July 9, 2012

Richmond, VA: Hardywood Park Craft Brewery

Hardywood Park Craft Brewery has been on the Local Beer Blog radar for some time. They first caught my attention when I heard about the new brewery opening in Richmond, VA. I was then intrigued by the news that they were making a community-hopped IPA. When I read that Hardywood won a Bronze Medal at the World Beer Cup, it was clear that this was a place I needed to visit. I recently had the pleasure of meeting the co-founders at their production brewery in Richmond, VA to discuss their journey into the craft beer business and their various locally-flavored ales.

Like many passionate brewers, lifelong friends Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh first fell in love with craft beer while traveling abroad. In 2001 they visited a farm in Australia called Hardywood Park, where they sampled their very first homebrew, an amber ale that literally changed their lives. From that point forward, they were committed to the business of beer.

Upon returning to the states, Eric and Patrick immediately took up homebrewing. Eric found a job as a brewer's apprentice at the Carolina Beer Company while he was a student at Davidson College. Patrick has followed in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, training at the Siebel Institute in Chicago, the Doemens Academy in Munich, and Brauerei Heller Trum in Bamberg, Germany.

Eric worked for a hedge fund out of college, but soon realized that the lifestyle wasn't for him. He went to work for Union Beer Distributors in New York, a division of the L. Knife & Son distribution company. Patrick joined him in the company soon afterwards. As sales representatives at Union Beer, Eric and Patrick got to know many of the biggest craft brewers in the United States, including Allagash, Victory, Rogue, Green Flash, and Oskar Blues. In fact, they were responsible for introducing several brands to the New York City market. During this period, Eric and Patrick also became particularly fond of the Belgian styles, all the while gaining an understanding of both the retail and distribution sides of the beer business.

Over the years they earned promotions within the distributorship and Eric launched a very successful website, but Eric and Patrick remained committed to the idea of opening a brewery. Then things started falling into place. Between the recession, a huge surge in the craft beer industry, and a feeling in their guts, they felt the time was right. Hardywood Park opened its doors in October 2011, almost exactly 10 years after they first started imagining a brewery of their own. In regards to the long wait, Eric McKay said:
"We knew in our hearts that we could make it work and that it was time to really make it happen. I think it's worked out, definitely to our advantage, that it's taken a lot longer, because before, we really didn't have a good grasp of how beer gets to market, how distribution works, and what things motivate distributors, or how to encourage distributors and retailers to be a team in what they're trying to do."
Community-brewed Craft Beer

Their experience with Union Beer Distributors and love for the Belgian Trappist beers are key to the Hardywood approach to a beer portfolio. Eric and Patrick seek to create beers that are underrepresented in the market, which in the case of Virginia, means a niche in the area of Belgian-style ales. The Hardywood flagship is a Belgian Singel, which Richmond native Kerwin Wyche eloquently describes as "mind-bendingly smooth and tasty, bitter, but it doesn't chase you around the room."

Perhaps fundamental to their success, Hardywood Park is crafting strong ties to the greater Richmond community. In addition to hosting frequent events at the brewery, they feature local ingredients in several of their "innovative and soulful" brews:
  • Bourbon Cru - The Hardywood Bourbon Cru is reminiscent of some of the best Trappist ales -- strong in alcohol, flavors of brown sugar, caramel, and spice -- yet the Cru has a pronounced bourbon flavor. The bourbon barrels are sourced from the A. Smith Bowman Distillery of Fredricksburg, VA, just north of Richmond. This Belgian Quadrupel goes into the barrel at 9% ABV, soaks up some bourbon that was left behind, and ends up at a potent, but balanced, 10.2% ABV.
  • Gingerbread Stout - The award-winning Gingerbread Stout uses ginger sourced from Casselmonte Farm and honey from Bearer Farms, each within about 20 miles of Richmond. When the local ginger and the honey came to their attention, Eric and Patrick had a feeling that the ingredients would go well with their vanilla imperial stout recipe. The Hardywood Park Gingerbread Stout was meant to be, scoring a perfect 100 in BeerAdvocate magazine. 9.2% ABV and 55 IBUs. (Watch this video on the making of the Gingerbread Stout.)
  • RVA IPA - In the spirit of collaboration, Eric and Patrick resurrected a practice from their homebrewing days. They invited local hop-growers to share their harvest for the creation of a Double IPA. The 2011 batch, representative of the terroir of Richmond, VA (RVA), was brewed with Columbus, Cascade, Chinook, Centennial and Glacier hops, coming out at 80 IBUs. Hardywood has donated 1,000 hop rhizomes to individuals in the community to support future renditions of the RVA IPA.
  • Virginia Strawberry - Hardywood solicited help from community volunteers to sort and trim a full ton of strawberries from Studley, VA's Agriberry Farm. I was fortunate enough to taste a sample of the Virginia Strawberry Belgian White from one of Hardywood's 40 bbl fermenters. The beer had huge aromas of fresh strawberries. It still needs about a week to condition, but should be ready for the 14th of  July release party.
  • A Yet-To-Be-Named Hardywood Park/Legend Brewing Company Collaboration - During my visit, Patrick was working on a collaboration with the boys from Legend Brewing Company. It's a Belgian Wit-inspired ale made with locally-grown lemongrass. Look for the beer at the Virginia Craft Brewers Fest, August 25th at Devils Backbone Brewing Company in Nelson County, VA.
Thanks to new legislation in Virginia, each of these beers can now be enjoyed by the glass at Hardywood Park. The founders of the brewery were instrumental in getting Virginia Senate Bill 604 passed, commemorating the event with an appropriately selected Special Bitter 604. The American-style Special Bitter is dry, malt-forward, and sessionable at just 3.8% ABV, but with a respectable 32 IBUs.

Visit the brewery:

W - F: 4-8 PM
Sat: 2-8 PM

2408 Ownby Lane
Richmond, Virginia 23220

The Hardywood Park pilot brewery, which they use to test out new recipes.
Photo: David Ackley
The full-scale, 20 bbl Hardywood Park brewhouse and
conditioning tanks. Photo: David Ackley

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