When almost two hundred and fifty years ago our third president cast eye and hand upon the land of his new central Virginia property, among the rugged, rolling shapes and verdant hues of the land in the Greater Charlottesville area, he envisioned many things, certainly. A university, to serve the community’s intellectual needs, Palladian architecture for grace and, of course…a 40-mile beer-fueled drive through the scenic byways of land in central Virginia, from the ridges of Nelson through Albemarle County and into historic Charlottesville.
If that last one seems odd to you, you’re probably not hip to the Brew Ridge Trail, an informal, “self-guided” brewery tour that spans some of the hottest beer makers in Virginia (they may be offering official tours by now). If this is the Age of the Craft Brew, this stretch of land through central Virginia is your local Mecca. The area, long celebrated for its vineyards, has a burgeoning microbrew scene. Note: We at Gayle Harvey Real Estate DO NOT in any way condone or encourage the operation of an automobile after consumption of alcohol. Designated drivers are your friends. Here is a list of drivers in the area.
You can start at either end or in the middle, but for simplicity’s sake, we’re going to start in Charlottesville proper with the newly-renovated South Street Brewery, on Water Street. This brewery, just footsteps away from the Mall, is sitting on some prime Charlottesville real estate. It’s a brewery with a full bar! Since being purchased by Blue Mountain Brewery last year, South Street has cultivated more of a sports bar vibe with its vast array of television screens. Their flagship beer is the Satan’s Pony, a solid amber ale with a dark red color, a sweet smell of toasted malt and caramel. It’s fairly well-balanced between malt and hops, perhaps a little on the sweeter side. Perhaps their most interesting beer at the moment is a Russian Imperial Stout called Anastasia’s Chocolate Fantasy, which has a big taste to match the name. This beer is quite dark as expected, with a couple reddish-brown glimmers and a sandy-colored head. Aroma-wise, it smells of dark fruits, chocolate, and a hint of roasted coffee. At a whopping 10%, it may be a one-and-done if you are to continue the tour. Fitting in with the sports bar atmosphere, South Street has typical bar fare…wings, burgers, club sandwiches etc. They also have quite a few incarnations of mac-and-cheese. $2 Tuesdays
Next up, we get to the Starr Hill Brewery out in Crozet. It’s a pleasant jaunt on Rt. 250, and as you pass through various pieces of property in Albemarle County, you ditch the city feel and start to grasp at the beauty of the surrounding areas. We’re not even in Nelson yet. Starr Hill is a straightforward brewery with a tasting bar. Their tours are more frequent than South Street, and they don’t serve food. However there are usually food trucks parked outside, most of them quite good. They will sometimes get a live band (there have been some killin’ jazz trios) but beer is what’s on the menu: it’s a bottling/packing plant with a couple beers on draft. The Northern Lights is probably the most consistent beer and it’s a solid little IPA. Smells of pine, maybe flowers. Pours a dark golden brown with suggestive hints of grapefruit and other citrus. Very drinkable if you’re not a huge fan of IPAs, but if you are, we’d go with the Double Platinum, an Imperial IPA. Considering the fact that it comes in at 8.6%, its flavor yields a pretty even blend of citrus and hops, and the smell is quite subtle. The Love is a Hefeweizen which, like the other two is offered year-round. It’s a cloudy, wheaty brew, brimming with coriander and banana. If it were a little lighter it’d make a great session beer, but either way it’s pretty easy on the load. Pick up a sixer while you’re here and hit the road (with a sober driver, of course).
The trail takes us next into the scenic byways of Nelson, one of the most beautiful places in the state. Nestled in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the sweeping views can’t be beat, and with your beer goggles on, you’re in a great position to enjoy the effulgence of land in Nelson County. Blue Mountain Brewery is arguably the powerhouse of the Brew Ridge, serving up the most consistently delicious beer in the most picturesque location. Their commitment runs so deep that they farm their own hops on two fields in Afton and small yard in Arrington. They’ve also got a second, newer location where they work with special, more time-intensive beers: the Blue Mountain Barrel House is technically a part of the tour but we may skip it…for functionality purposes. Blue Mountain’s undisputed flagship beer is the Full Nelson, a golden American Pale Ale, slightly cloudy hoppier than you’d expect. Its aroma gives out notes of citrus, toasted grain and definitely some caramel, but again it’s far less sweet than you have reason to believe. Taste-wise, the citrus comes on at first, with a bitter finish almost like grapefruit rind. Almost tastes more like a watered-down IPA than a pale ale, but it’s delicious nonetheless. The Kolsch 151 is an impressive contribution, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s impressive for an American brewery to pull this one off. It is pale yellow, with a light and unobtrusive bread smell…crisp and clean, very German. All their food is also made from scratch; they’re known for their specialty pizzas and a gluten-free menu that’s pretty good considering their main export is beer.
A casual couple of miles, past some breathtaking vistas and altogether idyllic rolling hills, and we’re at Wild Wolf Brewery. It’s a great spot for sure, and their heated auxiliary tent structure makes it a viable option at different points in the year. It’s more of a restaurant than a brewery; they prize the farm-to-fork ideology, and it really works for them. Their pulled pork nachos (appetizer) and tacos (main course) are two fun, creative dishes that really highlight the local fare. The shrimp and grits dish is absurdly good, and the grits are quite local (from the nearby Woodson’s Mill). But this is the BREW Ridge Trail. The Blonde Hunny is an interesting brew indeed. It’s almost polyamorphous…the “blonde” and “honey” aspects are readily apparent. If you like wheat beers you’ll probably dig this…it comes out golden amber, slightly cloudy as wheat beers are, and its smell is unassuming. But the full body and 6.8% ABV make it a formidable winter companion as well.
And our last stop…Devil’s Backbone. Like Wild Wolf, this gives off a “restaurant-turned-brewery” vibe. Most, if not all of these breweries have a seasonal pumpkin offering, but the Pumpkin Hunter from Devil’s Backbone is worth mentioning. It doesn’t overdo the pumpkin thing, and the smells are aromatic without being overwhelming. You get the bread, the warm malt flavors and of course pumpkin, vanilla, a little clove and cinnamon. Taste-wise, the vanilla and pumpkin waft up through the toasty bread vibes and balance everything out. Truly a pumpkin beer worth checking out. And of course you can’t mention a brewing company without mentioning one of its year-round beers. The Vienna Lager was a big hit for Devil’s Backbone and it still delivers. Its dark, amber-colored appearance belies the toasted caramel flavor. There are hints of bitterness, nuttiness, suspended between the fruity finishes and slight caramel bite.
So there you have it…by now the only drink we’re contemplating is a tall glass of Alka-Seltzer. But throughout the course of human history, there have been graver sacrifices made in the name of research. So we would do it all again…for science.