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Crafting a relationship

photoTimes-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny Nils Schnibbe, co-owner of MacDowell Brew Kitchen recently opened in Leesburg, sits at the custom-built wine barrel with a built-in bench. The bar also features craft beers and a beach-themed patio with a fire pit and planned palm trees.

Nils Schnibbe drove a bus. A yellow one.

Schnibbe is a seven-year Loudoun transplant, leaving his home in Northern Germany – just a half-hour drive from the famous Beck’s Brewery – to be with his wife in the United States.

A self-titled and proud “Mr. Mom,” Schnibbe has built quite a following in Loudoun, touting nearly 1,500 Twitter subscribers who tune in to his thoughts on life and the trials and tribulations of raising a son.

But Schnibbe’s other passion, the one scrounged from homeland Germany that he’s never been able to shake, is beer. And he’s acted on it. After a stint driving buses for Loudoun County Public Schools (his son was able to ride along with him on the route) and working at the neighboring Doener Bistro, Schnibbe was ready to open his own brew kitchen with partner and building owner Gordon MacDowell.

“Especially in Loudoun County, all these breweries have started popping up,” Schnibbe said. “There must be something going on here, in a good way.”

The duo’s spot – MacDowell Brew Kitchen – rounds out the “Beermuda Triangle,” a contingent of beer-toting establishments, including neighboring restaurants Tuscarora Mill and Fireworks Pizza.

With such a high concentration of quality craft beers in a block radius, competition would appear cutthroat for Schnibbe’s spot, especially with the Bistro’s German beer concoctions and a variety of different brews served right across the street. But this hasn’t been the case.

“The key is we all try to complement each other,” Schnibbe said, explaining how MacDowell Brew Kitchen doesn’t carry any German beer, which would be better found next door.

Still, MacDowell’s isn’t lacking for selection, touting nearly 100 unique brews. Eight of those are on draft – and mostly local – showing off regional delicacies from the likes of Lost Rhino, Dogfish and Flying Dog breweries. There is something for everyone, and a new taste each time. Lost Rhino also distributes to nearby Vintage 50, a restaurant and microbrewery on Catoctin Circle that serves its own unique flavors of brews.

At MacDowell’s, it’s just not about the beer. Honoring the “kitchen” part of the name, the joint offers several bar-food varieties and smokes its own pulled pork barbecue in-house.

While the locale isn’t yet crafting its own offerings, the gears are working to make its own selection a reality. Offering a drinking and snacking environment for any thirsty traveler, with bars, tables and booths and an outdoor beach soon-to-be-fitted with palm trees, MacDowell Brew Kitchen makes a fitting round out to “Beermuda.”

Craft craze

While often associated with fraternity parties or a precursor of potentially questionable decisions, the beer industry is growing into its own as an economic cog of the Northern Virginia region.

For those looking to enter the business of brew, the Northern Virginia area is prime with tipplers looking for the next best tasting beer. A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in July 2011 stamped D.C. metro area dwellers with the title of the top boozers in the nation. The trend is bubbling, the administration reports: alcohol consumption is on the rise in Washington, D.C. and its environs, as 8 percent of adults ages 26 or older, were reported to be alcohol dependent. 

“The beer industry is truly an engine for our national and local economies,” says Joe McClain, president of the Beer Institute, in a 2011 annual report. More adults are of legal drinking age now than any year in the last decade at 71.6 percent of the population.

The craft beer industry is fast improving – up 15 percent nationwide in the first half of 2011 after consistently rising for the last decade. In comparison, the industry as a whole saw a 1 percent drop in beer volume sold in the U.S. in 2010, indicating small breweries are making a significant impact.

“Shipments across the country were down in 2010, and nearly every region saw volume declines,” McClain said in the report. “But there were bright spots. The high-end beer market did extremely well last year, with imports and craft-style beers leading the way. Beer continues to be the preferred alcoholic beverage of Americans.”

Large brewers such as Anheuser-Busch may be loosing grip in the market as sales of its top-selling beer, Budweiser, dropped 4.6 percent in 2011, according to a trade publication, Beer Marketer’s Insights. The receding market share once reserved for the big players paves a golden road for small, craft breweries to pop up like malt in a heady stein.

