By Matthew Korfhage
Rhett Rebold’s brewing career started the same way a lot of brewers’ probably did: He followed his love of punk rock into the world of DIY beer, joined the CIA to fight communism, and then was named the best homebrewer in America.
A few blocks from the ocean, in Virginia Beach’s self-consciously bohemian Vibe District, sits Rebold’s Vibrant Shore Brewing Company, a thoroughly modern brewery with a tap list full of newfangled hazy IPAs, obscure styles like a Schwarzbier black lager, a raft of excellent goses and a downright terrific milk stout on nitro.
But Shore’s birth, and its owner’s life in brewing, go back to the very beginnings of modern craft beer.
Rebold, 57, was a business major at Virginia Common-wealth University in Richmond in the early 1980s. During that time, his love of English punk and ska – The Jam, Madness, The Specials – propelled him to the bottom of many glasses of English bitters and stouts.
He started brewing his own while still in his teens. “I started so early in craft beer, there was hardly any American literature,” he says. “It was British books, like ‘Dr. Foster’s.’ In Britain they’ve been homebrewing much longer … .”
The first beer he made was resolutely awful. Or, as the British might say, “very interesting.”
“I walked into a wine and cheese shop and they had a homebrewing shelf,” Rebold says. “They gave me a mimeographed piece of paper and said, ‘Here’s a good recipe.”
It tasted like a warm glass of under-carbonated farts.
But rather than give up, Rebold became obsessed with making better beer, trying batch after batch. Brewing in Virginia at that time didn’t seem like a possible career path, so when the CIA recruited him, Rebold chose the spy life.
“I was surprised,” he says. “But I had a minor in international studies, I took some Russian language, and I’d become interested in fighting the Cold War. My focus at that point was ‘Let’s see if we can be a spy against the Soviets, but then also an advocate for the alternative free writers, the samizdats, the people who ran afoul of totalitarian governments.’”
Back then, he figured, he could be a spy on behalf of punk rock and zines.
“It’s not wrong to say that rock ‘n’ roll may have beaten Communism,” he says. “Especially in the Czech Republic and their repression of the Plastic People of the Universe. I saw them play in the ‘90s, and one of them looked like Lou Reed.”
The reality ended up a little different. Rebold became a CIA case officer, complete with a cover story he can’t divulge. His job was to recruit spies and defectors.
“It’s a lot of pressure to encourage someone to make that leap, to basically go against their government,” he says. “Even though in a lot of cases they have higher guiding principles, it is still a betrayal of a sort. And there’s a lot of responsibility. You’re sort of cultivating somebody, and saying, ‘I know you have problems with your government: Would you like to help us change your system?’
“In some cases, it’s more like, ‘I know your daughter has that tough condition. Would you like an American doctor to help her?’”
Luckily, he says, he was working in what was then called “white propaganda”: The kind where you get to tell the truth. After all, he was a terrible liar. Even saying his cover story out loud often made him blush.
He abandoned his career in covert spycraft after just a few years. “It always made me so nervous,” he says. He transferred departments to the newfound world of image analysis. He examined spy satellite images and wrote reports, along the way rediscovering his love of photography.
But then the Cold War ended and the Soviet bloc fell, taking with it the reason he’d joined the CIA. So, in 1996 he followed his love of photography to Hawaii, where he used the mapping and imagery skills he gained at the CIA to help cities prepare for hurricanes and earthquakes. In a way, he considered it a chance to use his powers for good.
Through it all, he never stopped brewing. Long before a lot of American brewers had discovered that clear beer could also be craft beer, Rebold had begun experimenting with counterpressure bottling and filtering.
The year before he left the CIA, in 1995, he submitted a clean and clear helles-style lager he’d made to the national homebrewing competition. The judges were suspicious of the beer because they could see right through it. “They thought it could be a ringer, like someone had poured commercial beer into a bottle. They were so used to seeing sediment at the bottom.”
Rebold’s beer won the top national prize and netted a perfect score in one round of judging. Not only that, but the American Homebrewers Association named Rebold the 1995 homebrewer of the year. In the intervening decades, Rebold has racked up a few more certifications. He became a certified beer judge and went through two crash courses at the prestigious Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago.
While in Hawaii, he worked side gigs as a substitute brewer at craft pubs. And at Vibrant Shore, he’s brewed alongside former Devils Backbone brewer Corey Maggard, who helped Rebold scale up his recipes.
And now, more than 35 years after Rebold made his first beer, you can sit on a rooftop beer garden at Vibrant Shore Brewing, above a monumental mural of King Neptune, and drink a version of Rebold’s nationally awarded helles lager.
It still tastes like pure and noble-hopped Bavaria, and it still pours clean and clear.