By Ben Byrnes
The Loudoun market is brimming with craft beer.
From 2011 to 2015, the county saw unprecedented growth in the beer-making industry with 17 brew-related ventures opening, and at least six more are in the works for 2016. That would bring the number of breweries in the county to 23, on a pace to quickly catch up to the number of Loudoun wineries.
The strength of the county’s beer scene has even caught the eye of Downington, PA-based Victory Brewing Company, which announced plans to open a 300-seat restaurant and full service brewhouse in downtown Leesburg.
But is there a point where Loudoun has more locally-produced beer than thirsty patrons?
Kellie Boles, agricultural development officer for the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, for one, doesn’t think so. “As long as we’re bringing in innovative and creative entrepreneurs to the scene, they’re going to capture a piece of this huge market that exists in the Washington, DC, area,” she said.
Loudoun was home to just one major brewery operation from 1989 to 2008—Old Dominion Brewing Company. After Anheuser-Busch acquired the operation, the Ashburn-based brewpub closed. That left the market wide open and, over the next few years, brewers jumped at the opportunity to take their stake.
“I knew that Ashburn was one of the pioneers of the craft brewing industry,” said Matt Hagerman, who teamed with Old Dominion’s former master brewer Favio Garcia to open Lost Rhino Brewing Company in Ashburn in 2011. “And I knew the market was pretty prime here, and there was a vacuum by [Old Dominion] exiting out.”
Since then, changes in state law and local regulations have only encouraged more beer-making operations, including state legislation in 2012 that cleared the way for breweries to sell their product on the premises it was made without requiring a full-service restaurant. Loudoun County also adopted an ordinance last year to allow beer to be sold on farms where ingredients are grown. The industry also got a boost by the creation of the LoCo Ale Trail, a marketing campaign spearheaded by Visit Loudoun to increase the brewery industry’s visibility.
Today, Loudoun’s high number of beer-producers has shown to be an incentive for breweries to come join the movement, not a deterrent.
Boles said the Office of Economic Development knows of breweries that had been looking at setting up their operations in neighboring counties and decided to instead come to Loudoun because of the beer-loving scene already in the county.
“It’s a kind of collaborative culture and our Loudoun breweries are telling those breweries, ‘why are you looking in those jurisdictions? Why don’t you come to Loudoun?’” Boles said.
The camaraderie among Loudoun breweries can be easily seen, and tasted, with frequent collaborations on special release beers and the occasional sharing of facilities and resources.
Tyler Oyler, CEO of Grail Point Brewery, set to open this year, credits the operation’s success in getting started in large part to well-established local breweries. Oyler is working with Beltway Brewing to build his brand.
“I have found most if not all breweries to be incredibly encouraging to new craft brewers and brands,” he said. “It’s a fairly magnanimous community that tends to work in great concert with each other. It also tends to lend itself to partnering with the local community to assist in tourism.”
There are a few who acknowledge the industry likely has a bubble, including Darren Gryniuk, co-owner of Old 690 Brewery near Hillsboro. “There’s definitely a population around us that wants to visit the county and drink beer, and I definitely think we could certainly use more breweries,” he said. “But there’s going to be a saturation point sometime.”
Other brewers believe that the future will be determined by the quality of the beer being produced, rather than how many brewers are producing it.
Brian Patlen, owner of Bald Guy Brewing, who is in the process of setting up shop in Loudoun, said, “As for the number of opened and planned breweries, both the population size and especially the affluence of Loudoun County can easily support them and a lot more. But there’s a catch,” he added. “They must make good beer. That’s the threshold.”
Hagerman noted that concentrations of breweries have worked well in other parts of the country. “If you look at other models like towns in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, a lot of them have been able to sustain a large group of breweries and a lot of that had to do with particular breweries having particular niche markets,” he said.
The variety offered by the farm breweries on the west end of the county and the commercial breweries tucked amid eastern Loudoun’s industrial parks appeals to wide demographics and creates the foundation for a sustainable model for young industry. As the playing field widens, and attracts brewers and patrons from around the Washington, DC, area, the demand for high quality and innovative flavors will help Loudoun establish a nationally recognized craft beer scene. DC’s Wine Country is getting much hoppier.
Ben Byrnes has worked in the food industry for 11 years. He lives in Leesburg with his wife and newborn son.