom hours and additional information
757-378- 2903 or firstname.lastname@example.org.