by Matthew Korfhage
A decade ago, when eventual Hardywood Park Craft Brewery founders Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh were distributing beer to fine-dining restaurants in New York, they noticed a disconcerting pattern.
“We’d go to high-end restaurants serving great dishes, with exciting wine lists, and their beer lists were very basic,” says Murtaugh.
Aside from a few visionaries like restaurateur Danny Meyer of Gramercy Tavern and Union Square cafe, restaurants back then didn’t see beer as a part of food culture. The reverse was true at breweries across the nation.
Even as recently as five years ago, dinner at a brewery almost always meant the same thing: a big backyard-style burger with a heaping pile of fries, some hot wings, maybe a sloppy Reuben or a pub pizza. Lately it has meant a rotating but unreliable selection of food trucks; and even then, only on the busiest days.
All of that is changing fast.
Two-year-old Brewery Bhavana in Raleigh, North Carolina — where a packed house of the fashionable might pair their cardamom-spiked Belgian tripel with Peking duck or Laotian Nasi Goring crab-fried rice — was nominated last year for a James Beard Award, food’s biggest prize. Breweries from Stone in California to Surly in Minneapolis have also enlisted big-name chefs.
And in Virginia, a few beer makers from Richmond are helping lead the charge. An Bui’s The Answer Brewpub already serves a kicky menu of Vietnamese fusion soups and snacks alongside juicy IPAs and even juicier beer slushies, and has garnered a few Beard nominations of its own.
Now two more Richmond breweries, The Veil and Hardywood Brewing, have enlisted high-powered chefs to build menus for a pair of ambitious restaurants now under construction. Both plan to keep it casual, but both are also bringing a renewed emphasis on farm-to-table ingredients, elevated flavors and modern tastes.
In Richmond’s tony western suburb of Goochland, Murtaugh and McKay hope to make Hardywood’s bucolic West Creek brewery location into a self-styled beer picnic to go with its sophisticated barrel-aged brews made with pumpkin or apple brandy. They envision beer lovers lounging on Hardywood blankets, or roaming the 24 acres along Tuckahoe Creek with pulled pork barbecue made with pigs from the Shenandoah Valley’s Autumn Olive farms and sauce made from Hardywood’s famed Gingerbread Stout.
“We picked this location for its natural beauty, creek and wetlands. It’s one of the most beautiful places to enjoy the beer,” says McKay, adding that they want people to enjoy the grounds. “We wanted the food to be a little more mobile.”
But the Hardywood founders didn’t want to just make standard brewpub fare: They wanted to make a true destination, where the food and beer worked together to create an enveloping experience. Catering the picnic in Goochland is Joe Sparatta, one of Richmond’s most celebrated chefs. His Heritage and Southbound restaurants are pioneers in local and seasonal dining in Virginia, parallel to Hardywood’s own emphasis on locally sourced ingredients.AdvertisementPauseUnmuteLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%Remaining Time-0:14Fullscreen
“We said if we could ever get Joe on board, that’d be the ultimate chef to partner with,” Murtaugh remembers.
The menu is still heavily under construction, and the restaurant won’t start serving food until early 2020. The kitchen will be under construction largely in a basement space beneath the West Creek location’s sprawling taproom, which opened last year.
But the menu will always will be under construction, says Sparatta. “We’ll serve a couple different sandwiches, seasonal soups, a couple salads, a rotation based around seasonality. I don’t ever have a lot of staples. When asparagus is growing, asparagus is on the menu.”
Sparatta says he and the brewery already source from a lot of the same Virginia farms. He and the brewery have used the same ginger farmer, the same supplier of natural wildflower honey, and the same raspberries and blackberries from Agriberry Farms in Hanover.
“That’s a really exciting part of this collaboration,” he says. “We both get better and learn a little from each other.”
Meanwhile, Richmond’s The Veil Brewing Co. is coming to Norfolk to open its own restaurant with locally sourced meat and produce, serving their much-acclaimed hazies and sours alongside the cooking of chef Ian Hock of Norfolk’s Codex restaurant. The Veil’s planned three-story restaurant will open later this summer in the former Chophouse building in the city’s newly dubbed Railroad District.
The Veil has long been associated with good food in Richmond. The beer is notoriously hard to get hold of and brewer Matt Tarpey is particular about who he sells it to. So if a restaurant has The Veil on the taplist, it’s usually a sign of good things — whether at the acclaimed Lehja and Longoven in Richmond, or newer-school spots like Auntie’s Tiki Bar and Restaurant or Codex in Norfolk.
Hock says the menu at the new Veil taphouse will keep the food simple to accommodate what they hope will be hefty crowds in the hulking space on Colonial Avenue. “We just want to enhance the experience that’s always been given at The Veil,” says Hock.
What that means is The Veil will now serve the same burger Hock serves at his upscale-casual restaurant Codex – a massive patty of hand-ground, grass-fed beef from Pendulum Fine Meats, layered with Vermont cheddar, Arab-spiced pickles and rich aioli on a buttery brioche bun. It is a world of richness, and it will be backed up with still more richness on the menu: chicken-gravy poutine with white-cheddar curds brought in from Wisconsin, and mortadella on French rolls with hot pepper relish and spring onion mayonnaise.
Both the Veil and Hardywood chefs also plan more upscale beer dinners in the upper levels of their respective restaurants, with fine dining foods paired to the breweries’ more esoteric options. For Sparatta, this move is part of a generational shift — a mingling of high-end food and beer that is new to this generation in America.
“I think the younger generations, people in their 20s and 30s, it’s more prominent with beer than wine – the wine and food generation might be a little bit older. But really it’s the ability to pair with beer. Considering the diversity of beers available now, it makes it easy to pair more diverse selections. There are so many flavor pairings, so many available options.”