It’s a cold Saturday morning in February, and Alexis and I have decided to take an impromptu day trip to Richmond – for craft beer, of course. This is our first trip of any kind together, and we’re still in that new and terrifying stage of our relationship where we are uncomfortably comfortable with each other. Truthfully, I’m nervous for the trip. At this stage, each first holds a terrible portent, and I am praying it goes as smoothly as everything else has.
The drive itself is pleasant. We listen to the soundtrack to Hamilton as we leave Durham, winding up 85 into the heart of Virginia. The roads are clear, with traffic mostly nonexistent, and we arrive in Richmond just as Aaron Burr fatally shoots Alexander Hamilton on my car stereo. We wind our way over the James River and around the city, and she navigates us past downtown.
Our first stop is Mekong, a Vietnamese restaurant recognized as one of the best craft beer spots in the country. It’s unassuming from the outside, barely noticeable in a small strip mall. We park in the back and hurry through the cold to get inside. The interior is a strange combination of a small Asian family restaurant and a hofbrauhaus. The walls are plastered with memorabilia from basically every brewery. It all comes together in a way that fully shows owner and operator An Bui’s love for international beer and Vietnamese food that gives the space a lived in and comfortable feel.
Everything in the restaurant is emblazoned with their logo and motto, “Mekong is for Beer Lovers.” And, with one of the most phenomenal draft lists I’ve seen, it is absolutely true. Alexis and I both order soup, and I also get a Mangito, a spicy mango beer from The Andall. It’s a sweet and fruity house beer, with hidden notes of chili and a low, smoky heat. It goes wonderfully with the pork and wonton soup I’ve gotten. Alexis fishes out a massive mushroom from her bowl and passes it to me. It’s warm and tender, and I immediately forget it’s 20 degrees outside.
However, we are quickly reminded that when we walk around back to The Answer. The Answer is Mekong’s sister brewpub, also owned by An Bui. Alexis orders a Potter’s cider, and I get a flight of four IPAs. Her cider is the soft rosy pink of her cheeks in the cold, with hibiscus and grapefruit. There’s a light brandy flavor that balances out the tea flavors from the hibiscus petals. I work my way through my flight, starting with Petty Larceny and finishing with Grand Larceny. Grand Larceny is an absolutely phenomenal double IPA, with luscious Citra and Mosaic hops working in tandem with a perfectly balanced malt. The Mosaic especially gives a clean finish with less bitterness than one might expect from a double IPA and I finish it greedily, if only to try and find where An has hidden 8% ABV.
Alexis and I then head to Carytown, a small shopping district in the southern part of the city. The streets are crowded despite the cold, and we weave our way through the people to reach Garden Grove Brewery. It’s their one-year anniversary, and the place is loud and happy. The beer list is mostly Belgian today, and Alexis is raving about their barrel aged quads. I order us a sampler of four of their abbey styles. The Singel, Hipster Monk¸ is bready and spicy, with a rich caramel flavor. It’s well attenuated, with a simple and pleasant banana finish. The Devil, a dubbel, is deceptively sweet, hiding an 8.5% ABV underneath candy and fruit flavors. I drink it embarrassingly quickly, but move on the The Knight. The Knight is a strong and stalwart tripel, with a powerful but pleasant spice note. It completely overpowers The Devil, and finishes bright and shining, with a lingering sweetness. Death is the final beer, a red quad age in red wine barrels. It’s deep and complicated, and each sip reveals something new and wonderful. There are rich berry and vanilla notes, with a luxurious booziness that softened by the flavors of the barrel.
Alexis comes back with small glasses of Life and their anniversary saison. Life is a white quad, clear and bright, with a wonderful lychee and light grape flavor from a German grape varietal. Despite its relative lightness compared to Death, it manages to completely take hold of my palate. I run through the Trappist styles again while Alexis savors the saison. It’s phenomenally phenolic, with banana and spice esters running through it. It’s liquid banana bread and she clutches the glass, eyes closed and smiling. Garden Grove has done an amazing job taming Belgian yeasts, and especially off a three-barrel system. It is surprising that a brewery this young is so technically sound, but as the bar continues to fill up it seems that I am not the only person who is blown away by their liquid.
Our next stop is an absolute must must for any beer person who finds themselves in Richmond. Hardywood is one the most popular breweries in the South, and for good reason. Their gingerbread stout is one of the best winter beers available, and their specialty beers are often the most popular at craft beer festivals. The brewery is standing room only. Alexis and I make our way to one of the bar, and she orders a raspberry stout and I get a can of their cream ale. Cream ales are a favorite style of mine, and this one is phenomenal. It’s light and easy, and wonderfully simple following the complex Belgians from Garden Grove. Alexis savors her stout, despite professing to dislike the style. Hardywood is the largest brewery we’ve been to so far, and it lacks the coziness of Garden Grove or The Answer. The industrial space is heated by the massive throng of people crowding around the tanks, and Alexis presses up against me, trying to siphon away what warmth she can.
She has one more brewery she wants to go to. Night has come early, but Ardent Craft Ales shines out with a warm yellow light. Inside is loud, but intimate. They’ve released their honey ginger and its bourbon barrel variant, and we get a pour of each. The regular honey ginger is spicy, with a ginger beer heat to it that brings out a wildflower quality in the honey. It’s not overly sweet, but surprisingly well balanced. The bourbon barrel variant, is essentially a whiskey ginger, with a rich barrel and pleasant liquor note adding a depth to it. The beer reminds me of the Kentucky mule I ordered on Alexis and I’s first date, and I kiss her on the forehead as the dim yellow light of the brewery reflects off her copper hair.
As we prepare to leave, I spend some time chatting with one of the owners. There’s something about Richmond’s craft beer scene that feels wonderfully communal. Every brewery was packed, and where at first I was wondering about the massive production capacity Ardent had for a brewery it’s size, I now was concerned if it was enough. It’s refreshing to find a community so engaged, without the cynicism that seems to seep in.
“Virginia is for Lovers” is an interesting piece of marketing for a state, but there’s a message beyond Virginia being a place for young couples to drive to. Richmond is a place for people who love beer, and for people who get excited about it in that pure, fearless, and adventurous sense. It’s a beer city of the young and the brave, the unabashed and the excitable. Alexis leans against me in the car, and I put my arm around her and settle in my seat. As we head back through the dark, I’m reminded of why I love her, and how much I love sharing things with her. I pull her close, and as she rests on my shoulder, I start planning our next trip.