by Eric J. Wallace
When Tom Martin wheeled the first keg of Legend Brown Ale into Richmond’s Commercial Taphouse & Grill in early 1994, it was a huge deal. Banners celebrated his arrival; staffers and customers gave him a standing ovation.
In an era when craft brewing was an upstart industry, battling to gain traction on the West Coast, Martin had done the unthinkable: launched one of the East’s first microbreweries.
The brewery’s current vice president of operations, Dave Gott, was then working as a Richmond-based beer distributor. He remembers the event well. “If you loved beer and were living in Richmond, you were hyped,” he says. “What Tom was doing was essentially unprecedented. If you weren’t studying brewing science and hadn’t been to Europe, you’d probably never heard of a microbrewery, much less tasted one of their products.” Enamored, Gott befriended Martin and paid a visit to the Legend facility, which was located down a busted gravel road, on an abandoned street, in a decaying industrial district, and on the subterranean-level of a mostly rundown building.
There was a little 15-seat tasting room with a bar and a kitchen that served sandwiches to meet Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control requirements. In an adjacent garage were four, 10-barrel fermenters and finishing tanks. The beer menu consisted of a quartet of traditional European brews — a brown ale, lager, porter, and pilsner. Gott tried the fleet. “The taste was unlike anything available in the region,” he says. “I considered myself something of an aficionado. And yet, this beer absolutely blew my mind.” Gott could see Martin’s vision. Forget the seedy neighborhood; that would change in time. The building overlooked the James River and offered southwest views of Richmond’s downtown waterfront. Put in a big deck and quality restaurant upstairs, and you’d have a drinkers’ paradise.
“I remember thinking, ‘This guy might be a little crazy,'” says Gott with a laugh.
But from today’s perspective, the foresight appears uncanny. Not only is Legend Virginia’s oldest craft brewery, but arguably its most iconic.
Adding a 180-seat deck, full-service restaurant, and 30-barrel brewing and bottling facility that produces around 15,000 barrels of beer a year, the Richmond location spearheaded revitalization in the surrounding Manchester neighborhood.
Among a sea of accolades, its Brown Ale was named grand champion at the U.S. Beer Tasting Championship in 2005. In 2017, the company opened a sister-brewery in a historic building on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth’s Olde Towne district. Legend beer is now carried in more than 350 establishments ranging throughout Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
“It’s impossible to underestimate Legend’s significance for the Virginia brewery scene,” says Lee Graves, author of the 2018 book, Virginia Beer: A Guide from Colonial Days to Craft’s Golden Age.
“These guys were pioneers. They helped acclimate Virginians to the taste of craft beer, and paved the way for the vibrant, complex, and incredibly diverse scene we have today.”
The idea for Legend began with Martin’s father.
In 1972, Martin the elder was named brewmaster for Anheuser-Busch’s new Williamsburg facility and was soon promoted to vice president of European operations. The positions introduced young Tom to brewing, and later, Old World beer culture. Hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps, he matriculated to University of California, Davis to study brewing science in the early ‘80s.
There, Martin was surrounded by the dawning craft beer revolution. Accompanied by classmates, he frequented newly launched breweries like Sierra Nevada, Anchor Brewing Company, and New Albion.
“I saw what they were doing and came away totally inspired,” says Martin. Though he tried his hand brewing for Anheuser-Busch in Tampa, his heart wasn’t in it. He longed to bring what he’d seen in Europe and California to his native city.
“I started thinking: ‘I love Virginia, and I love Richmond,’ ” he says. “‘If I’m careful and build things really slowly, and educate people as I go along, I can make this work.’ ”
Operating on a shoestring budget, Martin pieced together used brewing equipment and found cheap space. With the help of his father, he perfected recipes for Legend’s four flagship beers by the close of 1993. The Brown Ale proved particularly promising: Its debut at the CommercialAdvertisementPauseUnmuteLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%Remaining Time-0:38Fullscreen
Taphouse won a small but devoted following.
Still, there were major hurdles to overcome, including convincing additional area owners and managers to carry Legend beer.
“Back then, most people drank one brand and that was it,” says Gott. Palates were attuned to beers like Coors Light or Budweiser, and brand-loyalty reigned supreme. “It took a lot of education and legwork to convince people to give us a try,” he says. “But, once they did, the doors opened pretty quickly.”z
Then there was the problem of distribution.
Accustomed to selling beer by the truckload, distributors considered five or six pallets-worth laughable. This forced Legend to establish a separate distribution company and sell for itself.
“Our primary focus was getting kegs into local bars and restaurants,” says Gott. “We did zero advertising and everything was word of mouth.
Distribution meant one of us making deliveries in a van—and I mean, any day, any hour. If it was snowing? We’d borrow somebody’s pickup.” The devotion and hard work paid off. James Talley, Commercial Taphouse founder and former president, dubbed Legend “Richmond’s beer” in a 2013 Richmond Times-Dispatch article. “People were sold on it. They identified with it and were proud of it. For me, I still have that original Legend Brown tap handle; it’s become part of the Richmond lore.”
Since opening 25 years ago, Legend has witnessed the birth of a thriving craft beer industry. Though there were just 26 licensed breweries statewide in 2006, Virginia now boasts more than 200. Together, they employ 28,000 people and do more than $9 billion in business a year.
The majority of the growth occurred following the passage of landmark legislation in 2012. Regulatory changes made it easier to establish breweries and sparked an increase of 468 percent. With a sudden influx of options, the market shifted rapidly.
“Everything has changed in the past six years,” Gott says. “There’s so much out there – you can literally try a different beer every time you turn up a glass. And nowadays, that appears to be the dominant mentality.”
Legend brewmaster, John Wampler, calls the trend a double-edged sword. On one hand, competition for brick-and-mortar customers and retail shelf and tap space has gone through the roof. On the other, it gave the 25-year veteran brewer license to experiment.
Subsequently, Legend now keeps 12 brews on tap. Bolstering its five flagship varieties (the Golden IPA was added in the late-‘90s) are rotating seasonal offerings, reserves, and special collaborations. Leading up to the company’s 20th anniversary, Wampler kicked off an annual Urban Legends series in 2013. Inspired by what he calls “old-school Richmond legends,” he crafts three or four beers a year with some of “Virginia’s most legendary brewers.”
This year, Wampler will release a trio of 25th anniversary double IPAs, each featuring a different combination of hops. The first, released in January, is made from Centennial and Amarillo varieties.