By Jefferson Evans and Chuck Triplett
It is a story that John Hilkert and Aaron Ludwig, brewers at and principal owners of Tin Cannon Brewing Co. in Gainesville, Virginia, have told before, but it is a good story and bears repeating. The story of how a book inspired them to open a brick and mortar brewery, and that book was…the Bible. Well, no, at least not directly, and, no, I’m not referring to Charlie Papazian’s “The Complete Joy of Home Brewing” which many consider the home brewer’s bible. The book in this case was Dan Woodske’s “A Brewer’s Guide to Opening a Nano Brewery: Your $10,000 Brewery Consultant for $15” and it was given to Aaron as a Christmas gift in 2012. He read the book cover to cover in just over a day and gave it to John who might have devoured it even quicker. As John tells it, “After that I was convinced that we should go for it and open a nano-brewery. For the next several months all we did was talk about it. During one of the talks Aaron drew up a rough sketch of a possible brew house set-up (boil kettle, mash tun and hot liquor tank). In November 2013 I began drafting our business plan and we decided to register our business entity.” Now back to the role played by The Bible. The two men got into home brewing separately, and each had been brewing for a number of years when by happenstance they ended up sometimes sitting with their wives near to or next to each other in church and their boys became buddies in Sunday School and eventually wanted to be able to meet and hang out outside of church. This led to a more serious level of gettin’ to know each other and eventually John’s wife mentioned that not only was Aaron also into home brewing, but he had a whole room in his house dedicated to his brewing hobby. “I couldn’t believe that so I had to go and see that for myself,” John recalls.
As to the name, Aaron tells how “when we first started planning the brewery, we were looking into the 1BBL batch size, which is essentially 55-gallon stainless steel drums. I sketched a picture of the vessels so I could plan out how many fittings, etc., were needed. When I was looking at the sketches, they looked like tin soup cans. One of us mentioned that it looks like we were brewing in tin cans and people were going to call us “Tin Can” brewery. Then John said we should call it Tin Cannon because there are so many references to the Civil War in our area. It was kind of tongue in cheek at first, but after thinking about it we liked it and it stuck. We like the imagery of the cannon, it makes a good logo.” A marketing person once told them not to tell that story as it wasn’t one people could “stand behind,” but they felt it reflected on their nature as easy going craft brewers who, as the Sam Adams commercial says, “take our beer seriously, not ourselves.” When it came time to look for a location, the pair told Northern Virginia Magazine how they initially hoped to be in Haymarket but the local zoning laws and need for a costly special use permit helped steer them to Prince William County and a location that had the advantage of being less than a 10 minute walk from the Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater. When it came time to actually build out the space, John’s father, Rod, played a big role in meeting with engineers and county officials and planning the layout of the equipment, plumbing and electrical, and John’s wife Marcy did much of the design work as to color schemes, artwork, and general décor. A Kickstarter campaign brought in over $16K from 113 different backers to help get the brewery up and running.
The two men have contrasting but complimentary brewing styles, with Aaron being more traditional and John being completely psycho. Just kidding. The two men brew on a 2-barrel system which produces around 64 gallons per batch. These days the brewery often has up to 10 beers or more on tap with selections ranging from the mild slightly sweet Virginia Blond to the more adventurous Vaughn’s Peanut Butter Porter, Gilligan’s Island Ginger, and Brunch of Champions with bacon and hot peppers. Among the investors are Jose Ortiz and Sabrina Barnhart who often man the tasting room on weekends, with Jose helping with the brewing and Sabrina being an endless font of smiles and positive energy. She tells me “up until a couple years ago, I didn’t drink beer at all. It wasn’t until I tasted John’s PB porter that my taste buds got turned on for craft beer. I love peanut butter. If it has peanut butter in it – I want it. When John said he made a homebrew batch of beer with peanut butter in it, I almost turned it down. It was only my fondness for John and my greed for anything peanut butter that made me go for it and I couldn’t believe that John could make something I loved so much taste so good in something I thought I didn’t like….beer. Since then, I have discovered and drink all kinds of craft beer but the PB porter will always be most my favorite.”
When Chuck Triplett, Ray Johnson and I recently stopped by, that peanut Butter Porter could be had with a scope of Bryer’s vanilla ice cream. Ray approved.
For now the ambitions of the Tin Cannon crew are just to be Gainesville’s local neighborhood brewery but expansion plans are in the works and involve upgrading all the way to a 20-barrel brewhouse. The realities of their success do weigh on them as John, Aaron, Jose, and Sabrina all have full time jobs and brewing goes late into the night after regular work hours during the week to keep up with demand. Hiring of an assistant brewer is in the works and while becoming full time brewers is one possible goal, but as Sabrina says, “We all knew we would have to pay the price of burning the candle at both ends for at least the first year or so”. On the upside, since the doors opened in late November of last year, the members of the Tin Cannon family have been riding the extended high of meeting so many wonderful people and having their beer being very well received by their customers. And it isn’t surprising that one of the consistent threads in reviews on sites like Yelp is “the staff are so great!”, which they are. Check out Tin Cannon on Facebook and at http://www.tincannonbrewing.com/