(The Virginia Beer Company crew celebrate curbside. Photo courtesy of the brewery)
By Jeff Maisey
Virginia Beer Company co-founders Robbie Willey and Chris Smith could never have imagined celebrating the fourth anniversary of their successful Williamsburg brewery by serving take-out only beer. Thus was the reality on Friday, March 24 with which the future remains unclear in a COVID-19 affected world.
Virginia Beer Company is an award-winning independent brewery known for such brands as Free Verse IPA, Fresh Powder DIPA, Elbow Patches Oatmeal Stout, and Deadbolt DIPA.
With mandated restrictions impacting all breweries in Virginia, Virginia Beer Company is now offering curb-side to-go orders from 3-7 PM Monday through Friday and from noon to 7 PM on weekends. Additionally, the brewery has started a delivery service ($50 minimum order, call 757-378-2903) within select zip codes on the Peninsula.
Beyond the brewery’s spacious tasting room, the widely popular Free Verse IPA is found in canned 6-packs in regional grocery stores, Total Wine & More locations, and on tap in many restaurants and bars.
Following is our interview with Willey regarding Virginia Beer Company’s four years of operation.
Virginia Beer Company is celebrating its 4th anniversary. What have been the 3 most important things to happen for the brewery?
Big question to start things off!
First and foremost, still being able to share beers and cheers after four years. And that wouldn’t be the case without interesting brews, a quality production set-up, and a welcoming taproom. It’s been a crazy ride coming back to Williamsburg to open a force for good in the form of a brewery. We’re stoked to continue being a positive part of the community in which we live, brew, and play – and looking forward to many more years to come.
Second would be retention of our Day #1 staff. We’re proud that much of our team from Day #1 is still with us after four years, and that we’ve been able to build our 2020 crew around a core group who were here with us on Day #1. We’ve been able to promote from within and learn lessons as a group, which have helped us to grow as one into a more well-rounded and nimble brewery than the one we envisioned operating at this time those many years ago.
Third is specific to the current environment in which we find ourselves during our 4-year anniversary celebrations. This is by far the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced as a company and a community, so we have actively shifted operations to ensure that we can retain 100% of our staff during this pandemic, and right now we’ve been able to hold ourselves to that goal. We don’t know what the future holds, but our company mantra is Beer · People · Purpose and we’re going to do everything in our power to put the People first as long as this lasts.
How has your original business plan changed, if at all, in these four years?
Amazingly, we’ve been pretty true to the original plan! We made a point to project for meticulous growth only when it made sense. We currently cover the Eastern and Central portions of Virginia with our distribution footprint, and we’re in talks with distribution partners to add the Western part of the state next, and hopefully Northern Virginia before year-end. Before taking on any new territories we’ve invested in infrastructure and lab first, adding more resources and capacity than needed in the present in hopes of growing later. So far that model has worked well for us! We even included international distribution in our original plan. We’re excited to have beer regularly shipping out to the UK, Western Europe, and Japan at this time, with ongoing conversations about adding Canada to the mix! While certain numbers and timelines might be off from the original paperwork we put together, the overall targets we set forth prior to opening in 2016 are being met or exceeded. We’re excited to look back after Year 5 to see where the brick & mortar VBC stands in comparison to the on-paper version.
What have you been most pleased with thus far?
We all agree that our impact on the community has been the biggest success of The Virginia Beer Company. Chris and I attended university at William & Mary, and loved the idea of coming back to Williamsburg to get involved in the community that brought us together. None of that happens without quality beer, and our Brewmaster, Jonathan Newman, has seen to that part of the business since before Day #1. With a community-focused mindset, we’ve been able to average charitable giving/gifts of roughly $10,000 per year since opening and hope to give more as we grow. We’re especially proud of our Beer · People · Purpose lineup of beers (such as Green & Gold IPA, which supports the William & Mary Scholarships Impact Fund; and Keep Virginia Beautiful IPA, which supports Keep Virginia Beautiful, Inc.). We hope to do more and brew more good things for not just the Greater Williamsburg area but the entire Commonwealth and beyond.
What is your most successful beer brand thus far and why do you think that is the case?
We have a lot of limited releases that have gained a cult following after 4 years. Examples include Fresh Powder (100% Citra DIPA), Evil Santa (Spiced Milk Stout), Deadbolt (DIPA), Boatman’s Dance (BBA Barleywine), and Purley’s ESB (English-Style Extra Special Bitter). But our best seller is by far our flagship India Pale Ale, Free Verse. Free Verse is a well-balanced IPA featuring some great tropical aromas and flavors provided by Azacca, and a touch of piney notes from Chinook. It has just just enough body and haze to venture into the East Coast style, so it appeals to IPA drinkers from both sides of the country/palate. Free Verse has been on the menu since Day #1 and it’s available in 6-packs of 12 oz. cans as well. Because we brew so much of it on our 30 bbl system, we’re able to keep the price point of such a heavily dry-hopped IPA down in hopes of encouraging IPA lovers to grab a pint out in the wild or pick up a 6-pack off of their local shelves without breaking the bank.
How are you coping with COVID-19 as a business, in terms of keeping brew team, to-go staff, and yourselves safe?
