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Richmond: A Brew Story
A look at Richmond’s past and present brewing traditions

Take a minute and think of all the famous beer brewing cities of the world - Milwaukee, St. Louis, Amsterdam, Latrobe, Munich, Richmond.

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Is Richmond a brewing town or a watered down place to create beer?

Wait a minute - Richmond!?

At first glance, that might seem like a stretch but Richmond actually has quite an interesting history of producing beer that reaches back to the days long before prohibition. Because there are only a few small breweries operating around the Richmond area today, many have overlooked and seemingly forgotten much of our city’s long and impressive beer brewing history.

For instance, did you know that Richmond was the first place in the United States where beer was available in cans?

Join us for a cold one over the next few weeks as pops the top off Richmond’s brewing history, both past and present. We will also take an in-depth look at the city’s fermenting subculture of home brewing.

To start off the series, however, we will examine a few of Richmond’s current locally-born breweries and brewpubs...and try a few samples, of course.

Extra Billy’s Smokehouse and Brewery

Luckily for Extra Billy’s line of beers, success in the small-scale brewing world is measured by taste, not annual production.

Though renowned for its smoky barbeque recipes since 1985, Extra Billy’s only recently joined the hops and malts game when the local eatery opened a small brewery inside its new Alverser Drive location in 2000.

As a seven-barrel operation, meaning the brewery only has the capacity to produce seven barrels per batch (or just more than 220 gallons), Extra Billy’s is the smallest brewery in Richmond.

For head brewer Bill Ehlert, however, making less beer isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

"It is my creative outlet," said Ehlert, who is amiably known as "Bill the Brewer" around the restaurant. "It is the little bit of creativity I have going on. The one advantage I have [over a large brewery] is if I make a new recipe and it doesn’t hit the parameters I was trying to do, I can just change the name of it before it hits the tap."

Though Ehlert has made more than 50 different varieties of beer for Extra Billy’s since becoming the head brewer more than six years ago, customers can typically expect three varieties - American ale, pale ale and a pilsner (Ehlert’s favorite) - to be on the Southside restaurant’s five taps all year round. Selections on the other two taps are brewer’s choice but usually depend on the season, he said.AdvertisementArticle continues below

For Ehlert, working the small brew house at Extra’s is vastly different from his beginnings in brewing. When he began working in beer, Ehlert learned his trade as an assistant at the 50-barrel Buffalo Brewing Co. in Buffalo, N.Y. After working as head brewer for several years, he moved to Pittsburgh where he brewed at the smaller 10-barrel Strip Brewing Co.

"I have been doing this for a number of years, longer than I care to say, but for a pretty long while and I have got a pretty good handle on the system," Ehlert said.

Besides being the smallest operation in town, Extra Billy’s also has the tightest distribution. At this point, the company’s Southside location is the only place you can purchase any of Ehlert’s beers. While you can buy a half-gallon refillable jug of Extra Billy’s to take home, Ehlert said the company can’t even distribute beer to its West Broad Street location due to Virginia’s tight alcohol distribution laws. The company is looking to begin selling returnable kegs from the Southside location in the future, however.

Big Question "Is Richmond a brewing town?"
Bill Ehlert: "Right now, it is hurting but I think it is going to surge again because of Capital Ale House. It is good for us because people start tasting other beers and realize that there are other tastes out there and maybe they will come down and try some of ours."

Richbrau Brewing Co.

Yes, they actually make beer at Richbrau Brewing Co.

While many of the folks that pack the brewpub’s popular upstairs dance club every weekend might be totally oblivious to that fact, Richbrau is home to the city’s second largest existing locally-owned brewery. The brewery also has an underlying brewing history that goes well past the restaurant/brewery’s 12 years in Shockoe Slip.

According to head brewer Mike Banks, Richbrau was actually the name of a local beer that was produced by another brewery in Richmond throughout the early 1900s.

"Home Brewing Company was opened from 1896 to 1969 and they were located on Harrison Street between Clay and Leigh and they brewed a beer called Richbrau Beer," Banks said.

Though the name is still around, Richbrau Brewing’s beers are apparently much different (and much tastier) than the namesake.

As a 14-barrel operation, which produces about 440 gallons per batch, both head brewer Banks and assistant brewer Aric Leinen have their hands full producing the brewpubs regular three brands - Griffin Golden Ale, Old Nick Pale Ale and Big Nasty Porter - but they also produce a wide variety of seasonal craft brews.

"We usually try to have a stout on tap at all times like oatmeal stout, espresso stout, vanilla bean stout, imperial stout or dry stout, which is like a Guinness," Banks said. "We also try to keep a light beer on tap so we have a Kolsch on tap right now, which is a style from Cologne, Germany."

While Banks and Leinen have the ability to make a number of different styles of beer, they mainly stick to producing ales and lagers, which have quicker fermentation times than other styles.

"You can produce ales quicker than you can produce lagers so we are talking like two or three weeks, where a lager can take four or five weeks," Banks said. "And since we have limited tank space, we brew mostly ales."

Brewing about once per week on average, Richbrau produced 750 barrels of craft beer in 2005, which isn’t bad considering the brew pub sells most of its product through its own taps. Due to the setup of its brewery operations throughout its building, and the fact that the brewpub’s "loading dock" is on the third floor, Banks said the process of getting beer out of the building is a hindrance to bigger outside distribution.

"Everything has to come through the dining room if we want to get it out of here," he said. "It is just a difficult process getting beer out of this place, but we are what you would call a brewpub, which means we brew beer for the house whereas microbreweries brew most of their beer for sale off of the premises, though they might have a restaurant attached."

Whether it is sold on-premises or off, however, doesn’t really matter to either Banks or Leinen. They just like making beer, Banks said.

"It is interesting and it makes me happy," said Banks, who got his start at Richbrau by working as a cook in the pub’s kitchen. "It’s fun. I don’t know what else is in store for me next, but this is a fun trade."

Big Question "Is Richmond a brewing town?"
Mike Banks: "As more people move into Richmond, you get more cultured people. I consider craft-brewed beer as something that cultured people are into. [Washington,] D.C. has a bigger beer scene up there and I think that is because the area is multinational and multicultural. People up there have been to Europe and they know the different styles. Richmond is a little slow in that but it is growing."
Aric Leinen: "I think it is evolving. I think the opening of Capital Ale House has helped out a lot with people’s interest in beer overall."
Banks: "Yeah. It is like a big school for beer over there, which helps everybody. That helps all of the craft brewers as people take more interest [in beer] and to see what else is going on in beer."

Kent Jennings Brockwell

Richmond - 30 September 2006
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