by Victoria Bourne
Rick Mariani likes a big, fat cigar. He also digs a good beer and has home-brewed for years. From the marriage of those passions comes a new business that just might stand out among the crowded craft beer market.
When Maker’s Craft Brewery officially opened in Norfolk in early March, it became Hampton Roads’ only combination brewery and cigar bar. Mariani, who owns the business with his wife, Felicia, has partnered with longtime tobacco purveyor Emerson’s Cigars to create an inviting space for drinkers and smokers alike.
Mariani, who also owns Sorrentino Mariani & Company, a custom furniture manufacturer in Norfolk, says he wanted to open a cigar bar but didn’t want to be in the cigar business. An Emerson‘s regular, he reached out to the company’s CEO, Scott Regina.
“Rick and I talked, and we said, ‘Hey, if we can figure this out, this is something that would definitely be unique for the area,’ ” Regina says.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for Emerson’s, which closed its downtown Norfolk store in 2015 after about two decades on Granby Street. It also has locations in Chesapeake, Virginia Beach and Hampton. With the brewery-cigar bar set in a light-industrial venue, Emerson’s new shop won’t get the same level of retail foot traffic as before, but Regina says existing customers have been buzzing about its return.
From a roughly 600-square-foot walk-in humidor built inside the brewery’s self-contained cigar bar, Emerson’s offers an assortment of premium, handmade cigars and accessories. Names such as Davidoff, Padron and Arturo Fuente’s Opus X are available for purchase. The cigar bar has its own taps and ventilation. A negative-pressure system keeps smoke from wafting into the rest of the tasting room, Mariani says.
Felicia Mariani says opening the brewery is her husband’s dream. “I’ve been married to this man for 42 years. Anytime he starts talking about something, I already know where it’s going,” she says. “It’s just a matter of how fast we get there.”
Mariani originally eyed a location on the edge of Ghent and Park Place, but that fell through. After about a year of searching, he landed on an early 20th century warehouse northeast of Ghent and a few blocks from Rip Rapand O’Connor brewing companies.
The building just off Church Street is one of dozens that make up the Norfolk & Western Railroad Historic District, which was listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.
The 18,000-square-foot brick structure is split neatly down the middle, half housing the tasting room and cigar bar and the other holding storage and office space. That part may eventually become a factory outlet store for the Marianis’ furniture business.AdvertisementPauseUnmuteLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%Remaining Time-0:11Fullscreen
Unlike some historic buildings, the interior was virtually untouched, the Marianis say. The original brick hadn’t been covered over or painted, and hand-hewn wooden beams still spanned high across the ceiling. Original iron-framed windows were freed from an encasement of cinder blocks and plywood as part of the restoration. “When the light started coming in, it was amazing,” Felicia Mariani says.
Most of the windows were ultimately re-fabricated, but three originals remain in the women’s restroom. A blacksmith forged iron purse hooks from the old frames. Michele Lowney, Maker’s co-owner and head brewer, claimed one of two original skylights, and Rick Mariani designed the 20-barrel brewhouse around it.
Everyone lent a hand in the project. Felicia Mariani selected the taupe, orange and lime green color scheme to play off the 100-year-old brick walls. David Mariani, the couple’s youngest son, built the Maker’s and Emerson’s signs, which were painted by a local artist. Rick Mariani made the heavy, wooden barn door entrance to the brewhouse through which tours will be given, as well as the American black walnut bar top in the cigar lounge. Mike Mariani, the eldest son, homebrewed with his dad for years, set up the brewery’s cash registers and helps out in the taproom.
The tasting room boasts a large, white oak main bar and smaller side bars that Rick Mariani made from a single felled tree. Each retains a raw edge. He also crafted some of the tables and tasting-glass holders from furniture factory scraps. Mariani says he’s sunk roughly $2.5 million into the project, which includes purchasing an adjacent property that he hopes to turn into a large, fenced-in bier garden.
Lowney, a Staten Island native, boasts 20 years of experience, including stints as head brewer at Grizzly Paw Brewing Co. in Alberta, Canada, and Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. in Colorado. She prefers balanced, full-bodied, flavorful beers and wants to offer less-common styles at Maker’s. At a recent soft opening, the taps poured a rye pale ale, a sweet stout, and a red IPA that Mariani calls an IPA for people who don’t normally drink IPAs.
An experimental “pilsale” – a pilsner brewed in an ale style – is an easy drinker and one the brewery describes as a good introduction to craft beer. At the other end of the spectrum is a German rauchbier, which tasted like liquid bacon. Lowney says it’s brewed in the European tradition to maintain its bold, smoky flavor. All involved say it’s a good one to pair with a cigar.
There’s also a dry-hopped IPA and a Belgian witbier as well as homemade root beer and black cherry soda for children and nondrinkers. A corner coffee bar offers java for $2, with 50 cents going toward a pug rescue group in Pennsylvania.
The brewery is dog-friendly, says Felicia Mariani, and well-behaved “pugs and pug wannabes” are welcome, although not in the cigar bar. Growlers are available and Lowney says there are plans for bottling and canning down the road.
Emerson’s Regina thinks the Maker’s partnership offers his customers an opportunity to learn more about the craft beer world and a chance for craft beer lovers to learn more about cigars. A specialty cigar blend and commemorative box is in the works and could be available by mid-June, according to Mariani and Regina. Both envision tasting events that pair specific cigars with specific brews.