RVA’s beer-soaked history

From its introduction in Richmond through to the current Golden Age.

Beer entered Richmond in 1607 when English explorers led by Christopher Newport poured pints and partied with a local Powhatan tribe.

Traveling up the James River in search for passage to the South Sea, Newport and his men spotted the tribe. The two groups cavorted with one another in what is one of the first recorded Anglo-Powhattan soirees in Virginia.

“They entertained the indians with [beer]1 and had a big party on what is now Fulton Hill,” said Lee Graves, author of the new book Richmond Beer: A History of Brewing in the River City.

The son of Chief Powhatan, Parahunt, evidently partied a bit too much. When the chieftain son reported feeling “very sick”,2 Newport imparted advice that’s since passed down through the centuries: sleep it off.3

Lee Graves upcoming appearances related to Richmond Beer:

  • Nov. 14th • Portrait House • 5:00 PM
  • Nov. 16th • Hardywood • 4:00 PM
  • Nov. 22nd • Barnes & Noble in Glen Allen • 5:00 PM

That’s the story Graves uses to start Richmond Beer. Covering Richmond’s beer scene since 1996,4 Graves was tapped last year by History Press to distill Richmond’s beer history into a book.5 Having worked through beer’s influence on Richmond, and vice versa, Grave said he’s learned “how intricately interwoven beer is in the history of Richmond as a city, and even before it was a city.”

“Like many things, beer had a cyclical presence,” he said. “There were times when Richmond breweries were prominent, and there were hometown breweries.” And times when there weren’t.

One of the city’s greatest eras of beer was in the 19th Century. “There was a flood of German immigrants into the United States as a whole, and that manifested itself in the Richmond area mainly in the 1840s,” Graves said. “They brought a new style of beer: lager.”

Richmond’s German community not only introduced Richmonders to a new beer, but a more relaxed way of drinking. “They would take the family out to a beer garden, enjoy a lager or two (or three perhaps) and it was really a huge part of Richmond’s history during that period,” Graves said.

So huge, that a German pride event took up the “whole front page of the newspaper…and half of the page was in German so it could be read by the German people in the community,” Graves said. “That’s how prevalent it was.”

Like the rest of the nation, Richmond’s romance with beer changed in 1920 at the start of Prohibition. “Before Prohibition, there was thousands of breweries in the United States. I think the highest number was in 1873 with about 4,000 breweries,” Graves said. “Many of those went out of business because of Prohibition.”

Even after Prohibition ended in 1933, the Great Depression, World War II grain rationing, and the consolidation of the beer industry in the 1970s stymied breweries to a point where fewer than 100 existed, Graves said. Many of those breweries were associated with Budweiser, Miller’s, and Coor’s, which “pretty much predominated the tastes of the time,” he said. America become known for making “yellow fizzy stuf.” Not true beer.

That’s since changed. “In the time that I’ve been writing about beer, I’ve seen the brewing culture in America transformed,” Graves said. There are now just over 3,000 breweries operating in the US as of June 2014.

It’s no surprise Richmond has contributed to that number. There are now around a dozen active breweries in the area, with more planned. “I don’t know of any time when there has been this many breweries in Richmond,” Graves said. “We’ll look back on this era and think of it as the Golden Age of beer in Richmond.”

But quantity isn’t the only measure of Richmond’s brewing success. “We are at the most exciting time in terms of small breweries putting out creative, delicious beers in Richmond,” Graves said. Earlier this year, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery won a gold medal at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival for its Raspberry Stout. “To my knowledge, it’s the first time a Richmond City brewery has ever won a Great American Beer Festival award,” Graves said.

Here in the Commonwealth, eight Richmond breweries competed in the 2014 Virginia Craft Brewers Festival and brought home 11 medals. The evidence is clear to Graves. “Within the context of Virginia, Richmond rocks.”

All this has helped broaden the city’s appeal. Frommer’s named Richmond a Top Destination for 2014 with a nod to the city’s breweries, a Denver Post blogger spotlighted Strangeways, and food and beverage writer Peter Genovese named Lickinghole Creek’s Rosemary stout the beer to try at the most recent Great American Beer Festival. “Richmond is getting some excellent notice for excellent beers. People are recognizing that this is a beer destination,” Graves said.

It’ll become an even bigger destination when Stone Brewery opens its East Coast facility in Richmond. Graves said that in San Diego, where Stone is based, the brewery is the second most popular tourist destination behind the world famous San Diego Zoo. Add to that Stone’s reputation for collaborating with fellow San Diego breweries–a trait that should extend to Richmond breweries after Stone arrives–and that means good things for Richmond. “Not only for the beer community, but for the city as a whole,” Graves said.

As for Richmond Beer, Graves said his book has been well received by local imbibers. “I’m very humbled by the response within the beer-loving community,” he said. “People are very excited about the book.”

And he’s noticed something about Richmonders who attend his local appearances and talks (see sidebar). “People love to talk about beer and they love to drink it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

  1. Spelled beere by chief chronicler of the expedition, Gabriel Archer. 
  2. See opening chapter of Richmond Beer
  3. When Parahunt awoke recuperated, the Powhatans gave Newport medicine man status. 
  4. He wrote a weekly beer column for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 1996 – 2002. Within the last year, he’s resumed a regular column, now published every other week. 
  5. Adding to the publisher’s existing series of books on the relationships American cities have with beer
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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