It may all be starting right here in Northern Virginia.

Rise of the craft brewery

In an industry that generates 1.8 million American jobs and pays $71.2 billion in annual wages and benefits (and $44.7 billion in taxes), there is a lot of revenue to go around.

Sterling resident Sten Sellier is one of the new entrepreneurs that have come forward with the growth of craft brews.

Sellier, an engineer, launched the Beltway Brewing Co. exclusively for contract brewing after having spent 10 years as a home brewer.

This means the company produces beer for other businesses in the industry that cannot build or expand their own breweries.

For Sellier, the start of his own brewing company was always a matter of “when,” not “if.”

“I knew it would happen someday, and the stars all aligned last year,” Sellier said.

His original idea was to start his own brand, his own label, and he figured the easiest way to do that was to pay someone else to do so. But he was soon met with resistance – brewers were either at capacity, wanted too much of a commitment or didn’t have the time. By accident, Sellier carved his niche.

“That’s when it hit me, I’m not the only guy out there looking for this kind of thing,” Sellier said. “And nobody does this exclusively. I saw an opportunity to help others in my shoes.”

Six months from launching, Sellier, whose Beltway Brewing business model won a new start-up award from the Loudoun Small Business Development Center, is now working on raising funds and taking the next step toward throwing open the doors at Beltway Brewing. It won’t come cheap.

“To open a brewery, you could easily spend a half million to $1.5 million at start-up,” Sellier said. “The cost of a brewery is a loaded question really, there are so many price components. That is completely overwhelming and very scary, but I’m sort of embracing it.”

Sellier’s favorite beer? “The one I haven’t had yet,” he said.

Hops for dollars

The restaurant industry is helping fuel the small-beer market, especially in D.C., Maryland and Virginia region, as new restaurants are more than ever having a go at an extensive beer menu.

A restaurant that is truly pushing forward with a unique beer menu is Fireworks, which has two locations, one in the Courthouse area of Arlington and another in downtown Leesburg.

“The beer selection at Fireworks tempts people to come in by providing a learning opportunity, whether they admit it or not,” says Sawyer Smith, a Fireworks server. “And you find the people who are more interested in the beer are willing to try a beer they don’t like in pursuit of finding one they do.

“The beer selection definitely brings guests back because they might see something they want to try toward the end of the meal, but they’ll save it for next time. Having the craft beers is the right move for the restaurant,” he says.

Building a lasting relationship

Sellier’s theory is that people like to have a relationship with their beer and the local brewers, that is part of the experience. He pointed to Flying Dog Brewery, in Frederick, Md., as an example of a large brewery that recently started scaling back operations to focus more on the D.C. region.

“Flying Dog decided to scale back distribution because they want to take care of their customers in Northern Virginia and D.C.,” Sellier said.

In college, when quantity takes preference over quality, it’s not uncommon for a student to load up on a fridge-full of Milwaukee’s Best Light. But in a region of young professionals with disposable income and a penchant for taste and quality, spending practices change.

“Beer has always been this way, it’s people’s awareness and the way they approach craft beers that has changed,” Sellier said.

Preserving an industry

The beer industry has seen a lot in its day, including a complete shutdown from 1920 to 1933 during the prohibition era. But it bounced back, now dominating Super Bowl ads and major media through the country.

“Our industry has a great story to tell – from creating jobs across the country, to being active within our communities, to giving our customers a product that brings people together,” Beer Institute chairman and Anheuser-Busch president Dave Peacock said.

With the shift toward giving local breweries a shot, the landscape of the beer industry is in for some changes.

When the dust settles, what will you be drinking?


Wineries, distilleries and breweries are fantastic drivers of Loudoun’s tourism.  We often take our friends from “out of Loudoun” to Breaux, Catoctin Creek and others.  The food and drink in Loudoun is phenomenal!

Nils, you rock!!!

The new economic development plan for Loudoun County should be emphasizing our new breweries. People will travel far and wide for a good beer and BBQ!

a man can’t have enough beer choices. going to check the place out. thanks for the info!

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