By Matthew Korfhage
Two of the most exciting new taprooms in Virginia arrived last November within a scant eight days of each other.
One is a sleek, three-story, 24-tap palace of hazies and pastry stouts in Norfolk’s Railroad District. The other is an all-but-unmarked production room in Richmond, pouring barrel-aged wild and farmhouse beers made with a refinement rarely seen in America.
The two differ so much in style that they amount to a sudsy yin and yang, but each in its own way is equally ambitious – and both come from The Veil Brewing Company.
The Veil is perhaps the most argued-over brewery in Virginia. Though only three years old, the Richmond-based beermaker has quickly risen to the forefront of conversations about Virginia beer, routinely called the state’s best by national beer sites and coveted by bottle traders in New England and on the West Coast.
Its brewer, Chesapeake-raised Matt Tarpey, has a resume that looks like the contents of a beer geek’s dream book. After starting at O’Connor Brewing Company in Norfolk, he brewed at The Alchemist and the Hill Farmstead Brewery, both in Vermont, as well as at legendary Cantillon in Belgium.
While part of the appeal is certainly buzz, The Veil’s beer also ranks among the most distinguished in the state. Its hazy IPAs fly to the pillowy outer edges of the style, velvet-soft and as aromatic as a field of flowers. The kettle sours often taste like candy made in England, gently tart, with a surprising gush of fruit. And the most sought-after stouts — the boomingly big ones that inspire lines around the block on Black Friday each year — are raspy with oak and yet sugary enough to feel sentimental. They’re like a Tom Waits song in beer form.
So, when the brewery announced it would expand to Norfolk’s Park Place neighborhood, the news was greeted with the scrutiny and excitement usually given over to superhero television. On opening day, a block-long line of fans waited for hours to score rare bottles and beer merch. So far, the taproom has successfully withstood both crowds and expectations.
The food, from Norfolk farm-to-table restaurant Codex, is both low-cost and excellent, clocking in at around $12 a meal for Turkish-pepper beet salad, a pasture-raised burger with seasoned fries, and a fried chicken sandwich that ranks among the best in town.
The decor, Tarpey says, is mostly his vision — a three-story, minimalist ode to dark walls and oddball art – a “The Veil Made Me Do It” neon sign here, a macabre skull harpist there. On the first floor, an uncannily realistic fake tree was painstakingly plastered over into Ansel Adams whiteness by artist Stephanie Green. The three-story cat mural on the building’s exterior is a beast that lives only in the head of The Veil’s art director Tim Skervin, who also makes the brewery’s labels and branding.
“Most people don’t notice,” says Tarpey, “but if you look closely the cat has five legs.”
The tasting room is manageable on weekdays, but on weekends the crowds crush in tightly. On a Saturday night, the dark walls and pumping music make it feel like something far from the sedate family brewpubs of yore. It feels like the nightclub that hops and barley built.
The Norfolk pub is a sort of vision statement, one that will inform the two more tasting rooms planned in Richmond in 2020: a mixed-use development in south Richmond planned for spring, and a Scott’s Addition food hall taproom that will replace The Veil’s original tasting room. If The Veil was once a beer cult, it will soon reach empire status.
But if the Norfolk brewpub booms loud, Richmond’s new Funkhaust Café tasting room speaks softly and with great elocution.
No sign announces the tasting room’s presence in the bowels of a Dabney Road industrial complex, next door to an electrical contractor. On faith, you must instead open an unmarked door adorned with a wavy-lined window decal.
For just a few hours a day from Thursday to Saturday, you will find Tarpey’s personal homage to the bare-bones Belgian breweries that made him excited about beer in the first place. “We’re having fun with it,” Tarpey says. “With the Funkhaust we don’t need any business there. That location is purely a passion project.”
The Funkhaust doubles as the barrel room where The Veil ages its funky, wild and spontaneously fermented beers. It also looks the part. Half the tables are just empty beer barrels. A rack of full ones sits next to a rust-orange couch that looks lifted from someone’s 1990s college apartment. Your server, standing behind the mere four taps, is probably one of the people who helped brew the beer. Ask how it was made, and you might download three uninterrupted paragraphs of excitable detail.
At the Funkhaust, you won’t find the brewery’s most popular beers. An IPA is not guaranteed. There are few boozy stouts. There are no beer slushies. And there are no fruity kettle sours that taste like raspberries.
Instead, you get the soft and subtle beers that brewers like to drink. Half the four taps are devoted to funky barrel-aged farmhouses in the Belgium style, made painstakingly and over the course of many months. Half are “clean beer”: low-alcohol lagers, saisons and maybe a low-alcohol IPA.
All 11-ounce pours will be a mere $5. That goes for a banana-forward Bavarian hefeweizen. And it goes for an impossibly refined farmhouse blend called Lovely, a happy accident made with pure-leaf Citra hops that Tarpey says “wasn’t supposed to be what it is.” Made from two beers thought to be failed experiments, the aged blend became, well, lovely.
So was an open-fermented lager called Dwell that also sometimes pours at the Norfolk taproom, and a wine-aged farmhouse called Make You Feel. And if you don’t want what’s on the taps, the Funkhaust also serves a battery of vintage Veil rarities that can’t be taken home, they can only be drunk there.
Very quietly each week, the Funkhaust serves some of the most accomplished beers The Veil has made — some of the most refined beers in the country. But compared to the big IPAs and goses and stouts, they’re also a niche product. On a Saturday at the Funkhaust, you might be one of only five people there.
“If we were just brewing wild beers and lagers, we probably wouldn’t be talking right now,” Tarpey says. “But they’re the beers brewers love. They’re the beers I love.”