For a city steeped in history, it’s no surprise that Richmond holds a special place in the lineage of beer.
The first beer sold in a can debuted in Virginia’s capital city in 1935. It was a grand experiment from New Jersey-based Gottfried Kruger Brewing Co., and it proved a hit.
A toast to Richmond’s place in beer history is a good way to start a tour of its thriving new craft beer scene, just a 2 1/2-hour drive north from Raleigh. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, in a warehouse district just north of downtown, makes it possible.
As an homage to one of the first Kruger beers to ship to Richmond, Hardywood sells its cream ale in a can, complete with directions on how to open it, just like the first shipment nearly 80 years ago.
The brewery, co-founded by Eric McKay, who has family ties to Raleigh, is the city’s best. It specializes in barrel-aged beers and unique offerings, drawing crowds in the hundreds for some of its special beer releases. The Gingerbread Stout, a decadent holiday spiced dark beer, ranks as one of the Southeast’s most coveted bottles.
Opened in 2011, Hardywood counts as one of the more established craft breweries in the city. Richmond is a young scene but one growing with huge potential, much like its brethren in North Carolina.
The scene “is very new,” said Tommy Miller, who operates Richmond Brewery Tours. “But Richmond is grabbing onto that history of being the aluminum can innovator … and breweries are latching onto that and the consumers are really supporting it.”
What’s exciting for visitors is the downtown beer district beginning to develop, with five breweries sandwiched within 5 miles or so and more on the way.
Hardywood is a good place to start. So is Legends Brewing, a brew pub on the banks of the James River that is the granddaddy of the beer scene, celebrating 20 years in 2014.
From there, move to newcomer breweries Isley and Strangeways, which are getting early acclaim.
Mike Isley has a small three-barrel brewhouse that lets his brewers try a number of different styles. The early favorite is Choosy Mother, a peanut butter oatmeal porter served on nitrogen, which adds another layer of creaminess. “We have some real just true beers, and then on the other end we think real outside the box,” he said.
At Strangeways Brewing, experimentation is the name of the game. The brewery features an unheard-of 25 taps of their own beer, including a series they call “curiosities.”
Head brewer Mike Hiller said the brewery’s style is hard to pinpoint. “Everything we do is strange. It’s weird,” he said. “With few exceptions, we don’t brew anything to a particular style.”
One of the must-hit destinations on the city’s beer list is not a brewery. Mekong Restaurant touts itself as the best craft beer bar in America (so declared by a national online survey) and lives up to the billing.
The Vietnamese restaurant is in a random strip mall on a main drag filled with neon lights. But inside the beer list and food won’t disappoint.
An Bui, the restaurant’s beer director, says beer is the answer to just about any question, and he means it. He gets beers that you can’t find anywhere else in the region.
“They are our mainstay capital for everything craft beer,” says Miller, the tour guide. “It’s where locals go to try to taste it first.”