Email traffic began to pick up late last summer on the DC-Beer Listserv. Another brewpub was about to open in the rolling hills west of Charlottesville. Breweries and brewpubs had been sprouting up in central Virginia like mushrooms on a wet summer morning, and I made a mental note to check things out once I found the right opportunity. That chance came around last weekend when the in-laws visited us for a few days and kindly volunteered to watch the kids overnight. I suppose they felt a little guilty about making me suffer over the holidays but whatever the motivation, we gladly accepted the offer without a second thought.
Charlottesville has long appreciated refined tastes so the recent brewery explosion didn’t seem too surprising. There have been brewpubs within the city for twenty years. However beer continued to take a back seat to wine. Nearly two dozen vineyards dotted the surrounding countryside in all directions to form the Monticello Wine Trail. Breweries hadn’t been confined within the city limits until recently but now a critical mass coalesced in rural western Albemarle and northern Nelson Counties.
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Look at this glorious proximity!
Admittedly this journey doesn’t sound like much of an original effort because of an article that appeared in the Washington Post recently, "Virginia is Also for Beer Lovers." I know, I know, we should have done this in the Fall like we wanted, but who would have watched the kids? Think of the children!
We began the trail in Crozet at Starr Hill [see my Starr Hill page; see the real Starr Hill page]. It would have been equally feasible to start the trail in Charlottesville but I’ve already exhausted those possibilities many times before and I felt no particular reason to add to our day. An adventurous outing could have extended the trail to Richmond or even Williamsburg for a full weekend of tastings but we were constrained for time. Perhaps you will be more fortunate when you follow the trail.
We spotted Starr Hill at an industrial-looking site hugging Route 240, Three Notched Road, as we approached a hamlet in western Albemarle. The only other times I’d visit Crozet were back in my college days to taste the renowned Crozet Pizza. Beer and Pizza. What else does a little town need?
Starr Hill didn’t look much like a brewery from the outside, and indeed ConAgra used to convert live chickens into frozen dinners inside that building. Chicken genocide. Bad Mojo. So bad that Starr Hill had to change the name of their MoJo Lager to JoMo Lager (well, actually that was a result of some kind of naming dispute with a Colorado brewery but why ruin a good story). But maybe that’s why we accidentally drove right past it.
After a quick U-Turn we parked in a gravel lot and walked up to the entrance. The door opened onto storage area filled with kegs. We thought there had to be a better way into the building (and maybe there was) but we plowed through anyway and soon arrived at a large, open space with a bottling line and a row of stainless steel fermenters.
A large rectangular bar rose in a nearby corner with plenty of room for thirsty visitors. I was surprised to see a lively crowd at 2:30 on a random winter Saturday afternoon but we had no problem jostling for samples and chatting-up the bartenders/tour guides with all kinds of beer geeky topics. This brewery has a slew of major beer festival awards to its credit and the samples did not disappoint. We joined the 3:00 tour and poked around various nooks for the next half hour or so with our knowledgeable guide, stepping over hoses and trying to stay out of the way of the brewers as the scrubbed and cleaned kettles for the next batch.
There were further invitations to sample once we finished the tour but we had a mission. I got the feeling that anyone could have walk off the street, grabbed a spot at the bar and drank the afternoon away for free if so inclined, as long as one showed an appreciation for the craft being performed here. We left Starr Hill with great reluctance. This was a nice visit: excellent beer; friendly to visitors; passionate staff.
Devils Backbone, with no apostrophe
Next we headed towards Devils Backbone [see my Devils Backbone page; see the real Devils Backbone page] about twenty miles further south, just past Nellysford. The mailing address is Roseland but that’s a bit of a misnomer. Essentially it sits right outside of the Wintergreen ski resort. Coming out of Crozet, it would be quickest to take Route 250 to Route 151. My GPS suggested a slightly shorter track taking the backroads, and that’s exactly what I followed. Now, I grew up along roads like these so I flew through twists-and-turns, popping in and out of hollows at about twice the speed my wife would have done, and thought it a great adventure.
We pulled into the shiny, new Devils Backbone brewpub, with memories of Starr Hill’s award-winning brews still fresh on our palettes. This may not have been optimal because I think subconsciously it may have skewed my perceptions.
It was a large, inviting facility and, once again, surprisingly busy for a lazy afternoon. Nearly every table in the restaurant was occupied along with almost every spot at the bar. I guess there’s not much else to do out here but drink, either in breweries or at one of the many vineyards. I’m a big supporter of Alcohol Tourism so I don’t have a particular problem with that. Certainly there were no signs of the recession out this way, and that’s a good thing.
Devils Backbone has a great brewer but they’re a new operation that’s been selling their own home-grown product only since November. One should probably expect a little time for them to get their sea legs under them, and I tried to remain open-minded as we sipped through a sampler. I think it’s fair to say that I found their beers to be a little thin in most cases and with flavors profiles somewhat outside the style norms for some of the others. I do think they have everything in place to become top-notch as time goes by, and I would love to come back in about a year when they work the kinks out.
We backtracked up Route 151, called the Rockfish Valley Highway along this segment, and checked into the Afton Mountain B&B. I won’t dwell on that part of the story since it’s not beer related other than to note that it was a fine place to stay, conveniently in the middle of the Beer Triangle, and damn it was nice to spend a night away from the kids. I love those squirrelly boys, I really do, but mom and dad need a break every once in awhile too. Though, before we could get that really good night of sleep we still had one more brewery ahead of us and it was less than three miles away. I didn’t mind.
We arrived for dinner and met some friends there who live in Charlottesville. Blue Mountain [see my Blue Mountain page; see the real Blue Mountain page] featured typical pub grub which provided great comfort on a frigid evening of freezing rain and snow. They packed in a crowd just like all the other places we’d visited earlier in the day. Blue Mountain has just one small room, but a warm, inviting atmosphere of friendly people enjoying themselves. Blue Mountain has an outdoor patio during the summer so I was told, but here in late February, room had to be made to squeeze all that extra furniture indoors. There was a chaotic mismatch of couches, benches, and tables, that further emphasized the casual atmosphere.
Beer is the star at Blue Mountain and it showed. We laid out a couple of samplers, tried those, ordered a couple of pints, finished those, and then I stopped because I was driving (being responsible and all that). That didn’t faze anyone else though, and perhaps that’s what prompted our friend John to order the Blue Mountain version of a shandy, in this case their Belgian combined with a 7-Up. Let me say that again: Our friend, one of the biggest beer geeks around, ordered a shandy. We were shocked. After the first sip he said it would probably be fine during the middle of summer sitting out on the veranda, but it was February and probably not the best choice. Curiosity got the most of me and I just had to take a try. Seriously, I liked their beers a lot, I even bought a bunch of bottles to bring home, but I hope to never taste their shandy again.
I’ll have to return in a few months as the hops vines grow and check that out too. Supposedly Blue Mountain uses a lot of their own hops in their beers and that would be an interesting process to watch.
With that, my brewery visit list stands at 231.