With a proper nod to the past, a reclaimed and refreshed Richbrau is back in RVA.
By Hilary Langford | Photos by Eric Lusher
Don’t call it a comeback; it’s more like a re-rebirth.
On July 4, as most Americans celebrated the birth of this nation, two transplanted New Yorkers and a Portsmouth native gave birth to the third iteration of a semi-iconic Richmond brand, “Richbrau.”
The name dates back to 1933 when Home Brewing Company got back to making beer following Prohibition and created a Richbrau beer. Home Brewing closed in 1969. The name came back in the 1990s when businessman Michael T. Byrne founded Richbrau Brewing Company and operated a brewpub in Shockoe Slip before going bankrupt in 2010.
The latest version was born in 2015 when Matt Mullett, a commercial real estate broker joined forces with his childhood friend, Hank Schmidt III and brewer Brian McCauley to start the new Richbrau Brewing Company.
Mullett, who worked with MillerCoors before commercial real estate, and Schmidt grew up in upstate New York and by chance, found themselves in Richmond together years later. Mullett’s brother-in-law introduced them to McCauley. “Things just aligned. We love beer. We’re history buffs. We love Richmond. Let’s merge it all,” he says.
Creating a unique space was important to the guys. While it would have been tempting to latch on to the past and chock a historic space full of memorabilia, Mullett insisted on a fresh start with proper nods to the past here and there (if you look closely, you can spot the old Richbrau shield in their logo). “We purposely stayed away from immersing ourselves in the craft beer industry. We didn’t join guilds or anything, because we thought that would shape what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to subconsciously end up stealing ideas,” he says.
Aside from the namesake, Richbrau is entirely fresh. Mullett grins when he recalls getting his hands on the current spot last September and sandblasting the ceiling with coal ash to lighten things up. Previously a foundry, auto repair shop and most recently a residence, there’s nary a trace of those incarnations today, in a good way.
Located in the cobblestoned heart of the River City’s Shockoe Bottom, just down the street from the old Richbrau brewpub, the vibe inside and out is rough and tumble, but modern. In other words, very Richmond.
A flickering gaslight outside beckons the thirsty, and inside you belly-up to an oil-rubbed bronze bar under a spacious ceiling surrounded by exposed brick and beams. A visible brewing area gives you a peek into the seven-tank action in progress, something Mullett had a lot of passion about. “The number one thing I wanted to accomplish was for you to be able to drink a beer and watch us brew,” he says.
Richbrau’s starting lineup boasts everything from imperial stouts to sours and hazy IPAs, all drawing on local lore for their names – a fortune-telling horse, the alleged vampire of Hollywood Cemetery and of course, Edgar Allan Poe, among curious others. Each label has an original illustration and well-crafted summary of the tale to school you as you sip.
According to Mullett, head brewer McCauley is a bit of an evil genius. With a background in chemistry, the James Madison University grad is well-poised to crank out balanced libations. “He has full autonomy on the beer side of things. We want the mad scientist aspect of Brian to continue as long as possible,” says Mullett. Schmidt also lends a hand with the brewing, leveraging his experience from Flying Bison Brewing Company in Buffalo, New York.
Standouts include Psychic Horse IPA, a crisp Citra-forward palette pleaser, and toasty, coffee-based Edgar Imperial Stout, which sold out when bottled for a Communities in Schools fundraiser. Both will be offered year-round; everything else will switch up across their seven taps.
Mullett says many fans of the old Richbrau often ask about a recipe revival of old favorites. “It’s not off the table,” he says. For now, however, they’re having too much fun whipping up their own creations and are more interested in creating a rich, on-site experience.
It will likely be at least a year before you start to see Richbrau pouring across the city. And while they’ve got space to expand and rumors of rooftop seating abound, it’s all about building relationships and reacquainting Richmond with an old favorite for now.