This year has been one of reckoning for the relatively idyllic Charlottesville, a progressive haven in the Southwest Mountains of Virginia. But Patrick Adair, co-founder of Reason Beer, says residents aren’t giving up on their town anytime soon.
“The way our community has come together to fight against hatred and grow together in the aftermath gives me a ton of hope,” Adair says. “There’s really no way to make up for the hurt that was inflicted and the loss of life. This is a city still reckoning with its place in history, and we’re trying to do what we can to be a positive part of that process.”
Almost exactly a year after the Unite the Right rally, a different sort of crowd forms just a half-mile away. On a balmy Saturday in August, hundreds of people gather at IX Art Park for the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest to sample offerings from more than 100 local craft breweries. There’s laughter, music and a palpable excitement in the air—no doubt fueled by the bubbly brews being doled out from rows of tents, but also by the sense of community.
As Charlottesville comes to terms with its past and looks toward the future, breweries continue to hold a growing presence in the city’s cultural landscape. Located along the picturesque Shenandoah Valley, an hour west of brewery-saturated Richmond, Charlottesville’s beer culture has long been overshadowed by the capital city’s bustling scene. Expect that to change, and soon. With its lush mountain landscape, locally focused business ethos, and an ever-expanding food and beverage scene, Charlottesville is becoming a hotspot for prospective brewery owners and beer tourists alike. But the town is no spring chicken when it comes to beer.
“The Charlottesville area was really ahead of the curve in terms of influence in Virginia, and that hasn't changed,” says Eric McKay, co-founder and president of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. “As new breweries have opened, mainstays have upped their game and fostered a collaborative community that's drawing folks in from out of town.” As the stifling heat of late summer gives way to the first glimpses of fall, now is the perfect time to spend a weekend in the cozy mountain town.
The Draftsman Hotel
The Draftsman Hotel may be the newest digs in town, but reserving a room here is a no-brainer for any beer-obsessed traveller. While checking in, you’ll notice the pet-friendly boutique hotel is chic and centrally located, but the real draw here is the lobby bar and restaurant, Renewal. Step through the sliding barn doors, take a seat at the U-shaped bar and peruse one of the best beer lists you’ll find in a hotel bar. In addition to Renewal’s fantastic Southern-tinged menu—oh hello, fried green tomatoes— the bar offers 36 rotating, self-serve taps. What more could a beer tourist ask for? A fluffy canine hotel mascot named Bulleit? Don’t worry, The Draftsman’s got that, too.
What better way to begin your Charlottesville beercation than to visit a spot lauded by the likes of Travel & Leisure, Draft Magazine and Imbibe? This no-nonsense spot is part bottle shop, part snug taproom focused and part gastropub. Beer Run has been a town favorite since 2007 and doesn’t waste any energy with an overwrought design aesthetic or kitschy trends. Instead, it focuses on simply giving their customers what they want, which (judging by the growing crowd on this particular afternoon) are mimosas made with local Potter’s Farmhouse Cider and free-range, organic burgers.
I grab a Veil Brewing Co. Child Support pilsner and peruse the racks of six-packs stacked higher than my head. Beer Run’s impressive bottle shop is expertly arranged like a boozy world map, with each wall labeled by region. Grab a six pack from Mikkeller in Denmark, shift a few feet over to Founders in Michigan and turn left to visit Virginia. If you’re lucky enough to be there early on a Saturday, opt for breakfast tacos instead of burgers on the patio, breathe in the mountain air and plan out the rest of your voyage.
Hardywood Pilot Brewery & Tap Room
The sleek, no-frills outpost from Richmond-based Hardywood invites guests to grab a flight of crisp Singels and hoppy VIPAs (Virginia IPA, for the uninitiated) and people-watch from the panoramic windows overlooking Main Street. The opening of the Charlottesville location in 2016 was an opportunity for the brewery to pilot test batches. “Charlottesville is where most of our recipe ideas get tested,” McKay says. “The feedback we get, in person or via social media, determines whether these beers will graduate to our larger brewhouses in Richmond and reach commercial production.” The experiments seem to be going well. The brewery’s biggest commercial hit to date—the beautifully brewed, retro-branded Richmond Lager—was piloted at the Charlottesville location.
