by Eric J. Wallace
LOVINGSTON, VA | For connoisseurs of the destination taproom, a bucket-list location awaits some 30 miles south of Charlottesville. The gravel drive leading to Wood Ridge Farm Brewery winds through 300 acres of working farmland to a hilltop meadow that features 270-degree views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a fantastic example of rustic architecture.
Built by owner and former professional carpenter Barry Wood, the two-story log-cabin-style taproom has the look and feel of a lumberjack’s passion project.
Stone and brick terraces connect an outdoor stage and tiki bar to gardens brimming with palm trees. A permanent food truck dishes up farm-to-table pub fare. Peacocks strut through a grassy court of cornhole tables. Big wraparound porches with full-sized cedar trees for support beams face the mountains. The building’s siding is made of 2-foot-wide center-planed hardwood framed by posts of roughhewn cedar. Custom-forged hardware compliments doors that seem ready to welcome Mark Twain, Clint Eastwood, Davey Crockett, or perhaps Hunter S. Thompson.
Inside, the floors include 21 different types of lumber. Two cedar trees – limbs intact – back a single-slab oak bar. Stainless steel tap-heads emerge from the gnarled and lacquered trunk of an old pine. Christmas lights dangle from joists made of poled sycamores.
“Every inch of lumber in this building was sourced from the farm,” says Wood, 63. Dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and a black cowboy hat, he strolls about barefooted. Sipping a pint of malthouse porter, he delivers buckets of peanuts to patrons and tells jokes with a mild drawl. “I started working on the place in 2014 and looked at it like a work of art. I let the vision come to me bit by bit and picked out each tree to fit the application. I’d cut ‘em down, mill ‘em, and place ‘em, all without any blueprints, and mostly by myself.”
Wood’s philosophy is to take things as they come, and, if possible, handle them himself.
“That’s how all this got started,” he says. “I never intended to build a taproom, or a malting facility, or a restaurant, or a brewery — I was trying to avoid subdividing the family farm … . I started experimenting with growing grain and one thing led to the next.”
In 2000, Wood sold the Centreville farm market and nursery he’d run for 20-odd years and moved to Nelson County to live on his late grandparents’ farm. At the time, he was building houses for a living. Black Angus cattle grazed the fields of Wood Ridge Farm, but their presence had more to do with tradition than paying bills.
Then came the recession.
“Work dried up and I got stuck with some spec houses I’d built and was scrambling to convert them into rentals,” says Wood. “At that point, I couldn’t afford a 300-acre hobby farm. It had to start paying for itself.”
Wood tried everything from raising alpacas and freshwater prawns to growing corn, pumpkins and soybeans. But the money didn’t add up. What he needed was a specialty crop — something that filled a niche and would yield a profit.
“A local distillery asked me if I’d be interested in growing barley for whisky,” Wood says. “I didn’t know much about it, but I knew I could learn.”
In 2012, after consulting Virginia Tech agricultural researchers and state extension agents, Wood learned about heirloom varieties of rye, wheat, barley and oats that were suited to Virginia. Partnering with Virginia Tech and Iowa University, he experimented with crops for spirits production and, thinking breweries might get interested, varieties for making beer.
After planting more than 50-acres, Wood made an undesirable discovery: Both distillery and breweries wanted malted products. Made by wetting cereal grains, forcing them to germinate and then drying them with heated air, malt is the basic ingredient used in the production of beer and whisky. It provides complex carbohydrates and sugars necessary for fermentation and contributes characteristic colors and flavors. Unfortunately, there were no malting facilities in Virginia.
Undaunted, he sold his single-prop airplane and used the money to transform its hangar into a malt house and hire professional maltster, Cory Hall. To better understand the process, Wood searched for a malting certification program that targeted beer and whisky. Finding none on the East Coast, he enrolled at the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre in Winnipeg.
As the crops matured, Wood Ridge’s malt house began churning out 4,000 pounds of malts a week. Success appeared imminent. Only, the distillery reduced its order at the last minute and breweries purchased malts for just one seasonal specialty beer apiece. To survive, the farm needed to sell three times that much.
The solution? Open a brewery.
“But I didn’t want it to be just another craft beer joint,” Wood says. “I started thinking about making beer the way winemakers make wine – I wanted to make it as local as they come; I wanted to capture the taste of the land.”
The state passed a law in 2014 that allowed rural Virginia farmers to open small-scale breweries. In celebration, Wood dug footers for his taproom. Within a year, he’d brought on brewer Nicholas Payson and converted a greenhouse into an experimental brewing facility. He installed a hop yard and herb garden, and ran a half-mile-long pipe to pump water from a spring on the farm.
For the next year or so, Wood and Hall experimented with specialty malts and roasts. Payson brewed beer in five-gallon batches, looking to perfect Wood Ridge’s recipes. The taproom and adjacent brewery were completed and opened in September 2016. Aside from some specialty yeasts and hops, the beer was the product of a closed system.
In the year-and-a-half since opening, Wood Ridge has expanded relentlessly.
The bar menu has grown from five to 15 beers. There’s a kolsch, IPA, pale ale, various porters, blonde ale, honey ale made with honey from a new on-site apiary, lemon-lime shandy from lemons and limes grown in the greenhouse, two stouts, and a specialty sangria beer made with farm-raised fruit.
Wood installed wood-fired pizza ovens and is growing wheat for crusts. The food truck offers burgers, barbecue, prawns, trout – Wood stocked a lake – and vegetables sourced from the farm. There’s live music on the weekends both indoors and out. A lakeside guest home has been transformed into a reception hall for weddings.
And according to Wood, this is all just the beginning.
“We have plans to make barley wine, wheat wine, ginger beer and gluten-free beers,” he says. “Since this is a farm, we can grow what we want, and try just about anything, including some off-the-wall type stuff.”
For instance, he is growing indigenous varieties of heirloom corn and plans on using a colonial-era recipe to make a specialty harvest beer that will be ready around next Thanksgiving.
Regardless of the direction Wood takes, one thing is for sure: The drinks will be as local as any you’ll ever taste.
“Two hundred years ago, every community in the U.S. had a farmhouse brewery, and we’re a throwback to that era,” says Wood. “Sure, it takes a little more blood, sweat, and tears to do it this way – we’re at the mercy of the weather, so, like wine, the taste of the beer changes from year to year. But you can come here and sit on the porch and see next year’s beers growing in the fields. To me, there’s something very special about that.”