Our management team met early the morning of Monday, March 16th to discuss the current environment and decided to shift operations starting that day to takeaway only. We had to make the call to postpone our anniversary festivities, but it was the right call to make (and the party will happen one of these days). We were fortunate that we had the staff in place to shift to a curbside grab & go set-up, offering walk-up or drive-in purchases. Two days later we added online ordering and local delivery to the mix, and we haven’t looked back. We’re considering other opportunities such as mail order as we project how far out we need to be nimble. We made sure to do everything we could to queue up a schedule for the coming weeks that involved every full-time staff member on the Virginia Beer Co. roster, and part-timers as often as possible. So far, we’ve been able to keep everyone busy, engaged, and most importantly, employed. We’ll continue to do everything in our power to keep it that way.
Interaction with the community is minimal, adhering to a pretty strict sanitation process on our end and ensuring people grab their beer and go home. The team wears disposable gloves throughout the order buildout and service portion of the day, and everything from screens to crowler tops are sprayed down with sanitizer. We have the layout set up to adhere to a 6-foot separation between visitors, and our teammates adhere to roughly the same separation as often as possible. We’re holding team meetings virtually, and rotating staff members in the building to keep our numbers as low as possible. Our hope is that keeping our numbers to a minimum and keeping our interactions to a minimum will still allow us to offer a sense of normalcy to our team and our community. And most importantly, we’ve implemented a policy that if anyone’s not comfortable at any time, to let us know and we’ll work with them to find remote activities that the team can accomplish to stay involved and stay employed until we’re all back to a normal routine.
How have you approached the beer to-go service?
We have tents set up in our parking lot that allow us to spread out via stations (one station for transactions, one for menus & displays, and one for building orders). We use parking lot lines to separate customers, and we have windows open on the side of the tents to allow for drive-in customers as well. For Crowler fills or Growler fills (only available using brand new VBC growlers), we have a staffer making the fills and running the orders to the first station outside. No non-VBC employees are allowed to enter the building at this time. To support our food truck partners, we’ve allowed them to set up on the far side of the parking lot and offer plates packaged for at-home enjoyment. Our online ordering has also allowed us to create a quick queue for those who don’t want to wait to place an order; they can simply flash an ID and grab their order to expedite the beers & cheers at home. Website: https://www.virginiabeerco.com/curb-alert
We’ve been able to offer some comfort for those around us by going ahead and releasing our anniversary lineup of beers (cans of Tangerine Free Verse, Mango Free Verse, Double Free Verse, City Plus Coffee Porter brewed with cold brew coffee from Aromas in Williamsburg, Double Breakfast Special ex-Bourbon Maple Syrup Barrel-Aged Imperial Brown Ale, and Coffee Double Breakfast Special finished on coffee from Ironclad Coffee Roasters in Richmond). As we look past the anniversary weekend, we will be putting a lot of focus on our 5 bbl pilot system to keep rolling out small batch can releases including Estimated Eyes DIPA, Deadbolt DIPA, Green’s View IPA, and the return of Wrenish Rye Dry-Hopped Amber Ale. We’re also trying to team with our restaurant partners to offer specials such as coupons or gift cards if you support them with takeout orders too. We figure that variety is key right now, both for the sanity of those drinking/dining at home, and for our team to stay busy, so we’re going to focus on variety for the foreseeable future!
How dramatically has this impacted you these past two weeks?
There has definitely been a strain on operations as we’ve had to shift daily routines on both sides of the business rather quickly. Whether it’s learning amended opening and closing duties to adding delivery operations, to changing the brewing schedule, everyone has had to stay nimble. The community outreach has been tremendous to date and we’ve appreciated everyone’s support during such a hectic time. That said, cancelling a full weekend of anniversary festivities and likely cancelling early spring plans such as our Friday Night Beer Garden Concert Series and Deadbolt Day in early May will have a financial impact on the business regardless of how many to-go sales we complete in the coming weeks. We know we’re not the only ones going through this, so we’re just trying to focus on doing what we can to keep the team around us literally around us (from a socially responsible distance) and keep the focus on doing our part to support the community any way we can. The goal is to keep offering a streamlined and sanitary system of curbside grab & go ordering to put our staff safety and our community safety first while keeping the lights on, and focusing on small batch releases to keep people coming back for new drops/distractions as long as we have the ability to keep brewing.
After we get back to normal, what are your summer and fall plans?
The one bright spot in all of this is that after four years, we have a list of projects that we’d been planning to do to touch up the taproom experience as well as the production side. So with the halt of taproom business, we’re shifting the team’s focus to some of those projects including doubling down on the weekly deep cleans of every nook & cranny of the building, painting and restoration projects, building a brand new merch station, and installing much needed sound panels in our 10,000 sq. ft. taproom. We hope that when the time comes, people will find a bright and shiny taproom, a touched up beer garden, and a litany of new beers waiting for them.
We will definitely be throwing an anniversary party at some point featuring new releases, live music, and lots of local vendors (more important now than ever before). And we’ll likely be altering/amplifying some of our annual celebrations such as Deadbolt Day and Revelry to really encourage people to come out for much needed beers & cheers when the coast is clear. And we hope to do the same overseas with eyes on returning to international festivals such as the American Craft Beer Experience in Tokyo. We’ll be at the ready with beers raised high when the world gives us the green light!