When your Saturday starts with a giant soft pretzel surrounding a mound of kielbasa and cheese, with a nice, tall hefeweizen to wash it down with, you know it’s going to be a solid weekend.
I spent a weekend this past April exploring the craft beer scene in Richmond, Virginia (or #RVA, I learned, if you want to look local and cool). Sounds random? It sort of was. My cousin Casey lives down in DC. For Christmas, she basically gives gifts that force people to come down to visit (I’m a big fan of this move). She got me a gift certificate for Richmond Brewery Tours, an outfit specifically designed to explore their burgeoning beer scene. I’ve had my eye on Richmond ever since visiting Casey in DC last year. It’s been popping up consistently on all sorts of best-small-city type lists, and as a great place to eat. More recently, I’ve started to see it pop up in beer-centric lists, in no small part to the more than 20 breweries in and around the city, as well as craft beer giant Stone opening up a facility there.
Richmond Brewery Tours takes you to four different Richmond area breweries on their 14 person bus. It picks you up right downtown, and typically drops you off in the same spot, although since our group was small, the driver was nice enough to drop us off closer to our hotel. It’s a great way to see a sampling of breweries in the area, especially when you’re not familiar with the terrain.
Richmond is a bit of a hike from here in PA, as it’s about an hour and forty minutes south of DC, but a relatively easy drive down 95. We got to our hotel at around 10:00, and our tour started at 11:30, so took an Uber to the Capital Ale House where it began, and had the aforementioned breakfast (fine, 2nd breakfast) of pretzels, kielbasa, and cheese. Tip: Richmond is fairly small and easy to navigate. If you’re looking to save a little extra cash, don’t stay downtown. We stayed just outside downtown, and the differences in hotel prices were astounding, and it was maybe a 10 minutes Uber ride at most.
Our 11:30 group was small. It was just my cousin and I, and a younger couple (they were there for the girl’s 24th birthday-we felt old), as well as our guide, who was both super friendly and accommodating, as well as a human caricature of a stoner (he like, just blew through Richmond to go to the Poe museum, and then, like, just kept staying and staying, and like, then he got this gig). The first stop is a bit of a cop-out, as it’s the Capital Ale House itself. Here, the guide poured us two local brews, and explained to us a little bit about the brewing process. He asked if any of us were homebrewers, and when we said no, he gave us a very basic history of beer (I think all of us knew the information), but it didn’t last long, so wasn’t bad. At that point we boarded the bus and were on our way.
My one complaint about the tour, and it isn’t as much a complaint, as much as an “I wish,” was that I wish they gave us more of the history of Richmond itself (which is a pretty historically significant city), or a little more background info on the breweries visited. My favorite brewery tour, as I mention often, was the Susquehanna Brewing Company , because it relied just as much on beer culture and historical anecdotes as it did on the brewing process. I wouldn’t say this particular tour was a party-bus, per say, but it did have more of the vibe of just being a safe way to try the various breweries, rather then learn about them. Our guide told us a lot of locals actually frequented the tour to visit new breweries with a designated driver. Another neat thing is that they rotate between 12 different breweries, and one cidery, so you could actually do this tour a few times before you run out of beer to try.
Our first stop was the Final Gravity Brewing Company, which our guide told us was the smallest brewery operation he’d ever seen. I didn’t look it though, because Final Gravity is housed in a brewer supply store, with a large shopping area, several picnic tables, and a small outdoor eating area. I’ve been to several smaller breweries before, the smallest actually also being in Virginia. The beer here was pretty standard, but tasty, and they did have these cool little tasting glasses I liked, and purchased, however mine belongs to Richmond now. I put it in Casey’s purse at that brewery. It wasn’t there when we woke up Sunday.
At Final Gravity, our guide also gave us these nifty Richmond Beer Trail maps, and let us know if we got 5 stamps, we’d be able to redeem the map at the fifth brewery for some sort of prize. It was funny because he said it like it was not something any of us would want to bother with. We did though. We all wanted to bother it. I live for free stuff that’s actually not free. Plus, I like to drink with a goal. Ours now was to get five stamps.
Stop number two was Ardent Craft Ales, which ended up being my favorite beer of the trip. Everything we had there was not only good, but unique. I feel with so many breweries around nowadays, you have to either have a really fun atmosphere, or beer that stands out. This has both. It was starting to mist when we got there, so we sat inside, but they did have a pretty great outdoor area, including a popcorn truck that day. The Defenestrator, a doppelbock, was the standout for me here, and I would’ve bought some had they sold bottles.
Three Notchd Brewing Company was our last official stop. It’s a Charlottesville based brewery, with another location in Harrisonburg. Richmond is its newest location, and along with Ardent Craft Ales, it’s located in Richmond’s Scott’s Addition neighborhood, the neighborhood in which we spent the bulk of our time. Scott’s Addition was a former industrial neighborhood, that like so many former industrial neighborhoods, had up until recently seen better days. Today thought, it’s sort of a the place to be, with tons of places to eat, drink, and shop. Nine of Richmond’s breweries, and two cideries are here, and our plan was to have the guide drop us off at Isley Brewing Company, which he highly recommended, before wandering the neighborhood for food after, and then to a fifth brewery so we could get our fifth stamp, and subsquent #Swag. I really liked the atmosphere at Three Notchd. They had proper bean bags (not cornhole), nice high top tables, and a pretty great looking food-truck. It seemed like the type of place you’d go and hangout for a while. Their beer was good, but the beers at Ardent were strong in both ABV and flavor, and we were starting to reach the point of the day were taste becomes a secondary sense. so unfortunately nothing really registered. Our big mistake here was not indulging in the food truck.
