Imagine that just a few years ago you could count all of the Hampton Roads breweries on one hand. If you go to the Virginia Beer Trail site today and sort by breweries in Hampton Roads there are 26 listings, many established, others in various stages of planning. A lot of these you have probably never heard of, and a few might unfortunately never come to fruition. Considering the ones that are already here, or fairly far along in the opening process, let’s take a tour of our brewery scene. We have a highway inner loop and outer loop, so let’s call this the beer loop.
*A couple of disclaimers before we get started. This fictional journey assumes two things: first, we have a designated driver (or one of those cars that drives itself, hurry up already Google). Second, we are going to assume that all of the tasting rooms are open all of the time. We need some open earlier than usual and some to stay open late. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
We meet at my house (Park Place in Norfolk) and head to our first destination. On the way, we look over at Lambert’s Point and bid good luck to the folks at Bold Mariner, who will hopefully be opening soon. Our first official stop is Smartmouth, which also happens to be my personal favorite overall local brewery. They make very clean, consistently good, hoppy beers. For those new to craft beer I recommend the Sommer Fling Hefeweizen or Safety Dance Pilsner (if available), or Murphy’s Law Amber Ale. I’m having a Rule G IPA, one of my local go-to brews, because they don’t make Bandwagon Citra anymore (okay, that officially makes 3 articles in which I’ve asked them to make it again).
We head out towards our next stop, pausing along the way to wave at the folks at Coelacanth Brewing and wish them well. They should be open later this year. We arrive at the Southside’s first official production brewery, O’Connor, who just celebrated their fifth anniversary. By far the coolest brewery in Hampton Roads, there is perhaps some live music playing. We play shuffleboard while we enjoy the wide selection of beers. I recommend Green Can or Norfolk Canyon. I’m having an El Guapo, which seems to have gotten better and better over the years. As we head out of Norfolk we give good tidings to our friends at Rip Rap Brewing.
We head to Virginia Beach by way of Shore Drive to see what the folks at Pleasure House Brewing are up to. And what they are up to is experimenting. Envelopes are pushed and taste buds are challenged at this brewery. We’re having flights here to get the whole experience.
As we head out towards the oceanfront for our next stop we give a nod to the folks at Wasserhund, who are soon to be bringing the German tradition of brewing to Hampton Roads. Next stop, lunch time. Lucky for us, we can stick with our brewery tour and eat at the same time. Enter Home Republic on Laskin Road, one of our area’s few brewpubs. Often forgotten as a brewery and thought of more as a restaurant, the brewpub is a great tradition that I am glad to see making a resurgence. At Home Republic we are washing down our lunch with King Kolsch, brewed on-site and so refreshing.
Back Bay is next, located on pound-for-pound one of the best blocks in the region. I love the feel of this tasting room. I recommend the Beach Cruiser Pale Ale here, although I’ve yet to meet a Back Bay brew I didn’t like.
Our next two stops are conveniently close to each other, and we start at Young Veterans. These guys win the award for the people that look the most like they should be making good beer, and in this case you can judge a book by its cover. I’m not a huge fan of Hefeweizens, but their Pineapple Grenade is an exception: the banana/clove taste typical of the style is well balanced in their offering. I recommend that, but decide on the Semper FIPA for myself.
image | Young Veterans Brewing Company
We decide to make the short walk over to Reaver Beach Brewing. We’ll just call our Google car over to pick us up later, which is probably a thing. At Reaver Beach I’m recommending the Riptide Alt, which is delicious and approachable. My choice is easy, as these guys happen to make my favorite local beer, Hoptopus. There are local beers that are more highly rated, coveted, etc, but for my personal tastes this one just rings all my bells.
On our way out of Virginia Beach we pause at the intersection of Corporate Landing and General Booth to pay homage to the future site of San Diego based Green Flash. It cannot be emphasized enough how much this is going to change the game in Hampton Roads. Landing one of these big west coast breweries is like landing the white whale, and it says a lot about what we have to offer. Norfolk will most likely get one in the next two years, as expansion on the west coast is becoming less of an option for the major craft breweries located there. Beyond the advantages of having bicoastal operations we have something to offer that they need: good water.
We’re off to Chesapeake. Big Ugly has single-handedly made Chesapeake a lot less boring. Big beers at Big Ugly, and a funky space in which to enjoy them. These guys are a great example of advanced homebrewers who made opening a brewery a reality. They have tons of recipes at their disposal, so we are having a sample of everything. These guys do big dark beers as well as anyone in the area.
image | Big Ugly Brewing Company
We’re heading out of Chesapeake towards… Smithfield. I know, I know. Thing is, Smithfield is a great town, and it’s not just about meat packing. Bear with me here. First, though, we are going to turn our heads sideways while we pass Suffolk and wonder what their deal is. With all of those peanuts they should be absolutely crawling with breweries. Help us Bench Top Brewing Company; you’re our only hope.
Nope, Google car’s not lost, we’re in Smithfield. Look over there at Wharf Hill Brewing Company. Another brewpub, and this one is in one of the most underrated historic downtowns in the region. This place, which is not open quite yet, has me super excited. I’ve just got a good feeling about it.
image | Wharf Hill Brewing Co.
We grab a ham sammich and head to our area’s public transportation GEM, the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry. Even our robot car can’t believe this thing is a free ride. It’s taking us over to our last two stops, the elder statesmen of the Hampton Roads craft beer scene.
We’re going to drink beer in the same town that the Founding Fathers did. That in itself is probably cool enough for a brewery to make it, but Williamsburg Alewerks takes it a step further by actually making good beer. Their Bitter Valentine Double IPA is the darling of ratebeer.com, with good reason, as it is almost impossibly balanced (which is difficult to do with a IIPA). I’m recommending that you TRY the Bitter Valentine, but if hops aren’t your thing you can’t go wrong with their other offerings. I also really like the Chesapeake Pale Ale.
We’re almost at the end, but first we have to make a stop in Hampton. St. George makes my favorite local English influenced beers. Sometimes, in this world of super hop bombs, I just want a good old English IPA. Still hoppy, but more malt forward than the American version. This time, though, we are going to have the Porter, as their version is textbook. It’s a great way to end our tour and follow the Hampton Roads Beer Loop back to where we started.
image | StGeorge BrewingCo
So, in theory, a great trip. In reality, kinda tough to pull off, what with most of the tasting rooms having limited hours (shout out to Alewerks for opening at 12:00) and because Google is dragging their heels on our ride. Lucky for us that we live here and can just space it out. So, here’s my challenge to you, whether you are one of those people who thinks all beer tastes like horse piss or a beer snob who straps a beer to a chair and beats a confession out of it: go to the brewery closest to your house and try something. If you’ve already been to the closest brewery, go to the next one, or try out a whole bunch at once at the Hampton Roads Beer Fest this weekend. I bet by the time you make it to Smithfield you’ll be a changed person. We are lucky to have what we do, and things are only going to get better.
Handy map provided by Keith Privette!