Beer buzz: New laws a boon for local breweries

Unlike Virginia wineries, breweries in the state haven't been able to sell beer for on-site consumption without having a restaurant. All that began changing on May 15 when Governor Bob McDonnell signed two bills that have craft brewery owners hopping for joy.

"This is a big one for breweries," says Steve Crandall, founder of Devils Backbone Brewing Company up near Wintergreen Resort. "Mark Thompson over at Starr Hill Brewery always told me that a rising tide lifts all boats, and it sure does."

Indeed, Crandall, along with Thompson and a slew of other Virginia brewmeisters who make up the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, managed to convince lawmakers to pass SB 604 and HB 359 in less time than Crandall thought possible, a sign of how the brew biz in the state has grown.

Basically, SB 604 will allow breweries to sell beer and offer on-premises tastings just as wineries do. HB 359 will let breweries make beer for other labels under special contract. It also ends some rather silly distribution procedures.

For instance, Taylor Smack of Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, recently opened a second brewing facility in nearby Colleen. Under the existing regulations, beer picked up by truck from the new brewery and headed for Blue Mountain, just down the road, must first be driven to a distributor's warehouse in Richmond, where it must sit for 24 hours before getting trucked back to Blue Mountain.

What's more, Blue Mountain was also required to come up with a restaurant concept for the new place. Come July 1, when the new laws take effect, none of that will be necessary. When Blue Mountain Barrel House has its grand opening on July 1, it'll be one of the first of its kind in Virginia. Devils Backbone, too, has an existing tap room at a location in Lexington called The Outpost that will benefit from the new legislation.

Thompson, too, says there will be big changes at Starr Hill Brewery. While they've had a tasting room for about four years, they could only hand out two six ounce samples for free, and could only sell beer to go. Now they'll be hiring staff and have the tasting room open for onsite beer sales.

"Most of these are just stupid laws still on the books from the 1930s," says Smack. "A lot of credit goes to the other brewery owners in the area, who really pushed for this."

"This is a good win for Virginia," says Thompson, "and will generate taxes and jobs."

Indeed, lawmakers could be kicking themselves for not getting it done even sooner. Three years ago, Thompson says, he personally pitched the bills to the Governor at a BBQ event. More recently, Starr Hill marketing manger Mike Andres found himself pitching the legislation to a gentleman at a beer tasting in Virginia Beach. The gentleman turned out to be Republican State Senator Jeff McWaters, who ended up sponsoring the new legislation. 

Still, the state may have missed out on a chance to generate millions in revenue and create more jobs.

Earlier this year, three major craft-brewing companies from out West– Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium– chose locations in North Carolina to build their first breweries on the East Coast. New Belgium plans to build a $175 million brewery in Asheville; and Sierra Nevada, which looked at 200 possible locations this side of the Mississippi, is investing over $100 million in a new facility in nearby Mills River. One of the main reasons cited for the choice? North Carolina tweaked its laws, allowing beer makers to sell for on-site consumption.

"I think those moves really kicked this new legislation here in gear," says Smack. "It's a huge windfall for North Carolina, and we're talking millions and millions of dollars, because they are seen as a more beer-friendly state."

Indeed, Crandall thinks that those moves were a real wake-up call for Virginia lawmakers.

"It really put the efforts of our Guild on the radar," he says.

It also puts them in the spotlight. Moving forward, Crandall realizes the Guild must responsibly manage its new freedom so that tap rooms don't become "crazy bar scenes."

Plus, according to Crandall, there may be more legislative arm-twisting left to do. 

"Like wineries, we'd like to be able to use remote licenses to sell and promote our beers at festivals," he says. "For the time being, we still aren't allowed to do that."

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does anyone know if this is going to lead someone like Blue Mountain or Devil's Backbone to open one of these taprooms in downtown Cville? that would be a great addition to the DT Mall!

Great news but Starr Hill has always had a tasting room and no restaurant.

@Rob: We are opening Champion Brewing Company in downtown Charlottesville this fall, in the Belmont Bridge area. Stay tuned!