by Hillary Langford
There’s nothing ordinary about Garden Grove Brewing and Urban Winery. From its cozy digs in Richmond’s Carytown shopping district to a brewer who embraces sustainability and a little bit of weird science, this purveyor of genre-bending beer, wild fermented wine, cider and mead is one of the more interesting and undersung players in the regional brew game.
In 2013, Ryan Mitchell left a corporate gig and started looking for the right brewer with whom to partner. He found Mike Brandt, a self-professed “nerdy agriculture person” obsessed with fermentation science and locally sourced ingredients. Two years later, the pair opened Garden Grove and started offering outside-the-norm beers and gluten-free, wine-like options called “sparklers.”
The vibe inside Garden Grove is more coffee shop than brewery. Depending on the night, you might happen upon a beer dinner, a Dungeons & Dragon game or some jam circle of bluegrass musicians.
Brandt, who has a master’s degree in environmental studies and worked as an agricultural research scientist at Virginia State University, boasts an impressive – if not typical – resume. He worked as a brewer at Calhoun Brewing and as head winemaker at Naked Mountain Winery and Linden Vineyards. And in both industries he learned the value of quality ingredients.
“Why do people want a beer with artificial colors and refined sugars? People get way too excited about Oreos and Sour Patch Kidsbeing added to beer,” he says. “Breweries and wineries have always been directly tied to agriculture; it’s supposed to be simpatico. In my opinion, and it’s just an opinion, you don’t respect your beer or your other ingredients doing stuff like that. It’s poison and I’m not doing it.”
Brandt seeks sustainability and adventure. He forages for ingredients and also grows his own fruits, veggies and herbs in a backyard urban garden. “I usually read up every season to see what’s growing around me,” he says.
He was inspired in part by foodies like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. “Growing up, I loved that those guys were so jazzed not only about the foods that they explored, but the cultures. Exploring that opens up what it means to be a human.”
The customers are not always thrilled with his experiments. He brewed a Mexican lager once that featured lime basil. Some customers were upset that it didn’t taste like full-on lime juice. “Lime basil is named that because it has some lime-esque aromas to it but … it’s basil,” he says.
That’s not stopping Brandt, who says people just need to give things a go and judge less. At Garden Grove, you might find a Bordeaux wine and cider concoction alongside sparkling meads and barrel-aged Belgians.
For this story, I tried several, including:
Synthesis. Equal parts barleywine, white tawny port and mead, this drink offers a flowery, honey-kissed sucker punch at 16 percent alcohol by volume.
Death. A Belgian quad that walks the line between beer and wine perfectly (and rightfully snagged Virginia Craft Beer Cup honors in 2016 and 2017).
Foxy Flora. This sparkling honey wine with slight berry burst and low ABV is perfect for the summer months.
Garden Grove doesn’t distribute widely nor does it advertise, so it has remained something of a hidden gem. If you want to check out its offerings, you’ll have to make the trek to Richmond.
“If I wanted to be wildly successful, I could follow trends. I could easily brew hazy IPAs and stouts all day,” he says. “I choose to be myself.”