The local seasonal brew is so popular nationwide, people from California have flown in to buy it when it goes on sale.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s popular holiday ale, Gingerbread Stout, was almost a summertime beer.
“We were starting to formulate our product lineup,” said Eric McKay, co-founder of Hardywood by phone earlier this week. In 2011, the brewery had plans for the RVA IPA and the Farmhouse Pumpkin and were interested in adding more.
Around that time, they met Bill Cox of Powhattan’s Casselmonte Farm. “He brought in a freshly harvested stock of ginger,” McKay said. McKay and co-founder Patrick Murtaugh were impressed and considered using Casselmonte’s stock in a summer beer.
But it was another local farmer, Cy Bearer, that steered the would-be beer in a different direction. The owner of Bearer Farms, a bee and honey farm in Louisa County, impressed the Hardywood founders with his local ingredient. “We really loved the honey,” McKay said.
McKay and Murtaugh soon considered combining the local ginger and honey into single beer. But what would they make?
“Having home brewed a vanilla porter recipe…we were thinking something along those lines,” McKay said. Between the ginger and the honey, “we had the perfect opportunity to make a holiday beer.”
Murtaugh experimented with a milk stout, which adds body and sweetness to the beer.1 “We wanted something to replicate a gingerbread cookie, so we thought that would help a bit,” Murtaugh said.
Here’s a video on the making of the Gingerbread Stout:
By late 2011, Hardywood had its Gingerbread Stout. “We knew we hit on something,” Murtaugh said. “We all really just loved it.” Roughly eight people queued up outside the brewery to sample the new beer.
But by 2012, not only had the beer become a local favorite, it had also won national recognition. The stout earned a perfect score from Beer Advocate Magazine, Silver in the 2012 Virginia Beer Cup, and Bronze in the 2012 World Beer Cup.
“In 2012, we tried to do a bottle pre-release…and we really didn’t know what to expect,” McKay said. Hardywood opened at 9:00 AM on a November Saturday morning. “We had a line forming, and [it] started reaching half-way around the block.” He estimates that between 800 – 1,000 people were in that line, including people from as far away as California.
One of the reasons the beer remains so special to enthusiasts is that Hardywood deliberately keeps the batch count low. In 2011, the brewery made an 80 barrel batch. In 2012, it was 200 barrels. In 2013, Hardywood will roughly double last year’s numbers. While close to 400 barrels may seem like a lot of beer, it falls short of satisfying demand. That’s the point.
“We still wanted it to remain very special,” Murtaugh said. “Our hope is that it won’t lose its excitement from being too accessible.” Hardywood also wants to continue exclusively sourcing local ginger and honey for the beer, which creates limitations in brewing scalability.
Despite inking a distribution deal that takes Hardywood beer to Northern Virginia, the co-founders have decided to keep the Gingerbread Stout in Richmond, mostly in retail stores and restaurants (for now). The beer often sells out within hours of reaching stores, and keeping up with demand has been difficult. The brewery co-founders recommend people use the Beer Finder on the Hardywood website to find the Gingerbread Stout in town. They also recommend fans use Twitter and Facebook to quickly publicize locations that have the beer in stock.
Hardywood will likely finish this year’s brewing of the Gingerbread Stout in mid-December. The brewery will also produce a bourbon barrel version of the beer.
If finding Gingerbread Stout proves too difficult this year, you may have to wait until 2014 when Hardywood plans to increase production of the seasonal beer and widen its distribution to Northern Virginia.
“We’d certainly like to share it with more people,” Murtaugh said. “Our general approach is for us to focus on the joy it brings and the way it’s kind of becoming a [Richmond favorite] around the holidays.”
Hardywood will have a fresh batch of Gingerbread Stout available for purchase this Friday at the brewery; there will be a two-bottle limit per person.
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- Derived from the lactose that’s unfermentable by beer yeast. ↩