Serving traditional Neapolitan-style pizza that diners cut (very carefully, if they’ve a few beers in) with oversized scissors, Lampo offers a romantic respite from the brewery marathon. Snag a coveted seat at the tiny bar or cozy-up at a table beside the wood-burning oven. Order an Abruzzo pizza—topped with housemade meatballs—and pretend you’re in some nonna’s kitchen in Naples. Complete the experience by pairing your pizza with a pour of amaro, or opt for a Peroni if you’re not all beer-ed out. Note: Lampo does not take reservations, and you’ll probably have to wait. Luckily, Potter’s Craft Cider’s Tasting Room & Cider Garden is located next door and offers up a way to kill half an hour, with super-dry, high-gravity farmhouse ciders that drink like Champagne.
When a Charlottesville resident mentions Bodo’s Bagels, the word “institution” usually isn’t far behind. Bodo’s has been serving up some of the best bagels south of New York—and aiding University of Virginia students’ hangovers—for three decades. Stop by one of their three locations for the perfect starchy start to a full day of beer-drinking.
One of the state’s newest and buzziest breweries is nestled in an unassuming warehouse complex on the outskirts of town. Inside the sparse, vaguely Scandinavian taproom, the beer lineup is as no-nonsense as the building’s utilitarian exterior. With Mark Fulton, former Director of Brewing Operations at Maine Beer Company, in charge of the 30-barrel system, Reason Beer keeps their brews simple, clean and approachable. The eight-line draft list includes four core brews named only by their styles—Saison, Blonde, Black and Pale—plus four more experimental rotating drafts.
The small brewery, voted one of Beer Advocate’s Best New Breweries of 2017, isn’t content resting on its laurels—or maybe “hops,” in this case. Looking toward future, Reason plans to expand its fermentation and barrel-aging capacities. Reason also separates itself from the pack by capping its drafts at a reasonable (no pun intended) 6.6% ABV. Instead of focusing on high gravity beers, Reason aims to create nuanced, sessionable brews that appeal to beer nerds and novices alike. Grab a few sleekly-designed to-go bottles, sip on a subtly spicy Saison and contemplate your next move.
At this point, you’re probably starting to work up an appetite. Mel’s Cafe, a tiny, one-room diner owned and operated by self-taught chef Mel Walker, serves some of the best soul food in the state for the best prices, well, anywhere. Seriously, the only thing at Mel’s that costs more than $10 is the 50-Wing Platter. The wide-spanning menu offers everything from fried chicken (order it) to sweet potato pie (definitely order it), while emanating a friendly, neighborhood kitchen vibe that makes it a must-stop for any traveller.
Champion Brewing Company
Upon first glance, Champion Brewing Company has all the trappings of your standard, hip neighborhood brewery: An exposed-beam ceiling, serious industrial vibes and a handful of vintage pinball machines in the back. Further inspection reveals a heavier side to this modest taproom—a side that hosts raucous, thrashing punk and metal shows on a hand-built outdoor stage. In patently un-punk Charlottesville, Champion is the beer scene’s rebellious middle child. By brewing collaborations with acts like Against Me!, the six-year-old brewery isn’t afraid to have a bit of fun in the occasionally overserious arenas of hardcore music and craft beer. Keep it heavy and order a seriously boozy Megalodon Imperial Coffee Porter, or try a fantastically clean Shower Beer Czech-style pilsner for something less hardcore.
South Street Brewery
Buyouts are not typically looked upon fondly in the craft beer world, but the acquisition of South Street Brewery by nearby Blue Mountain Brewery was a labor of love. With a 30-year-history, the city’s oldest and longest-running brewery was bought by two ex-employees (Blue Mountain’s owners) in 2014. Since then, the revamped brewery has ramped-up production efforts and expanded distribution of popular brews, including the crisp-yet-malty Satan’s Pony Amber Ale and the decadent Soft-Serv Ice Cream Porter.
Even through the eyes of a beer-soaked tourist, it’s easy to see why the new owners wanted to keep South Street in the Charlottesville family. Located along the train tracks that weave through the small mountain city’s downtown, the expansive brewpub is reminiscent of a vintage train station with a hint of ski chalet—high ceilings, exposed brick walls and metal beams surround the brewpub’s fireplace-adjacent couches. Cozy up with a pint of Barhopper IPA‚—it’s dangerously juicy thanks to the addition of five different hops—alongside and order of Asian Pork Wonchos, which are nachos that sub wontons for chips and are bizarrely tasty.
South Street’s story is a prime example of this city’s unique brand of growth, one that refuses to forget its roots. Even as Charlottesville evolves into a bonafide tourist destination, it remains fiercely loyal and forever local.