Monday, October 24, 2016

Richmond, Virginia Taproom Tour

Over the weekend I visited six of the taprooms in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond's craft beer scene has been growing like wildfire over the last few years, with national breweries opening Richmond locations and witih local, Richmond based companies brewing beer that stacks up against any in the world. All six of the taprooms I visited are fine, and if any of them seemed less than memorable, it's only because some of the others are absolutely incredible.

I tried to spend about half an hour at each of these taprooms, and taste several of the current offerings. When I could I ordered a fight of four or more samples, and tried to relax and soak in what each of these locations had to distinguish itself. Keep in mind, though, that a tour like this leaves time for brief visits by necessity. Please don't think of these reviews as comprehensive summaries of these breweries. One quick stop is a superficial experience. So, think of these reviews as nothing more than comments on the brief time I had at each location. Had I gone on a different night, or stayed longer, or had different beers to pick from during my visit, my experience might have been substantially different. These reviews are just the things I remember about the few minutes I spent tasting beer at each of these taprooms. I'll review them in alphabetical order.

The Answer Brewpub

The Answer Brewpub is owned by the owners of Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant, and the restaurant and brewpub are essentially the same location. I'm reluctant to guess if the proprietors are more serious about Vietnamese food or beer, but I can tell you that I had both during my visit, and everything I tasted was great. For dinner I had chicken wings, Brussels sprouts and tofu, and I enjoyed it all. But I think the beer I sampled was even better.

I've had The Answer's IPA called Larceny before, and I already knew I was a fan. I was interested in comparing it directly with Grand Larceny, the DIPA version of the recipe. I have to say that my palate isn't fine-tuned enough to pick up on a lot of difference between the regular stuff and the double version. But think of that as praise for the regular version of Larceny. You don't really need to step it up to the double IPA level when you start out with a beer as juicy, strong, and dank as Larceny. I also had Spare Face, another of their IPAs, and I had absolutely no complaints. It may have been foolish for me to order three IPAs in one flight, because I didn't find a tremendous amount of variety in those three beers. But when all three of them taste great, that's not a bad thing. The fourth beer in this flight, called Sailboat Worthy, is a sour weisse made with cranberries and mangos. It's a very light beer, but it paired well with my food. If you're looking for a tasty dinner and some delicious craft beer in Richmond, you can find both of them in one location at Mekong/The Answer.

Ardent Craft Ales

Based on the size of the crowd I found on a Sunday afternoon, Ardent Craft Ales must be one of the most popular taprooms in Richmond. There wasn't quite a line out the door, but the place was packed with customers who seemed sociable and happy. The building itself was functional, there were bare cinder-block and simple tables. One thing that seemed a little odd to me was the way the ordering process is done at Ardent. Customers don't apparently don't start a running tab, it's more like ordering at a Starbucks. At the cash register you place your order and pay for it, and then wait for your name to be called.

There were only a handful of beers to pick from when I was at Ardent, along with a few ciders that I was not interested in trying. I had Virginia Common, Ardent's Ale/Lager combo that they say is fine for session drinking. I also ordered their porter, their sweet potato and sage saison, and their version of a New England IPA. None of this beer was bad, but none of it was particularly memorable. I thought that the saison was all about sage, but not necessarily in a bad way. I'm taking their word for it that it was brewed with sweet potatoes, too, because I didn't really taste any. The Virginia Common was... well, common, but it would probably be an okay lawnmower beer. By billing the IPA as a "New England" version, Ardent let this sparse beer write a check it couldn't quite cash. And the porter was a little watery. None of this was bad beer, mind you. I don't feel compelled to go back, but based on the number of people who seemed to be enjoying their selections, I don't think Ardent will miss me.

Hardywood Park Craft Brewery

I arrived at Hardywood's taproom pretty excited to be there. Hardywood is one of my very favorite breweries, there just isn't anyone outdoing them in the malty beer department. You need look no further than this brewery for stout, quads, and barley wine. And when it comes to barrel aging, forget about it. Hardywood could age water in a barrel and it would be outstanding. As a huge fan of barrel aging, and an inveterate stout drinker, Hardywood is singing my tune with release after release.