As the tour reached a close, we got dropped off at Isley Brewing Company. Now, I don’t know if Isley was packed because it was popular, or because it was starting to rain pretty heavily, and there was some sort of outdoor block party nearby, but it was jammed. I probably would’ve gotten annoyed with how packed it were, had I not become instantly obsessed with their Grape Fruit pale ale. It was delicious, and I’m sure I had more then I needed at the time. Looking at their website now, I wish we had time to do a flight or sampler. They look like they have really good stuff. We attempted to leave Isley and walk down the block twice for food, but kept getting thwarted by the rain. We finally just wised up and called an Uber, to take us to Veil Brewing Company, where free things (we’d since learned, a hat) were waiting. Unfortunately, we were unaware that this was their 1 year anniversary and it was a ticket only affair. It also decided to pour the hardest at this time, meaning that Casey and I were stuck in the downpour, waiting for a 2nd Uber to finally take us somewhere to eat. After a detour stop at yet another brewpub (where we essentially ran in and out because it was so crowded), and a very weird scenario where the Uber driver claimed to know the restaurant he was taking us to, but really just went to a neighborhood cul-de-sac underneath a water tower (had I not consumed all those grapefruit pale-ales, then this would’ve been the point at which I started having SVU-adjacent suspicions), and we finally got to Bacchus, what’s billed as a New Zealand inspired gastropub. If you’re ever in Richmond, eat here. It was delicious, and because we’d been drinking all day and were starving, Casey and I got proper three course meals with apps and deserts. I may have eaten the bulk of both our deserts. And the appetizer. And half her pasta. #YOLO
We attempted to go to another bar afterwards, but after pretending to enjoy some Miller Lite bottles, we called it a day.
We are truly getting too old for this shit.
The nice thing about getting too old for this shit, is that you wake up at 9AM feeling wide awake and ready to go. We headed back to Scott’s Addition for brunch, at Lunch or Super, a place I thought might make me cringe with its hipsterness, but somewhere that in actuality if you visit Richmond, you need to go. I don’t know why I never thought to put both mayo and hot sauce on a Texas toast breakfast sandwich, but Lunch or Super did, and my life is better for it. Tip though: make reservations, the line out the door was long (we lucked out because there were two of us and we got there RIGHT when the opened).
Our plan for Sunday was to stop at two working farm breweries on the way back to DC. Our first planned stop was Lickinghole Creek Brewery. Lickinghole Creek is located in Goochland County.
Let that sink in and marinate.
I’d actually seen Lickinghole Creek on several best beer lists, and really like breweries in the middle of nowhere, so was excited to check it out for those reasons, not just because it’s a double entendre that makes Intercourse look like amateur hour. The second stop was Wilderness Run Vineyard in Spotsylvania, which just opened a brewery this year, and according to Yelp, frequently gets waffle trucks on Sunday.
We finished brunch at 10:30, Lickinghole Creek is 30 minutes from Richmond, and opens at noon, so we had some time to kill. I’m a tad regretful we didn’t go down and see downtown Richmond. It’s supposedly pretty cool, and aside from Scott’s Addition, I didn’t really get a sense of the city, but since this was a brewery weekend, instead we headed to Strangeways Brewing Company, which had come highly recommended the day before. Strangeways is located in a strip mall, and is true to form, decorated in very strange ways. They also have very strange beers, including one that tasted JUST like Lucky Charms. You know how people say things are like, Oreo-flavored, or Swedish fish flavored, etc, etc, but they never taste exactly like what they’re supposed to? This actually tasted like Lucky Charms, I shit you not. I don’t know that I liked, and would drink it, but I respect it. If you’re a sour beer fan, Strangeways will be a little slice of heaven for you. I’m not, but it wasn’t a bad stop.
We left after our flight and made our way to Lickinghole Creek. It was pretty much everything I wanted it to be, plus a little more, in the form of an amazing acoustic guitar player who earned my respect by not being above playing Jimmy Buffet, and for playing “Fire” when I requested Springsteen. A lesser man, and lesser fan would’ve gone with “Born to Run.” Lickinghole Creek’s property is huge, and they use mostly homegrown ingredients for their beer. The brewery resembles a barn, and the tasting room is just a small bar in their production facility, with all the seating being outside. I’d love to be there on a Saturday night. They have great fire pits, lights strung everywhere, and tables out into the fields. We stuck close to the barn, because there was a wind, and again, because of said guitarist. The beer there is no joke either, super high in flavor and ABV. We stuck to a flight and IPA each, but had we stuck around longer, would’ve almost had to have gone with their blonde, which was the only really drinkable choice at 5.something (I also have bottle of Mexican Chocolate Stout sitting in my fridge). I remarked to my cousin that I’d really like to just find an Air BNB a couple miles away and hang there for a whole afternoon sometime. I think she though I was joking, but I’m serious. We had fun there. Too much, in fact, because we never made it to the other vineyard, just to a nearby Dairy Queen for the first soft-serve of the year, and this glorious photograph that will be the profile on so many of my social media accounts for the next few months.