Roanoke. No, not the one in Texas. The one nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The one with the world’s largest man made star. The only Roanoke that has Deb’s Lemonade and Roanoke Weiny Stand. That Roanoke – in Virginia.
What I am about to tell you may come as a shocker: Roanoke is the next craft beer capital on the East Coast. Sure, Asheville holds the reigning title, and they are doing amazing work and attracting some major players down there in North Carolina. But as of late, Roanoke is really showing promise about beer.
Being tied into the national beer scene, having filmed around the country in some of the world’s most famous breweries and eateries, I certainly hear my share of rumors. Sometimes, they’re just that, rumors. Other times, as in this case, the rumor mill is deadly accurate. In January this year, I heard a whisper of Oregon-based Deschutes, America’s 7th largest craft brewery, having intentions to build a major production facility here in my city. Then in March, Deschutes made the formal announcement. Around that same time, I began hearing that another large brewery was talking of expanding here. That turned out to be Ballast Point, and they’re officially locating in Daleville, a city just outside Roanoke. As if that’s not news, just a couple of weeks ago – and this is uncomfirmed, but from the same source – I was told that Lagunitas is now considering Roanoke for an East Coast home.
Rumors aside, this is not the first time Roanoke has been called a Boom Town. Pioneers began exploring the (now) Roanoke Valley as early as the 17th century. By 1740, farmers were settling here and planting crops. Roanoke was originally called “Big Lick” in 1852, due to the fact that original settlers noticed deer, buffalo and even elk licking salt deposits for the minerals they provided. A few years later, in 1882, the city was renamed “Roanoke”, a term from “rawrenock” which was the shell money used by Algonquian Indians for trading.
With the invention of the steam engine, rail made its way to Roanoke. Several things happened in 1881 to contribute to the rail boom here. Citizens went out and offered Valley Railroad Company a sizeable sum to place their headquarters in Big Lick, instead of Salem. And in 1882, that became a reality. Roanoke was a growing rail town. In 1882, Norfolk and Western Rail Company merged Valley Rail with the Lynchburg to Norfolk division and from Roanoke to Winston Salem, NC, making Roanoke a commerce and transportation hub to the South and East Coast. The rail system shipped all manner of goods, (primarily tobacco) and was even used during the Civil War.
Nearly immediately after settling, Roanoke began to produce its own Nectar of the Gods that we all love so much. In 1885, Portner’s Brewing Company expanded a facility to continue and spur its growth as a notably large Southern brewery. It chose Roanoke as the place to open its doors. Just down the street from Hotel Roanoke (still in operation and very much amazing) Portner’s was distributing as far away as Georgia. It’s important to note here that Portner was an innovator. His company began using artificial refrigeration to regulate his temperatures during lagering and storage. Yes, beer was the primary conduit for modern air conditioning.
While Portner Brewing was putting beer on the shelves of grocer’s across the South, Virginia Brewing Company opened their door’s across from the rail yards, on Norfolk and Wise Avenue. Established by several local businessmen, VBC became an immediate favorite of the populace. They hired a german brewmaster named Louis Scholz and in 1890, their first beer, a pilsner was available. In 1907, VBC took a gold medal for that pilsner at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition beer competition. Not even a fire in the 1890’s could dampen the love for local beer here. VBC immediately rebuilt, even larger, and went from bottling 6,000 beer’s to almost 3 million in 1905.
Also of historical note – Roanoke and VBC’s fight against a large commercial brewer, at the time known only as “Anheiser-Busch”. A-B was distributing in the area around 1892. Being larger, they could afford mark downs and used that to their advantage. They began lowering the prices of their product drastically to corner the local market, even to below what it cost them to produce a barrel. VBC and the local community fought back, however. The Roanoke Times published an editorial that stated Virginia Brewing Company was a “home enterprise….built up and owned in great part by Roanoke people,” and one that “deserved every residents’ patronage, even if it meant paying a few cents more for a mug of beer.” Roanoke remained true to its local roots in this territorial beer war. AB eventually returned the price per barrel to pre beer war prices.
Fast forward back to 2016. I have returned to my beloved Roanoke, and I am embarking on participating in its new 21st century economic boom. A group of individuals and I are in the process of building Roanoke’s first and only brewpub, where along side great craft beer, you will be served the best smoked foods and BBQ you’ll ever taste. We’ll have a custom smokehouse, a full service deli, a full time baker, fine local and national music and entertainment and a 15 bbl system with an amazing brewer. We just found our investors and picked up an extremely qualified and energetic third partner. To say I am thrilled to be on the verge of being a brewery owner in a city calling itself home to the likes of Deschutes and Ballast Point is an understatement.
