By Eric J. Wallace | Photos by Eric Lusher
More than 250 contestants gathered along the banks of the James River in Chesterfield’s Robious Landing Park in late June for an annual triathlon. The event launched at 7 a.m. with a 650-meter swim across the river. But 5 minutes after it started, participants realized something was wrong.
John Clarke, a Richmond Times-Dispatch page designer, participated in the event and watched from the banks as kayak safety patrollers scrambled to help someone in trouble. Clarke told the newspaper they called for help and paddled fiercely toward the man who had disappeared beneath the water and didn’t resurface.
By 2 p.m. the swimmer’s body was recovered: He was The Answer Brewpub’s beloved bartender, Quy Pham. The news shocked friends and family and dealt a major blow to Virginia’s craft beer community.
“Quy had gotten really into fitness over the past two or three years,” says Tyler Kidd, Pham’s friend of 13 years, his voice trembling. “That’s what makes this so much harder to take … . He was an excellent swimmer. So, you know, something really terrible must’ve happened to him out there.”
The news of Pham’s death hit the Richmond beer scene hard. Pham helped manage one of Richmond’s most iconic craft brewing staples. The Answer is an outgrowth of owner-operator An Bui’s revolutionary Mekong Restaurant.
Founded in 1995, Mekong gained regional and national attention by offering one of the most expansive craft beer menus on the East Coast. Today, it features more than 50 specialty brews on tap and the restaurant carries an additional 34, give-or-take. Bui’s efforts to introduce connoisseurs to fantastic brewers and innovative offerings netted him semi-finalist nominations for Best Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional from the James Beard Foundation in both 2018 and 2019.
Pham, 35, was a naturalized citizen from Vietnam who moved to the U.S. in the late-1990s with his parents. Married with two young daughters, he’d been a fixture at Mekong for about 13 years. He was well-regarded among regulars at the restaurant.
“Quy wasn’t your average barback,” says Matt Tarpey, co-founder and head brewer for The Veil Brewing Company. “He loved great beer and was one of the most knowledgeable guys you could ever hope to encounter. And he was super dedicated to the local beer community. If someone was working on something new, or about to do a release, or whatever the case may be, he knew about it in advance. If there was an important event, you can bet your ass he’d be there.”
Bui says Pham played a big part in The Answer’s success. Pham loved the businesses as if they were his own, Bui says, and went out of his way to make customers feel at home.
“He was passionate about great beer and wanted to share that passion with everyone,” says Bui. “He traveled the world looking for special beers to bring back to (Mekong) and could speak knowledgeably about every product we carry and more.”
Though integral to business operations, Bui says he loved Pham like a family member. He is acting as a spokesperson for Pham’s wife and children, shielding them from inquiries as they grieve.
Kidd, a lawyer, has been a regular at Mekong for about 20 years. He says Pham was very social. “He was the kind of guy that would get your phone number and, if he didn’t hear from you or see you for a while, he’d check in to see how you were doing. Not a person walked through those doors that Quy didn’t try to make feel special. Because of that, many, many people cared about him.”
Testifying to Pham’s endearing popularity are the many Richmond-area memorials and parties thrown in his honor since June. The Answer now features multiple odes to the fallen barback. Following a tribute concert, a large outdoor mural was unveiled featuring his image and nickname, Diablo. Inside, his road bike hangs on the wall near a commemorative photo collage, painting, screen-print and plaque.
“Losing Quy like this has blindsided everybody,” says Tarpey, The Veil’s brewer-owner. “I keep showing up at events and thinking, ‘Where the heck is Quy?’”
Foremost on everyone’s minds are Pham’s wife and children, says Tarpey.
“They’ve lost their husband and father, and it happened all of a sudden,” he says. Like most healthy young Americans, the Phams hadn’t protected themselves against the possibility of such an event.
“I feel like it’s our duty to help them through this as much as we can,” says Tarpey. “Losing someone is hard enough; Quy’s family shouldn’t have to be worrying about finances while they’re in mourning.”
The Veil released a limited-production memorial brew on July 24. Trappist-style brown bottles featured an artist’s rendering of Pham and contained beer Tarpey says would have left Quy grinning with approval; he was known for his love of interesting, but oddball, dessert brews. The 12.4-percent alcohol by volume imperial chocolate milk stout was aged for 23 months in special oak barrels used to age bourbon and maple syrup, and conditioned on a blend of Ugandan and Madagascar vanilla beans.
How did it taste? “Like delicious milk chocolate and syrup-drenched pancakes with vanilla and marshmallow fluff on top,” Tarpey says. Around 400 bottles were sold, ranging in price from $60 to $200. By the close of the day they were all gone. Sales totaled more than $25,000. Proceeds were donated directly to the Phams.
“Quy was one of us,” says Tarpey. “If it had been me in his place, he would have done the same thing. This was the least we could do.”
Want to help?
Quy Pham’s church is leading a GoFundMe campaign for the family with a goal of raising $100,000. To date, contributors—most citing experiences at The Answer—have donated more than $81,000. The campaign can be accessed at www.gofundme.com/f/phamily.
“Thank you so much for the love and support you have shown Quy and his family in their time of need,” wrote Tuyet Suong Tran, Pham’s wife, in a statement responding to the GoFundMe campaign and The Veil’s release. “The amount of support he has received truly shows how loved he was within his community. My family and I are truly overwhelmed and cannot ever thank you enough for being a part of his life and helping to ensure that his little girls are going to be taken care of moving forward.”