I got to the taproom at opening time on a Sunday, at noon, and found the place already so crowded that it was hard to find a parking place. Hardywood's retail location is big, the biggest one I visited duruing this Richmond tour, and they seem to have special events scheduled so frequently that they're really regular events. On the day of my visit, Hardywood had vendors on location selling vinyl albums in several rooms. Combine vinyl and craft beer and you've got a hipster's paradise. This place was packed to the gills with happy customers. At the bar I ordered a flight with one regular release, two pumpkin beers, and one special release of a brew that was accidentally hopped incorrectly. More on that in a minute.

The regular release I tasted was VIPA, the brewery's flagship IPA. I thought it was as good as it always is, but not really any better for being on tap. Then I tasted the Farmhouse Pumpkin saison, and, wow. It was really fine, just a fantastic beer. I'm not typically a fan of saisons, they're usually too delicate for me, but this one packed the malty kick of something more like a strong Belgian. And the pumpkin was just right, not enough to careen this thing into novelty seasonal territory. After that was the Rye Whiskey Barrel Pumpkin Ale, and my God it was good. I bought a bottle of that to bring home and consider more carefully, I'll be posting a full review at some point.

The fourth beer was something called Accidents Hop'n. This was a milk stout that was accidentally hopped with west coast hops, like a big IPA. Rather than dump the batch and write off the loss, Hardywood decided to sell it at the taproom for curious tasters. This kind of thing is one of the reasons I love Hardywood. Their trust in, and understanding of, their customer base is something to cherish. When I asked the bartender about the beer, and he explained to me how it had come about, I was intrigued. "I can't imagine what that must taste like," I said. And the bartender said "Man, it's fuckin' weird." I liked the fact that he correctly judged me as someone who's fine with course language, just one more little thing that made me feel at home. And a sales pitch like "It's fuckin' weird" is right in my wheelhouse. I wanted Accidents Hop'n as my fourth sample for sure. And, yes, it's really weird. I can't say it was bad, but I wouldn't want it often. It was kinda like eating some citrus fruit and following it up with a York Peppermint Patty. I am thrilled that Hardywood decided to let adventurous beer fans taste that thing.

The first brewery I visited on my Richmond tour, Hardywood was also my very favorite. It's no wonder the place was so busy. I'll be back. I'll plan a trip to Richmond specifically to return to Hardywood.

Isley Brewing Company

Of all the breweries I visited on this tour, the Isley Brewing Company taproom was the most low-key and the least crowded. There were only a few customers in the large room when I got there, but the staff was friendly and so were the other patrons. One thing I liked about Isley is that they do a flight of six samples by default rather than the four samples I'm used to, and they had twelve beers on tap to pick from. So, with one flight, I got to taste half of what was available on the day I was there. I also liked that the bartender set them up in exactly the order I asked for them, letting me move from lighter styles to richer beers in the correct order. Attention to detail is a little thing that isn't so little.

None of the Isley beers I tasted were bad, but all of them were a little thin, a little one-note, and not particularly compelling. If you're in Richmond with someone who isn't neck-deep into the craft beer scene, this might be a good place to go for mainstream fair. Isley's beer is not going to offend tasters on one end of the spectrum, nor will it particularly delight the entrenched beer geeks on the other end. I tasted Isley's Belgian white ale and the blueberry variant, and the blueberry version of the beer plays the blueberry card very forcefully. It doesn't taste bad, but the blueberry flavor is the same synthetic kind of thing you might expect from store brand blueberry pancake mix. The lemon IPA was alright, and zestier and dryer in the end than I'd expected, but not particularly punchy. The pumpkin dubbel was pretty run-of-the-mill. I liked the peanut-butter porter best, mostly because it had an artificial peanut-butter quality that reminded me of peanut-butter Cap'n Crunch. I loved that cereal as a kid, and this was like drinking a short glass of it. And lastly I had their oatmeal porter, and it was watery and indistinct.

I would go back to Isley again, but probably only if I were with someone who was looking for a laid-back vibe and beer that doesn't make a lot of demands on the drinker's focus.

Stone Brewing Company Store

It was a big deal when Stone announced that they were opening their east coast brewery in Richmond. This was a major coop for the city and the state, and huge news for Stone fanboys, such as yours truly. Stone is most of the reason I got into craft beer in the first place. If you've ever glanced at this blog before, you've probably seen innumerable examples of me ranting about the glory of Stone Brewing. I almost sound like a shill when I start talking about Stone, to be honest. There aren't many things in life I love with the loyalty I feel for this brewery.