Both Deschutes and Ballast Point are considered to be pioneers in the modern craft beer movement. Now, each have decided to brew in the Roanoke area and will bring with them hundreds of millions of dollars of impact on the local economy and hundreds to thousands of jobs. I was able to speak with some folks from each beer company and ask the questions to which I thought Virginia residents and craft beer fans in general would want to know the answers.
Deschutes Brewery and Public House opened its doors in 1988 in Bend, Oregon. They sold 310 barrels their first year, quickly seeing a need and supplying it to the community. By 1992, four short years later they were up to 3,954 barrels. In 1993, to fuel their explosive growth, they expanded to a 16,000 sq. foot facility and gained the ability to brew in 50 bbl batches.
One of the most dynamic parts of Deschutes is how deeply rooted in their community they are. Owner Gary Fish has been quoted as saying “We want people to feel like this is, in a lot of ways, theirs.” After their 2012 expansion, they installed a water reuse system, which saved them thousands of gallons of water per year. As well, they instituted a carbon dioxide capture system which decreases the waste in the city sewer system. It’s also important to note, Deschutes donates $1 per barrel to various charities, ranging from environmental causes to kids in need. Listed as a 2012 Sustainability Award Winner, Green Power Partner, Champion level in renewable energy programs. It is crucial to Deschutes to give back and protect the community as well as the world around it.
Deschutes intends to break ground in 2019 (possibly earlier) and begin construction on an $85 million dollar facility. They expect to begin shipping beer from the Roanoke facility in about five years. Located on 49 acres, this brewery will become a focal point of the Roanoke community, the region around us and the nation as a whole.
One of the first things I wanted to know is why Roanoke? Why Virginia? Obviously, I KNOW the answers, but no doubt many years of research went into this important decision.
Jason Randles, Digital Marketing Manager at Deschutes, told me, “We were extremely impressed by all the communities we visited in VA. We were drawn to Roanoke because of the overwhelming support and enthusiasm of the community. The site we were able to secure was fantastic and provides an opportunity to build an outstanding brewery and create a great fan and guest experience.”
When it comes to the stages of growth planned for Roanoke and production goals, Jason said, “We anticipate creating 108 jobs when we commission the facility in 2021. We estimate first year production at approximately 190,000 bbls. Long-term we are engineering for the brewery to have an ultimate capacity of 1,000,000 bbls.”
Deschutes is already on the ground here, as they have hired a local sales rep to facilitate the expansion.
When asked if there would be a marketing or promotional outreach here locally, Jason exlaimed, “Yes! Starting August 1st our beers will be available in Roanoke and the rest of Western Virginia. We’re hiring a local rep to work with our distributor to get our beer on the shelf and on tap across the region. The week leading up to our Street Pub on August 27th we’ll have several launch events to really kick things off, with several team members in town to help out. We’re also working on sponsoring local events and will be participating in local beer festivals.”
One of the most important questions on the minds of craft beer fans is how Deschutes will answer the challenge of growth, yet stay true to its roots and its craft beer legacy.
Jason addressed that concern, stating, “We believe continued innovation of new and exciting beers and styles is critical to keeping our fans engaged. We continue to invest in the ability to create experimental beers and improve quality. We are actually in the process now of adding a pilot brew house that will increase the number of experimental test beers we can produce by ten fold.”
Like many beer enthusiasts in the 80’s, Jack White was fascinated by beer. In college, he looked for different options and being unable to find them, decided to begin brewing his own. It was at that time, in a college apartment at UCLA, that Ballast Point Brewing Company was born.
Home Brew Mart was Jack’s first business venture in 1992. He filled his days with conversation, equipment and advice to others on how to brew. More importantly, Jack began developing and nurturing a culture. His roommate, Pete A’Hearn was brewing with him and decided to head to UC Davis to attain a master brewers certificate. Their goal was to go pro. Soon after, Yusseff Cherney, a fellow home brewer with more than his share of awards, joined them. Yusseff became Home Brew Mart’s first employee, and in 1996, in a back room brewery behind the shop, Ballast Point became a reality. Even today, Home Brew Mart remains in its original location.
Ballast Point takes its name from a lighthouse in California, on Ballast Point, which is a peninsula near San Diego. In 2004, the brewery had outgrown its location in the back part of the home brew store and moved into a production brewery in Scripps Ranch, Ca. It’s important to note Ballast Point also has a full suite of distilled products. Old Grove Gin was its first, but it now includes fourteen spirits in its distillation family. In the summer of 2014, Ballast Point finished construction of its 107,000 state of the art production facility in Miramar. They had previously discovered two large copper kettles in Lohr, Germany and made this the centerpiece of the new facility. The brewery is also home to the laboratory, tasting bar, as well as the restaurant.
