Beer and college students go together like gin and tonic, or, for those under the legal drinking age, vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. But while college towns have long tended to feature beer-related activities that privilege quantity over quality, the trend towards craft and micro brewing, combined with beer enthusiastic students has combined to create another good combination: the college town and the microbrewery.
Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, is a quintessential college town, the college in question founded by Thomas Jefferson, who also is credited with planting the first wine grapes in the nation. He failed, or rather, the grape vines failed to take, but good ol’ TJ did not go thirsty, as he had plenty of beer, brewed on his own plantation. (He also had cider.)
There's still plenty of beer in the area today, as greater Charlottesville is home to several small breweries that have organized themselves into “The Brew Ridge Trail”. Several have received national recognition for their beer, and at least two are capitalizing on that attention by expanding their operations.
Just be aware that this is not a trail, exactly. From downtown, where you’ll find the lone brewery still in the city, South Street Brewery, you could easily hit each of the breweries in a single day, as you would hit a wine trail. (The furthest is about an hour from downtown.) But most of these breweries are actually restaurants, rather than “tasting room” set-ups. So if you’re determined to hit them all, you could order a flight of beer to taste, but you’ll probably feel a little left out if you don’t try the food which tends towards the simple, hearty and rather delicious. A better strategy would be to plan your meals around your beer tasting – or perhaps use it as a meal break when you’re out wine tasting on the Monticello wine trail.
Star Hill is the largest and best distributed of the local microbrews, with a distribution partnership with Anheuser Busch. The company got its start in Charlottesville in 1999, and grew into the need for larger digs in an old ConAgra frozen food plant in the town of Crozet, about fifteen miles from downtown.
As the exception to the brewpub/restaurant rule in the area, Star Hill is very much set up for visitors on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. There are hourly brewery tours on weekend afternoons, and on Friday through Sunday there are free tastes (and generous ones at that) are poured at an often packed and lively three-sided bar, which is flanked on ones side by the glow of grow lights, shining on containers of humulus plants, also known as hops.
History geeks, take note: Star Hill also is the brewery behind Monticello’s official beer, which launched in 2011. Monticello Reserve Ale, made from a combination of wheat and corn and lightly hopped, and a best guess at what was brewed at Monticello under Jefferson’s watch. The actual beer enjoyed by the Jeffersons likely varied from batch to batch, since in 1821, Jefferson noted that he had no recipe for his beer, and doubted “if the operations of malting and brewing could be successfully performed from a receipt.” Read more about the history of this beer.
Monticello Reserve Ale is available only at Monticello (where you’ll also want to take note of the salt-glazed beer bottles, replicas available for sale in the gift shop), and the Star Hill tasting room.
Based in Afton, Virginia, about twenty miles from Charlottesville, Blue Mountain Brewery is aptly named for its fairly stunning view. The small brewery grows its own hops, and bottles nine varieties of beer and seasonally offers many more on draft. This is a restaurant rather than a tasting room set-up, and a terrific option for lunch. (Menu.) Try the Edwards pulled pork barbecue sandwich – the pork hails from Edwards BBQ in Surre, Virginia -- and leave room for the outrageous Evil 8 bread pudding, made with the brewery's own Evil 8 Belgian style Dubbel Ale.
The furthest flung of all the “Brew Ridge Trail”, about 45 minutes from Charlottesville, but close to the Wintergreen ski area. Devil’s Backbone headquarters are a striking building of stone and wood and glass, much of the interior was recycled, reclaimed, locally grown or made. This is very much a restaurant with an extensive menu, but the bar is a great place to do a tasting of Devil’s Backbone well regarded and much-decorated beer – it cleaned up at the awards ceremony Great American Beer Fest in 2010 – especially the Gold Leaf lager, which is also the most popular.
At the time of my visit, Wild Wolf Brewery was a very small beer brewing operation (a nano-brewery, where their seven beers on tap are sold in growlers), located inside what was mostly a homebrew supply shop. These are temporary quarters, as Wild Wolf is set to expand into a new facility nearby which will include – yes – a restaurant. Follow the progress here.
For designated drivers and/or the under aged, Wild Wolf also offers a fine root beer, made with local honey.