by Pete Newell
Greater Chesapeake is not exactly a sexy destination. A lack of night life, music venues, and general arts and entertainment helped the city earn the dubious honor of being named the third most boring city in America by Movoto Real Estate in 2014.
But don’t blame Big Ugly Brewing Company. The city’s lone brewery is doing everything it can to help drag the sleepy city out of entertainment obscurity – one craft beer at a time.
“People tell us all the time that Chesapeake needed this,” says co-owner Aaron Childers. “Everybody would leave Chesapeake to spend their money in Norfolk or Virginia Beach. We’re happy to give them somewhere to go in their own town.”
Since opening its original location in February 2014, Big Ugly has attained a loyal, almost cult-like following with locals. Being the only brewery in a city has its benefits. Quality, award-winning beers, a tasting room unlike any other in Hampton Roads, and friendly welcoming staff didn’t hurt.
The brewery has been so successful that in August it moved to a much larger free-standing location, built from the ground up with every detail planned intricately to give loyal customers one of the most complete brewery experiences around.
Though only a mile from the original location, the new building may as well be in a different world. Built on a high-traffic and high-visibility portion of Battlefield Boulevard South, Big Ugly’s new spot is attracting Chesapeake residents who had no idea there was even a brewery in their city.
With the indoor tasting room growing from about 1,000 square feet at the old location to 3,000 square feet, Big Ugly now has the room needed to become the ultimate neighborhood brewery its owners say it was always meant to be.
Aaron and Shawn Childers and their fellow co-owners, Jim and Michele Lantry, all live within three miles of the business. They say expanding to any place other than Chesapeake was never an option.
The old location was tucked away in a nondescript shopping center far off the beaten path (even for Chesapeake), far too cramped to support the crowds that filled the spot almost nightly.
“Selling out of beer was a great problem to have,” says Michele Lantry. “But a good problem is still a problem.”
Despite its new size, the goal for Big Ugly is to remain a neighborhood brewery. Most of the beer brewed is for the Big Ugly tasting room. It hosts church groups, cigar clubs, taco nights, craft shows, book clubs, running clubs, bicycle clubs, live music, and events like the first Merriment and Misery Grog Fest in November, a pirate-themed beer festival only featuring breweries with nautical themes.
While much larger, the feel of the tasting room remains the same. A warm and inviting interior is adorned with vintage cars and motorcycles, including the famous Volkswagen microbus with the table for four inside. More space also means more beer. A significantly bigger brewhouse allows head brewer Evan Lantry (Jim and Michele’s son) to keep up with the tasting room crowds. It also means historically once-a-year crowd favorite releases like Hot Pursuit Pineapple Habanero Blonde Ale and No Joy Almond Joy Porter can now be made more often and in bigger batches.
“Selling out of beer was a great problem to have, but a good problem is still a problem.”
— Michelle Lantry
Big Ugly, which already has one of the most diverse lineups of beer styles, has started brewing lagers, recently releasing its first pilsner. The barrel-aging program is also being accelerated, with more bourbon and rum barrel-aged offerings coming down the road, along with the opportunity to experiment with other styles of barrels.
Rounding out the new location is a 1,800-square-foot brick patio, complete with fire pits, corn hole, and giant Jenga. Local food trucks are onsite nightly.
While the new location has been successful so far, it did not come without its share of headaches. Resistance from neighboring residents caused delays in the City Council votes on the zoning reclassification of the property the brewery was built on. A turn lane on Battlefield Boulevard was unexpectedly added as a requirement by the city, leading to further delays while fundraising was done to pay for it. Hours and days of cutting through red tape and unexpected roadblocks made the grand opening that much more gratifying.
And how do they know they got it right?
“At the old location, people would always give us unsolicited ideas on how to improve the brewery. It would happen constantly,” says Shawn Childers. “Since we’ve been at the new building, we haven’t heard, ‘You know what you should do … ?’ even once.”