By Matthew Korfhage
Less than a mile from downtown Sperryville, at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, past a bridge that accepts one car at a time, on a gravel road that dead-ends into a stand of trees, a trio of brothers is brewing some of the most distinctive beer in Virginia.
You can find it reliably only at Pen Druid Brewing, served on a bar made with wood taken from a century-old barn.
As a psychedelic-tinged and blues-haunted rock band called Pontiak, the Carney brothers – Van, Lain and Jennings – have released 12 albums, toured the world and might even be famous in Italy.
But in Sperryville, they’re just the local boys who came back home to make beer. And it just so happens that their beer, brewed with local malts and native yeasts, could be the most Virginia beer in Virginia.
Inspired by the ancient gueuze and lambic brewers of Belgium, Pen Druid makes much of its beer using yeasts harvested spontaneously from the Blue Ridge air on a coolship, an open-top fermenter.
The brothers brew it outdoors, in a copper kettle heated by a wood fire. They can only harvest the natural yeast in the winter, so for the rest of the year Pen Druid employs a yeast the brothers discovered on a little lavender flower, the name of which escapes them.
“We call it our flower culture,” says Van Carney. “We got it from a flower under an apple tree.”
The life of a rock band was the goal, but then two of the brothers fathered children and constant touring seemed too hard to do forever, so they settled close to home in 2015 to brew their beer. The name, Pen Druid, is a nod to their family farm and crest.
“We grew up here, my dad grew up here, and my grandma grew up here,” Carney says. “Sperryville was where I got pulled over when I was 14 years old, driving a truck with a 12-year-old brother in the back, wearing a swimsuit with no shoes on. We were buying my mom something to drink and some cigarettes. That was 1994.”
The trooper, Jeb, knew their mom. He let them drive home – still barefoot.
Van Carney started as a homebrewer in 2010 and quickly became obsessed with making better and better beer. The brothers drank a lot of beer on tour, especially in Europe, where they fell in love with old-world brews, which included barrel-aged blends of young and old spontaneous beers whose wild-harvested yeast made each one a reflection of its home.
“We wanted to make beers that are really from here,” Carneys says.
Apart from the hops the brothers use, everything in Pen Druid’s beer is from Virginia. They opted to use the wood-fire method because it was better, both economically and ecologically. And it allowed them to work outside more.
“Brewing during the winter is the best, especially when it’s snowing. It’s physical enough it keeps you warm — it’s actually really nice,” Carney says.
The brewery’s unaged beers are distinctive and earthy, but its barrel beers are where the real action is, whether an intense whiskey-barrel-aged porter made in collaboration with famed Holy Grale beer pub in Louisville, Kentucky, or blends of spontaneous beers that can take up to three years to finish.
Each November, to make their flagship spontaneous blends, the brothers hold a tasting of all the barrels. It’s an experience both exhilarating and depressing, says Carney, because it’s hard to predict how spontaneously fermented beers will taste.
“We throw a lot of beer away — we dump like 30 percent, 40 percent of our beer because it’s not up to our standards,” he says.
But the brewery’s blend of one-, two- and three-year-old spontaneous beers — the first vintage of which was released in March — is the reason the brewery exists. It’s the vision the Carneys had in their heads when sipping beers outside a cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.
They plan to make their “III” beer every year from now on, and the first vintage is complex — malty, oaky, earthy — and balanced with light sourness. Its flavor is mouth-fillingly round, a long and twisting story told over a campfire in the Virginia snow. Despite being all Virginia, it’s unlike any other beer made in the state — a memorable song you can still hear long after you sip it.
And indeed, Carney says the process of creating it feels a lot like the way they make music.
“We literally go from the brewery to the studio to record, and it feels like we’re doing the same thing. It’s the same headspace,” he says.
Making the beer is just a different way of trying to make the idea you have in your head into a real experience you can have in the world— whether a sound or a flavor.
“You know, we’re looking for something without angles,” he says, “something with a good nose, something where the front is pleasing but it opens up in the mid-palate. You’ll never make the perfect beer. You’ll never drink the perfect beer. But you have those moments when you almost do.”