Mountains of Hops
Craft Beer, Comfort Food And Beautiful Views Blend Together To Create A Memorable Autumn On Central Virginia’s Brew Ridge Trail
Jason Oliver goes to work each day and drinks a little beer. He likes it. And, besides, that’s his job. He’s a brewmaster at Devils Backbone Brewing Company, where the brands include Gold Leaf Lager, an award-winning beer that tastes clean and refreshing and is made from the waters of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I have a blank slate,” Oliver says. “I have really good equipment, and I have the ability to create whatever I want. So I go through a lot of variety. It’s always fresh. And I guess I’m always stimulated by always creating new things and also bringing back old favorites.”
Over the past five years, Oliver has overseen the introduction of 90 different beers at Devils Backbone Brewing Company, an institution of Roseland, situated among the scenic mountains of Nelson County.
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, less than a half-day’s drive from the heart of Hampton Roads, a handful of breweries—including Devils Backbone—have now bonded to invite customers to their tasting rooms, brewery tours, trivia games on patios and all the best kinds of pizza, flatbread, steaks and seafood.
Six breweries are members of Virginia’s Brew Ridge Trail, stretching from downtown Charlottesville to Crozet and into Nelson County, the home of Devils Backbone, Blue Mountain Brewery, Barrel House and the Wild Wolf Brewing Company. These craft breweries—along with South Street Brewery in Charlottesville and Starr Hill in Crozet—formed the Brew Ridge Trail as a marketing partnership.
It’s an idea much like a wine trail, says Taylor Smack, the founder of Blue Mountain. “You can hit multiple locations. The amount of limos, stretch Hummers, tour buses and just everybody getting together and renting a little bus in our parking lot, on the weekend, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Smack, 38, bottles popular brands like Kolsch 151 and Maggie Maibock in Afton, at the Blue Mountain Brewery. He also oversees the development of 35 different brews at Blue Mountain each year. Many of these are sold in cans, bottles and on tap, and distributed to more than 1,200 locations—far from remote Nelson County.
“Everyone in my generation of brewers was a home brewer. That was my inspiration—just seeking out better beer,” says Smack, who was once the head brewer at Charlottesville’s South Street Brewery.
“This isn’t weird. This isn’t new. This isn’t flavored beer,” Smack adds. “What craft brewers are doing is reclaiming the heritage of American beer.”
Blue Mountain’s sister brewery, The Barrel House, lies just off U.S. 29 near Arrington and produces such brands as Dark Hollow (noted on labels as an “Imperial Stout Aged in Oak Bourbon Barrels”) and Local Species (described on bottles as “a Belgian-inspired, barrel-aged, American-hopped experimental sort of ale”).
Wild Wolf Brewing Company boasts its own colorful and creative blend of brands, like Blonde Hunny (“Belgian style blonde ale brewed with honey and spices”) plus Strawberry Schwarzcake (“German styled black lager brewed with strawberries”) and Area 151 (“Belgian style ale brewed with raspberries”).
Blonde Hunny has become the most popular brand, says Wild Wolf owner Mary Wolf. “With a name like that, we actually thought we would end up having to change the name. It’s sort of a silly name, but people love it. It’s a really popular beer. It’s refreshing. It’s got a good flavor. It’s not too hoppy.”
Both Wild Wolf and Blue Mountain, also grow their own hops—one of the key ingredients in making beer.
In 2012, Smack harvested more than 300 pounds of hops in a field at Blue Mountain. But that was, actually, only a fraction of the more than 2,400 pounds of hops needed to make all of the beers here each year. “We have over 100 people come to our hop-harvesting festival,” Smack says.
Brewers along the Brew Ridge Trail, likewise, appear to have the same theory as to why so much beer is here: Clean water. “We all have wells,” Smack says. “And I personally believe it’s the people coming here and experiencing the atmosphere. Anyone is going to have a good association when they come to any of the breweries.”
Yet, this trail is more than just about the beer.
The ever-expanding Wild Wolf Brewing Company, at Nellysford, sits along a village of shops selling gift items and beer-making kits. Open since 2011, Wild Wolf’s restaurant specializes in sushi, pasta, crab cakes, smoked meats and flatbread pizzas featuring Fontina cheese, pepperoni, a pulled-pork barbecue and sliced scallions.
“Ninety-five percent of what we make is made from scratch,” Wolf says. “And when you taste it, you can tell.”
Going to dinner at Blue Mountain Brewery, you can sample a frosty mug of the flagship brand, Full Nelson Pale Ale, while munching on flatbread, smothered with cheese and vegetables.
Besides beer, Devils Backbone specializes in fish and chips plus nachos, piled high. “We have keyed in on certain foods that really complements the beers,” says Heidi Crandall, the marketing manager. “People come here because of the food—not just the good beer.”
What’s also a draw? The atmosphere of the stone-and-wood tavern at Devils Backbone. Open since 2008, the interior incorporates pieces of a salvaged chicken coop. And giant trophies of elk and moose heads jut out of the walls: These are the prizes of Steve Crandall, a hunter and the husband of Heidi Crandall, as well as the founder of the Devils Backbone Brewing Company.
At Blue Mountain, Wild Wolf or Devils Backbone, the patios and mountain views are natural lures. Come autumn, with leaves turning colors, those views can be spectacular.
“I’m just excited when I see families coming in,” Heidi Crandall says. “Anybody —not just families—can come in and feel like they’re at home.”