Stone still doesn't have the full-scale east coast brewery up and running yet, so brewery tours aren't available yet. And the taproom is really just a small front where you can sample beers that seem to mostly be trucked in from out west. You can also buy t-shirts and souvenirs at The Stone Company Store, so although there isn't a lot going on yet, this is still a Richmond must for any Stone devotee.

I do have one major complaint about this location, though. It might be the most poorly marked retail outlet of any kind that I've ever visited. I actually drove by it a few times because there isn't a sign of any kind. Not even a temporary plastic tarp. The brewery is just one of many innocuous, large brown buildings in an industrial park in Richmond, and because of how drab and unmarked it all is, I thought my GPS had lead me to the wrong location. So I looked around a while longer before actually calling the taproom. Turns out, the big two-toned brown building my GPS lead me to is the brewery, and the brown footbridge I saw at the parking lot is the way customers get to the taproom.

Stone has been marking their twentieth anniversary this year by re-releasing some of their best beers, and most of them have been in stores in my area. But there were a few on tap that I hadn't had in the store, and I was glad that the taproom gave me the option to add a fifth sample to my flight. I tasted the re-release of 02/02/02's Vertical Epic, the 10th anniversary IPA, and the 15th anniversary IPA. I also had Still Unapologetic, a double IPA that I've reviewed twice before, and found it to be just as good on tap, but not really better. (That isn't a slam on the taproom, it's a compliment to Stone's bottlers. What Stone sells in a bottle is typically as good as anything you'll find in a keg.)

The most unusual thing I had at the Stone Company Store was the sour cherry, barrel aged version of their Imperial Brown Ale. To my tongue, this was more like drinking a sour than a brown ale, and I thought it was really tasty.

Once Stone's operation is up and running and brewery tours are part of the package, this location will really be worth visiting. Even as it is, a Stone fan shouldn't miss the Company Store while in Richmond. Just be prepared for a giant, drab, brown building without so much as a hand-made sign out front to confirm that you've arrived at the right spot.

The Veil Brewing Co.

My visit to The Veil's taproom was arguably the most memorable stop on this tour, for two big reasons. One, at this taproom I had the single best beer I tasted while I was in Richmond. And, two, my visit to this brewery was the most frustrating stop on the whole tour.

Not that I really want to knock The Veil. Not at all. The beer is delicious and the staff at the taproom went out of their way to give me the best service that they could. My frustrations were over problems that are good problems to have. This brewery is developing a reputation as the spot for extremely dank, aggressive IPA's in Richmond, and the company's reputation seems to be outgrowing their as-yet humble operation.

I arrived at The Veil in the early afternoon and found a crowd. I wasn't surprised, I've had their beer before and knew that they aren't playing around. Their location is a little tricky to find, but the outside tables and customers tipped me off that I was in the right place. So I parked, found my way to the bar, and told the bartender I'd like a flight. That's when I received the first surprise of the visit. "We don't do flights," he told me, "I'm sorry. We just don't have enough beer." I was surprised, but I asked what they had and what I'd be able to get to-go. He had another member of the staff help me with that question, and she told me that all that was left to-go was a couple of four-packs of one of their IPA's, called Single Brother. She told me I could have one of those four-packs, but I'd have to have her put my name on it right away because they were going quickly. I told her to please do that, and I asked for a glass of Single Brother to enjoy there at the taproom. And, man, it was so damn good. It was as good as it looks in the picture here. As soon as I tasted it I was glad to have my name on one of the four-packs, and I told the bartender that I'd be taking it with me for sure. Within a minute the next two customers ordered the two remaining four-packs.

A couple of the cans from my four-pack are ear-marked for friends, but once I crack open one of the other cans I'll post a regular review. I can't wait.

I hope The Veil is able to grow enough to handle the demands of clamoring fan-base. This is the one local Richmond brewery that could potentially rival Hardywood as my favorite in the city. They seem to specialize in IPA, and mostly in the cloudy, juicy, extremely dank New England variety. Maybe that makes them sound like a one trick pony. But it's a hell of a trick, and they do a damn good job with it. I hope to eventually taste more of what The Veil has to offer, I assume that they have offerings other than hop-bombs. Meanwhile, I'm happy for the little bit of hoppy goodness I was able to sneak out of the place. I wish The Veil was better prepared to shut up and take my money, but I'm sure they will get there.

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