Micro and farm breweries poised to boom in Loudoun
With a robust wine culture in place, the county branded as D.C.'s Wine Country is getting ready to make a run at brewing beer.
Changes over the past three years to traditionally rigid legislation on alcohol sales, low up-front costs and a cultural push toward local food and beverages have created the perfect business climate for the burgeoning craft beer movement.
Craft beer drinkers in Virginia are 60 percent male, educated, high-income individuals with an average age of 30, which is more than a decade younger than the average leisure traveler, according a study conducted by Visit Loudoun.
The industry has seen almost 20 percent nationwide growth in the past year, according to the American Brewers Association.
In March 2012, Virginia Senate Bill 604 abolished requirements that forced vendors to sell food with their beer. By selling pilsner instead of pizza, microbreweries can dispatch the high overhead costs associated with equipment, additional employees and kitchen space and get straight to the business of brewing beer.
The bill allowed microbreweries to focus simply on making and selling beer, a product with a much higher profit margin than prepared food, without the headache of running a restaurant as well.
"The ability to sell pints was the tipping point," said Jim Corcoran, the owner of Corcoran Brewing and Leesburg Beer Co. "I believe by the end of next year Loudoun will be the beer capital of Virginia."
Gordon MacDowell and Nils Schnibbe are running MacDowell Brew Kitchen, one of the most successful bars in Leesburg, with the idea of serving only craft beers.
The bar started with four beer taps, one for a beer from Loudoun, another from Frederick and the two others were reserved for beer from other East Coast breweries.
"We want to have as many local beers on tap to offer as possible," said Schnibbe.
"Customers wanted to see more. The demand was there for more taps. As more and more local beers become available, people want it."
The Brew Kitchen now has 45 beers on tap from all over the country, but more than half are Virginia beers or ciders.
Schnibbe, who manages the day-to-day aspects of the business, says some people call him crazy for not selling popular beers like Bud Light and Miller Lite.
He sees not selling those beers as a teaching moment to explain the virtues of craft beers.
"We educated a lot of people through that process. If people want a Budweiser, we say why don't you try this," as he points to something else on the menu.
While MacDowell Brew Pub does almost exclusively sell pints of craft beer from around the state and along the East Coast, they have a half-barrel brewery system, which Schnibbe hopes to increase to a three-barrel system in the next year.
The system produces between 120 and 140 beers. If marketed on social media, the beer can be sold in as quickly as two hours, Schnibbe says.
It's this kind of fervor that allows beer makers to keep pints moving.
Down on the farm
"If people were smart they would use their farms to start a microbrewery," said Corcoran, further explaining that start-up costs are minimal and farmers already have many tools to grow necessary crops.
On July 1, a bill signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe allowed farm breweries to do just that.
Senate Bill 430 created a new, limited brewery license for breweries that manufacture no more than 15,000 barrels of beer per calendar year, are located on a farm in the commonwealth and use agricultural products that are grown on the farm in the manufacturing of their beer.
Western Loudoun's wineries and farms would then be able to get in on the beer-making act.
The Zurschmeide family owns Great Country Farms in Bluemont, which seems like the exact type of operation for which the bill was written. It's an established farm with somebody in the family with a natural inclination toward brewing beer.
"We desire to grow a whole beer here," said Bruce Zurschmeide, the head grower and equipment manager at Great Country Farms.
Their imprint will be called Dirt Farm Brewing.
"We are a farming family looking for clever ways to grow our family business," said Janell Zurschmeide, Bruce's wife.
Bruce Zurschmeide added that, "People already come to the winery and the farm. We have a captivated audience.
The business plan for the brewery is to get the doors open and sell pints as a retail business."
Dirt Farm Brewing will start with a half-barrel brew system and eventually get into bottling and distribution.
"We are not going to be making a lot of beer early on. It will be a steep curve," said Bruce Zurschmeide.
Corcoran is one of the only people in the state qualified to speak firsthand about the business of simultaneously running a winery and brewery.
The brewery, he said, brought added value to the winery operations.
"My wine business jumped 200 percent because of the brewery. We never saw such growth at our winery until the brewery moved in," he said.
Corcoran Brewing turned a profit from selling beer within one year, whereas his winery took nine years to reach profitability.
Funding beer making
Corcoran started the farm's brewery using personal savings.
He started small, moving swiftly from a half-barrel system to his current 10 barrel system, which Corcoran says is enough to keep up on a retail level selling pints and growlers.
Jake Endres the owner of Crooked Run Brewery, a nano-brewery in Leesburg's Market Station, decided to fund his operation using Kickstarter, a crowd-funding platform that encourages people to support a project by giving rewards to people who donate.
In Endres' case, a credit card-like bottle opener that fits in your wallet was his most popular reward.
The more than $11,000 he received from the funding platform allowed him to get off the ground and start the eighth brewery in the county.
"I think Loudoun County is a good place to start any business, not just a brewery,"Endres said.
Supporting your local brewery
Mark Osborne, the owner of Purcellville's Adroit Theory would agree.
If Osborne had one piece of advice to give about starting a brewery it would be to open in a town where people want your business.
"Once the legislation [Senate Bill 604] came to fruition, the town changed its laws to be more friendly for businesses, and especially breweries. It became a no-brainer to move to Purcellville," said Osborne.
"Purcellville decided we would like to have some breweries in western Loudoun."
Osborne says he's spending most of his money on marketing. He believes the industry is poised to boom.
He explained the first person he hired was a brewer; the second was a graphic designer.
At first Osborne said he thought about opening a brewpub, but once it became clear he could sell beer directly to consumers, the plan shifted to a microbrewery.
Land, labor and construction are cheaper in western Loudoun, Osborne explained. But most importantly, Loudoun County is ready and willing to have breweries move in.
"You want to start a business where people want you there. You don't want to fight the local government," said Osborne. "Starting a business is difficult enough."
Osborne added that he thought Loudoun was not just pro-business, but pro-brewery.
"If [Loudoun] can support 50 wineries, it can support 50 breweries," he said.
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