Big Craft Beer: Good for the Local Guys?

May 18, 2016

A crowded bar at Stone Brewery's tasting room on opening night.
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne/WVTF

Been out to a bar lately? Chances are you had more beer choices than you used to. That’s a sign of the Virginia's growing craft beer economy.

The number of breweries in the Commonwealth has almost tripled in the past three years. But that market looks set to change even more, as large out-of-state companies move in.

On opening day, Stone Brewing’s new tasting room in Richmond was filled with people, beer, and enthusiasm.

“I love Stone! And I love this beer and I love Richmond, and I think it’s absolutely incredible that Stone is here!" exclaims Eni Eboda, a visitor to the tasting room.

Eboda has been waiting for this night for more than a year. That’s when Stone, a large craft brewery with a cult-like following in California, announced they had chosen Virginia for their first East Coast production facility.

"I’ve had this on my calendar and I’ve been waiting!" says Eboda. "Waiting patiently for this to open!”

Stone represents the first in what could be a growing list of outside breweries moving into the state. Deschutes, an Oregon-based brewery, recently announced they would build a facility in Roanoke. And Green Flash Brewing from California opened a tasting room in Virginia Beach. 

Both Stone and Deschutes are among the 10 largest craft breweries in the country.

So is that good, or bad, thing for Virginia’s home-grown brewers?

A Rising Tide

Vince Vasquez is an economist who’s studied the industry in San Diego, the “Craft Beer Capitol” of the country.

“Probably we know more about what the industry will look like or where it’s headed from the experience of San Diego," Vasquez says. "And I think that’s something that lends itself well to the unfolding narrative of what’s happening in Virginia.”

In San Diego, Stone has served as a catalyst, drawing in huge crowds of beer tourists. Vasquez says the same thing could happen here.

“You could see people coming to visit Richmond and maybe they start their brewery tour at Stone having lunch and having some tasters, and then getting on to a guided tour throughout the area to other local breweries and brew pubs,” says Vasquez.

And while yes, more breweries means more competition, Vasquez says this industry is unique. It has a sort of us-against-the-world mentality as craft beer strives to get a larger market share of all beer.

“You do definitely see this spirit of a rising tide lifts all boats within the craft beer community, and I think it’s one of the reasons why craft brewers and brewmasters are so collegial, they’re collaborative,” says Vasquez.

Rian Van Nordheim (left) and Dan Shebaylo (right) hold up hops as they brew together.
Credit Juliellen Sarver/Stone

Craft Beer Collaboration

You can see that collegial atmosphere first hand at Ardent, one of Richmond’s local breweries, where a group of about 15 brewers work together on a special beer.

Dan Schebaylo is one of Ardent’s brewers. He dumps a bucket of hops into a vat of roiling liquid. Rian Van Nordheim, a brewer with Stone, asks a couple of questions about the process. The two realize they do it mostly the same and give each other a quick high five.

Schebaylo and Van Nordheim are comparing notes. Van Nordheim is a master brewer for Stone, and today they’re working together on a special edition, collaboration brew.

It’s a way to get Ardent’s brand in front of Stone’s customers. But it’s also a way for the brewers in the community to get to know one another, says Nicole Mandela. She works for Stone and is new to the state.

"Everybody is super friendly and really welcoming, and there’s a lot of great beers being made in the area so we’re super happy to be a part of it for sure,” says Mandela.

The Beer Bubble?

For this article we talked to many of Virginia's local brewers, and for their part, they seem happy to have Stone here. But there is some concern about how Stone got here in the first place.

Stone and Deschutes were attracted not just by the booming beer culture and strategic location, but also by government dollars.

Richmond spent $23 million on Stone's facility, which they say they'll recover through rent, and the state put $5 million towards the deal. Deschutes got $3 million from the state's "Opportunity Fund."

There’s concern that if that trend of inorganic growth continues, there could be more supply than demand; meaning competition for shelf space and taps could get fierce, with local guys at a disadvantage.

But, for now, that’s not the case.

“Lickinghole Creek, or Ardent, or Hardywood. They’re all legit, their beers are awesome,” says Pat Tiernan, COO of Stone.

Tiernan's company has already agreed to join the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild and lend their support to regional planning and lobbying efforts.

“So we can bring a sort of an experiential eye to help get those kinds of things going and then any contacts we have in the industry that can help, or on the Hill, in terms of addressing issues that brewers have to deal with,” says Tiernan.

That's an influx of dollars and expertise that could be good for everyone in the industry, so long as everyone’s interests stay the same.