By Wade Reynolds
You’ve heard this one before—sort of: Boy meets girl. Girl gives boy a home brewer’s kit. Boy makes beer and rises rapidly through the ranks of local home brewers.
Boy and girl open a craft brewery and live happily ever after. Although there’s a little more to it than this brief Reader’s Digest version and the ultimate outcome is yet to be determined, this is the basic story behind Castleburg Brewery and Taproom, one of Richmond’s newest, and smallest, craft breweries.
Boy, in this case, is Karl Homburg, Castleburg’s owner and brewmaster. Girl is Rhonda Groves. Her card may say “Taproom Manager,” but she brings much more than that to the table. Life partners for the past seven years, the two have now embarked on a business partnership as well. While Groves downplays her role, Homburg is quick to give her credit for being an essential part of the enterprise. It’s easy to see that the vision and the beer end of the operation is all Homburg, but it’s also easily perceptible that Groves is a valid contributor with her own insight and alternate perspective.
Beginning with his first kit in 2011, Homburg progressed quickly from his kitchen stove to a turkey fryer and a single ten gallon pot. When he began talking of building a beer stand in his back yard, Groves reminded him “You don’t know how to make a beer stand. You don’t know how to weld.” After six months of reading and research and another three to build it, Homburg had his beer stand. When one of his earlier batches, a French farmhouse ale, won several awards, Homburg began thinking of the next logical step—opening his own craft brewery. “I knew he was serious about it when he sold his motorcycle,” Groves remembered. “It was hard to let go,” admitted Homburg. The motorcycle, an expensive Italian Dacati, was an important part of his life. “It’s still hard.”
Homburg wrote out a business plan and began soliciting investors with a projected opening of fall, 2015. By local standards, his official opening in May of this year is more or less right on time. At 1626 Ownby Lane (corner of Hermitage), Castleburg is just around the corner from the much bigger and now local standard Hardywood Park. His 4 pm. Friday opening and 11 am. Saturday and Sunday openings are timed just earlier than Hardywood’s. As such, Castleburg is the perfect place with the perfect timing to grab a quick one (or two!) on the way over.
Homburg sees future expansion to more days of the week as the brewery grows, but for now Castleburg is limited to Friday-Sunday openings by the amount of beer that can be brewed. While Castleburg is still a fledgling brewery, Homburg continues to work at another full-time job. As such, he is limited to one two barrel brewing a week on his 2-and-a-half barrel system. “I’ll end up with a mess if I brew this system to its limits.”
The company was named from a variation of Homburg’s name. In German “hom” means high and “burg” is a walled city. A high walled city is, of course, a castle, to which was added the last syllable of his name to get the somewhat unique (and slightly redundant) “Castleburg”. All of the beers have thematic names having to do with castles and their historic time frame. The three flagship year round beers are Castleburg Cream Ale, Bishop’s Brown Ale and the Black Knight IPA. A fourth beer, Rustication Red Ale, has been recently added with the Battering Ram Rye Ale due to be tapped July 4. An immediate goal is to have all ten taps up and running by mid August.
After two soft May openings and a grand opening May 28, Castleburg has been open for about a month as of this writing. “As a business you always want more,” Groves said, but the first month has gone “about as expected.” The all-volunteer staff has settled in to its regular rotation. “We actually had too many volunteers (at the opening)” Groves confided. Even with a full house and customers gathering outside for corn hole and taking advantage of the food trucks, the scene behind the bar on opening day reminded me of a Las Vegas pit crew with back up volunteers overseeing those serving customers at the bar. With the initial rush over, things have eased into a slower pace. A core of about eight volunteers rotate shifts of two each. On duty on a recent Friday night, Chris Baker cited “interacting with people” as his primary reason for volunteering, along with his long time friendship with Homburg. Kat Wallace, his shift mate, noted “Even if you’re having a bad day, (coming here) is fun and puts you in a good mood. I could always go to a bar, but here I get more interaction with people.” Both said, almost at the same time, that “It’s work, but it doesn’t feel like work.”
Two other important volunteers are Pierre and Sonja Tremblay. A home brewer these last eight or nine years, he has been at it longer than Homburg whom he met through the Richmond Beer Lovers. “Karl’s so far more advanced than other home brewers. He’s taught me a lot, even though I’ve been brewing longer.” Tremblay serves as Castleburg’s assistant brewer although still in a volunteer capacity. One of his recipes is scheduled for future release by Castleburg at a yet-to-be-determined date.
For now Homburg is interested in making what he refers to as “honest” beer. In a sort of self-imposed Reinheitsgebot, Homburg is “going back to the roots of beer so that our beer tastes like what you’d expect beer to taste like.” With a focus on the old styles and getting away from modern fads, he is researching older recipes. The Battering Ram Rye is a style that may not have been brewed since the 1400’s when the real Reinheitsgebot outlawed rye as an ingredient for beer because it was too valuable for making bread. With this mixture of “honest” old styles and his own new recipes, Castleburg has a well-defined parameter from which to launch.
In light of Richmond’s recent explosion of craft breweries, Homburg allows that there is a probable saturation point on the horizon. He foresees that the Richmond area can support all of the current breweries along with the additional two or three scheduled to open within the next year. Beyond that, it’s hard to tell. “It’s making each brewery step up their quality,” he said, citing that as a positive for Richmond beer drinkers. Long term plans include increasing the brewing schedule as circumstances permit, expanding to more experimental beer styles after establishing their initial offerings, and including live music in the tap room on a limited basis.
“We’re quieter than most breweries,” Groves points out. “If you want a comfortable place with good beer and good people, this is the place for you.”
“It’s not all metal and concrete,” Homburg added.
Or, to put it another way—in the immortal words of Miracle Max, the Billy Crystal character in The Princess Bride, “Have fun storming the castle.”