By Chris McClellan

The point that a small business owner says to themselves "I made it" is, at its core, a staggering confluence of decisions, debates, and more than a few leap-of-faith assumptions. An obvious sentiment, I realize, but I think it's especially obvious in the beer industry. It could be the easy collegiality and "rising-tide-floats-all-ships" mantra that has been pervasive in this business for almost 20 years, or it could be the open dialogue that has created a multi-generational backbone to the amazingly robust craft industry here in the U.S. We just hit 5000 extant breweries in the U.S, and I have to ask...How did so many interesting people all end up owning breweries?

Chris Smith and Robby Willey, college buddies who both happened to transfer to the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, are some of these interesting people. They certainly opened a brewery for the right reasons, and from this author's humble opinion, they, along with the hard work and inspired process of their head brewer Jonathan Newman (formerly of Jackalope and Sweetwater Brewing), aren't going to settle for the status quo when it comes to business they're trying to build in southeastern Virginia. Their beer, of which they had a plethora of styles to choose from when I stopped in, is genuinely delicious, and they have a fierce respect for how much work goes into building a brewery on a solid foundation of creativity, quality, and the practically endless small-yet-significant customer conversations that drive a sustainable approach to modern brewing.

2012 was our first CBC. We showed up with our “brewery in planning” badges and learned an incredible amount. We walked away a little intimidated and energized and it reinforced what we already knew...we had to hire a professional brewer. We needed someone like Jonathan.

I'll nerd out for a second and admit that when a brewer says to me "come back to the bright tanks and try this new ________, and let me know what you think", I still get that little spine tingle that makes me feel like part of the club. A brewer wants to know my pedestrian opinion on their product? They're welcoming potential criticism? What a business! But this is why I do what I do.

The beer from the brights was great (shot above). I actually stopped into the brewery on a lark, shooting off a quick tweet to the team to see if anyone was around, and while the doors weren't open to the public, they opened the taproom and talked to me for a few hours.

So back to my question. How did so many interesting people end up owning breweries? For the team at The Virginia Beer Company, it started as a homebrewing adventure and turned into a reality a few years later after an immersive experience at their first Craft Brewer's Conference in 2012. Business plan in hand, they jumped into the conference hoping to network their tails off and garner some feedback from industry vets coming in from all over the country. Robby mentioned how important this experience was for their perspective on opening a brewery, bringing him and Chris a dose of reality on the challenges that come with a new business and and an even more substantial set of personal expectations.

"We took business cards from everyone" Robby mentioned, "The best part was they really wanted to talk to us about their experience. Everyone was rooting for everyone else, here in Williamsburg, and across the country."

But Robby and Chris are anything but sloppy with their execution. Such was the detail in their planning stage that, just prior to their opening this past spring, there was a running joke with the members of the VA Craft Brewer's Guild on whether they were actually ever going to open. Eric McKay, founder of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, is the guild's president, and when he asked new breweries to stand up and introduce themselves, folks weren't actually expecting the boys from VBC to get out of their seats.

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I've never heard (well...almost never) of anyone being faulted for their extreme attention to detail, and given the hyper-competitive localism that is oh-so-pervasive in today's beer industry, laying a detailed runway is a requirement.

When I asked them about the challenges they've encountered in their first 6 months of operations, I was a actually surprised when they listed a relatively extensive number of hurdles VBC has had to face in that time period, including challenges selling wholesale, and working to grow a brand in a period of extreme market saturation. We take it for granted as the average consumer, but with over 5000 breweries competing for a consumer set that realistically hasn't grown in the past 20 years, every conversation becomes more important. Every keg. Every glass. Every invoice.  And the consumer gets more discerning every day, forcing the quality bar even higher, and thinning the herd of budding entrepreneurs willing to take the risk.

But in my opinion, that risk is really the defining character I got from The Virginia Beer Company. Professional, driven, generous, and mission focused on building a community around their brand. Perhaps the brewing industry is one of the few examples of a business model that emphasizes sweat equity over spotless strategy. Put a plan together, think through the details, and don't let the execution fall on its face. Hard to say whether that actually creates the necessary results, but hard work still defines the biggest wins in the beer industry, and it's the tactical stuff that we remember as a consumer.

Left to right: Robby Willey, Chris Smith, and Head Brewer Jonathan Newman.

Left to right: Robby Willey, Chris Smith, and Head Brewer Jonathan Newman.

The taproom at VBC is a modern take on the public drinking house, with reclaimed wood and simple design touches that make conversation the centerpiece of the experience. It's really nice. This was, like everything else at VBC, a very deliberate move, and they'll have a packed house most weekend evenings with a solid outdoor space, the obligatory cornhole, and a nice little firepit. I mentioned that the current "own-premise" drinking trends are such that taproom sales, which are a majority of most local brewery's revenue streams during their start up phase, are up astronomically, while local watering holes are actually suffering. Does taking their business mean that these craft breweries are helping to grow the pie sustainably?

"It's really interesting" said Robby, "We have a lot of competition in terms of area breweries and their taprooms, but we're also very aware of what this is doing to the bars and restaurants, and we want to make sure we're supporting them first".

I'll admit that I like little more than drinking beer at a brewery. The product is fresh, the vibes are usually right on, and I will almost always run into an interesting, beer-related conversation with another patron. Those qualities can be hit-or-miss at my local pub. Granted...I still love drinking at a great bar, and that will never change. If you'd like to read a little more into this trend, Good Beer Hunting wrote a great piece on own-premise drinking.

I think VBC is going to do well, both because the founding team is awesome, and because they've already set a solid foundation on their business. Their brewhouse, already stocked with a 5-barrel pilot system, is built for long term growth, and they made it abundantly clear that that they've got s%#t to do and they're going to get it done.

My final question to them was on the topic of entrepreneurship. Chris Smith, who handles most of the bookkeeping at the brewery, among a million other smaller duties, gave a very candid answer. "There’s always this moment in corporate America where you say “wouldn’t it be nice to work for yourself”. Would I have personally opened a brewery and taken this leap of faith? Probably not.  I’m extremely risk averse. But working with Robby and Jonathan, I know we can make it, and at this point, we have to make this succeed. I have nothing to fall back on. I’m shocked that I ended up on this journey, and I don’t know where my mind was at the time, but it's been pretty great so far."

Williamsburg has a lot to offer, and even though I grew up in Vermont, I actually spent a lot of time down here with family. VBC is a very welcome addition to the area, and I would suggest you swing through for a few pints. Happy 2017 to all our readers, and we look forward to a...ahem...dynamic year. 


Visit The Virginia Beer Company, and please contact us with questions/comments.