By Ben Swenson
After 73 Virginia governors, you’d think passing the torch would involve little more than a series of predictable routines. Yet revelers at Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural festivities in January had the chance to enjoy an unprecedented addition to the celebration: InaugurALE, a beer made specifically for the event by Ashland’s Center of the Universe Brewing Company.
By most accounts, the beer was a hit, a reflection of a jubilant mood among craft beer fans and manufacturers across the commonwealth.
The industry has seen impressive growth the past six years, thanks in large part to strong support from the highest levels of state government. Northam plans to continue a full-throated endorsement for this flourishing trade.
But Virginia’s craft beverage renaissance is showing signs of maturation, meaning the new governor will have to tackle emerging challenges in his quest to be a champion of this segment of the economy. And, of course, Northam’s relationship to the industry will be gauged to some degree by the successes of his predecessor.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe was an avid booster. The number of craft breweries in the commonwealth more than tripled under his administration, and he made an effort to visit many of them.
Among those was The Virginia Beer Company in Williamsburg. McAuliffe helped man the kettle last September as the crew brewed a wet-hopped IPA. “It was very genuine outreach,” said co-owner Robby Willey. “It wasn’t just for the photo opportunity or the free beer. He wanted to encourage small business and entrepreneurship.”
McAuliffe increased the months that officially celebrate Virginia libations; August became Craft Beer Month and September, Virginia Spirits Month. October was already Virginia Wine Month. He hosted receptions at his executive mansion home that were well lubricated by Virginia-made beverages. He even left behind a working symbol of his love for the industry: a kegerator.
That might seem funny, but Northam does not see protecting the craft beverage industry as a joking matter. He has taken charge of a state that’s home to more than 500 wineries, breweries, cideries, and meaderies.
“Governor McAuliffe did a very good job in his four years building the new Virginia economy, and I worked very closely with him. We’re going to continue a lot of the work that he did,” Northam said.
But a changing craft beverage landscape will temper Northam’s relationship to this homegrown industry. Brewery growth is slowing nationwide, and the expanding market share of craft beer has stagnated.
Legislation winding through this year’s General Assembly session shows that members of the craft beverage community are thinking deliberately about industry standards and best practices, and at a more measured pace than the rapid expansion of previous years.
One bill would require that 20 percent of beer at craft breweries actually be made there, a proposal that would prevent breweries from skirting the spirit of SB 604, the landmark 2012 legislation that allowed for taproom sales without also selling food.
Another bill under debate would increase the number of times breweries can sell beer at special events offsite, a reflection of a community embracing a spirit of celebration and collaboration.
Chris Ray, who co-founded Center of the Universe Brewing with his brother, said manufacturers are hopeful that craft beverages will continue to thrive under the Northam administration. The popularity of InaugurALE, a Belgian-style blonde ale made entirely from Virginia-grown ingredients, was a good omen. All of the beer went to the inauguration festivities, although fans continue to ask about it.
“We made six barrels,” Ray said. “I wish we had made 30.”
In the decidedly more political realm of craft beverage policymaking, Ray hopes policymakers will be more purposeful in embracing Virginia brewers. “I’d like to see more fiscal responsibility when it comes to grants,” he said. “Instead of bringing in outside breweries, I’d like to see more attention paid to those born and raised here.”
Northam said he understands the complexity of Virginia’s craft beverage scene, which is why he supports ongoing dialogue to make sure that stakeholders can feel comfortable that state government helps rather than hinders progress.
The craft beverage industry is a major part of Virginia’s economy because it directly puts people to work in taprooms and manufacturing facilities, but there are other benefits, according to Northam. “It’s using Virginia products, especially agricultural products,” he said. “And it does a really good job of being part of our tourism industry, which is billions of dollars.”
That’s the heart of the craft beverages in Virginia, said Virginia Beer Company’s Willey, who also sits on the board of directors for Williamsburg’s Economic Development Authority. “Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, the craft beverage industry is important,” he said.
Craft beverages are not a political matter, they’re an economic one, he said. What Northam, and every Virginian should be optimistic about, said Willey, is that “we have a population that is thirsty for beer, and we are ready to take advantage of that.”