In March of 2015, Ann Blair Miller, with Roanoke Regional Partnership “totally cold-called them” about placing a distribution facility here in Roanoke. Clearly, the conversation went well. In late May, Ballast Point announced that it would be building a $48 million dollar facility in the Greenfield Industrial Park in Daleville. The building is a 259,000 sq. foot former auto parts manufacturing facility. This expansion means about 175 jobs to the area, but it also carries an additional economic impact of around $375 million.
I had the opportunity to speak with Hilary Cocalis, Ballast Point’s Vice President of Marketing. I asked her what it was about Roanoke and Virginia that enticed Ballast Point to locate such a massive facility here.
Hilary said, “The folks in the Governor’s office and at the county level were both really great to work with, and very willing to work with us to meet our needs. The particular site in Daleville checked all of our boxes in terms of infrastructure and location. Beyond that, we love the area, and the setting fits in well with our adventuresome, outdoorsy mentality.”
When asked about having an East Coast facility positioning Ballast Point to compete on a national and global level, Hilary said, “Our East Coast facility will help us to continue to ensure the freshest, best quality beer gets to all of our East coast fans. We already ship beer abroad to Europe, Australia, Asia and South America, and we have plans to explore additional international distribution, both from our West Coast headquarters and our East Coast location.”
I also asked if growing to the size that Ballast Point has become will present additional challenges staying true to the craft beer model and satisfying their fans.
Hilary stated “It all comes down to making great beer – if we continue to make award-winning beer using quality ingredients and continue to innovate while doing it, our hope is that folks will continue to drink it. Quality is paramount to us, especially as we have grown our operations. Even still, we maintain a small R&D facility in San Diego where we continue to try new recipes and techniques, and we still operate Home Brew Mart, a home brew supply shop. These smaller operations help keep us grounded as we continue to grow.”
Of course, the recent acquisition by Constellation Brands is something that concerns many regarding Ballast Point’s ability to stay focused on quality. Constellation is the owner of many wine and spirits brands and , in the U.S., the macro beer brands, Corona and Modelo.
Hilary addressed that by saying, “Constellation has been very supportive of Ballast Point and our growth, while still allowing us to operate as a standalone company. We are continuing to grow as we have done over the past 20 years, by focusing on brewing great beer and providing excellent service to our customers.”
Ballast Point has local, regional, national and global intentions. As is the case with Deschutes, placing a facility in Roanoke gives them access to Europe, which is now importing more beer from America than any other time in history. It will also server as the distribution hub for the East Coast.
For anyone living in Roanoke, it was easy to understand why our new major brewing friends wanted to locate here. By being in Roanoke, the two West Coast breweries will share in our fantastic outdoor activities, like hiking the Appalachian Trail or rafting or canoeing the James River. They will become a part of our amazing outdoor concerts at Dr. Pepper Park at the Bridges and Elmwood Park Amphitheater. The food scene here was undoubtedly a factor in both of their decisions, because it is truly becoming world class. In fact, Roanoke has more restaurants, per capita, than any other city in Virginia and is home to its highest rated craft beer bar. The Blue Ridge views are stunning to behold and reason alone to want to locate a growing business here.
As of 2015, the beer industry in Virginia has had an economic impact of over $600 million dollars a year, adding over 8,000 jobs. Our homegrown, local breweries are fantastic, and around our area we are also seeing a booming beer subculture. Will Landry at Chaos Mountain is making craft beer that is deserving of national attention, and he’ll likely get it soon. Devils Backbone seemingly cannot expand enough to meet its demand and is becoming a regional powerhouse (potentially national powerhouse after being purchased by A-B InBev). Legend Brewing, Virginia’s oldest microbrewery, consistently cranks out award winning brews. Lickinghole Creek is spearheading innovation in Virginia beer to the degree that its growing its own barley and hops, as well as different types of fruit and herbs. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery has expanded to include an amphitheater and garden, as well as other amenities, and continues to rack up regional and national awards.
Roanoke is now leaving behind rail and industry and is positioning itself as a cultural powerhouse of this region. The City is investing in the infrastructure required to adequately handle what it is anticipating. In planning our brewpub and its location, we have worked extensively with the City of Roanoke, specifically the economic development folks. I can tell you there are no finer people anywhere. I can easily see why large brewers are attracted to us. We are in the process of becoming a beer drinkers dream.
Sixteen years ago I left to go explore the world. I have been in and around bars nearly all of that time. I’ve drank some of the country’s and the world’s finest beer. I’ve toured cellars that defy imagination, such as the one at The Brickstore Pub in Decatur, with cases after case of Westy stacked as tall as me, against the wall from various years. Never in all my wildest dreams would I have imagined returning to Roanoke and watching it develop into a beer capital. A culture capital. A destination. Well, it is here, it has and it is going to continue. Roanoke is officially on the map. So, you should be able to find it easily now. Still, don’t be surprised when you come to our beer town, and people hold doors for you. Or call you ma’am. One thing’s for sure, we haven’t outgrown our manners.