Award-winning Vienna Lager

Award-winning Vienna Lager

By Jeff Maisey

To borrow a phrase from rock group Van Halen, Hampton Roads craft beer enthusiasts are now “running with the devil” – Devils Backbone that is.

Known for its highly attractive brewpub in Roseland at the foot of Wintergreen Mountain in Nelson County, the Virginia micro-brewery in just four short years has become perhaps the finest in all America, winning eight medals at last year’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver. That tied the most any brewery has ever won in the annual craft beer event.

Devils Backbone produces 17 varieties of beer at its Lexington facility dubbed the Outpost. But most beer geeks know of the Roseland location for its enormous, wooden mountain lodge aesthetic and in-demand beers. These days it’s nearly impossible to find a seat on weekends at the “Base Camp” as it’s called.

The debut of Devils Backbone beers in the 757 region is a necessary expansion of distribution for the brewery.

“It’s incredibly important because it completes our Virginia rollout,” said Steve Crandall, CEO and founder of Devils Backbone Brewing Company. “We were going to launch last June but our sales across Virginia were 60% over what we expected and so we’ve been waiting nearly a year to get out here. I am a Virginian. I grew-up coming down to the beach so the place holds a special place in my heart. We’re pumped to be here.”

So too are local restaurant owners featuring craft beer.

“I’m excited that Devils Backbone isn’t just bringing in two or three beers into our market, they’re bringing almost their entire repertoire,” said Jaime Summs of 80/20 Burger Bar in Norfolk. “That’s pretty aggressive. I know we’ll be carrying it.”

So will Lynnhaven Pub in Virginia Beach.  OwnerRob McGraw recalls making a trip to the brewpub.

“I was up in Wintergreen and I remember stopping in their brewpub after they first opened,” said McGraw. “I’m definitely excited to see their draft beer going everywhere.”

Part of McGraw’s enthusiasm results from the rising popularity of beer made in Virginia.

“In the last four years Virginia craft beer has really grown a lot,” he said. “Everybody is looking for something more local and from the state.”

Brewed in Virginia also is a message heard by distributor Hoffman Beverage Company. As a wholesale distributor, Hoffman has been keen to pick-up most of the Virginia-brewed craft beer brands, including the popular Richmond-brewed Legend. Virginia craft beer is an exploding commodity in high demand.

“I would say it has redefined us more than anything we’ve done in the last decade,” said Greg White, Hoffman’s craft beer manager. “It has really helped us understand beer more. It’s hard to put a value on it; it has been that good.”

“Virginia was this sort of sleepy, Mid-Atlantic state for many years,” agreed Crandall. “I first got involved with beer 25 years ago on a ski trip to northern Italy and absolutely fell in love with a German Hefeweizen. It was an epiphany the first time my lips touched the glass. So I searched for breweries out West. I do a lot of Western-type adventuring: skiing, hunting and hiking. My idea was to build a brewpub and that opportunity came about four years ago.”

Virginia now has some 40 breweries with another dozen or so in development. The turning point providing economic momentum for breweries came in the form of Bill 604 passed last year by the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond

“What really tipped the wagon was when Hardywood Brewery, Starr Hill and Devils Backbone funded an initiative to change the laws in the state of Virginia to allow breweries to sell pints in the brewery. This is now allowing more entry level people to get into the business because they can afford to get a better return on the beer they’re making by selling it in-house. It is a jobs initiative.”

In Nelson County alone, the impact of alcoholic beverage production has been a boon.

“Our county has 12 wineries, four breweries, a distillery, and a couple of cideries,” said Crandall. “When I moved to Nelson County back in 1982 it had about 12,000 residents and was in decline from its heyday of the 1930s. Now it’s up to 14,000. The agri-tourism has allowed people to live and generate a good income.”

Some of the exceptional Devils Backbone beers include the Vienna Lager (2012 Gold World Beer Cup), Schwartz Bier (German-style black lager), Eight Point IPA, Congo Pale Ale (Belgian-inspired IPA), Wintergreen Weiss (Bavarian-style hefeweizen), Dark Abbey (Belgian-style duppel ale), Session Rye Ale and Trukker Pils (the favorite of owner Crandall and brewmaster Jason Oliver). Another excellent beer is the limited edition Striped Bass Pale Ale, a hoppy ale first released in an attracted 22-ounce bottle and soon to be available in 6-pack cans. The beer is marketed for a good cause close to Crandall’s heart.

“I own a farm in Nelson County,” said Crandall. “I’ve always been in-tune with the water. I’m blessed with probably 12 different sources of water. I have cattle, horses and livestock. So I felt compelled to put buffers along the waterways so the water left my property as good as it percolated out of the ground. About three years ago I got involved with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The initial idea was to help promote some of their policies in cleaning up the bay. We did some oyster festivals back in May at our brewpub and that led to brewing a beer that could raise funds for awareness. That’s how the Striped Bass Pale Ale was born. Last year we raised $25,000. Clean water makes for great beer. Being down here at the beach sort of completes our circle around the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. It’s real important to us.”

“As of December 1, 2012, Devils Backbone was producing 12,000 barrels on an annual basis. Thanks to adding six fermenting tanks, on January 15, 2013, they increased production to 21,000 barrels.

“The challenge in growing is more of people and managing people,” said Crandall. “My brewers seem to have it down pat in terms of the recipes. We’ve spent three and four years developing these recipes. Jason Oliver, an absolute internationally-renown brewer, is amazing. The future looks bright. I’m talking to my engineer about an additional 10,000-square-foot building to house more fermenters. We think we have a lot of room to grow in Virginia. We don’t want to grab every state that comes along and asks for us. We’d rather grow steady and deep.”

Devils Backbone Brewing Company beers are now available on draft throughout Hampton Roads. Bottles and can will roll out on March 18.  Also, the restaurants in downtown Hampton will be doing a Devils Backbone pub crawl Thursday, February 21. Contact Marker 20, Goody’s and Taphouse Grill for more info.