Summer, with all its outdoor antics, goes insanely well with the perfect cold beer. We crack open, share stories, toast moments, and relax for a sunset or star scattered sky. When it comes to the philosophy that guides The Virginia Beer Company, it’s the belief that beer people are the best people. We agree. Hailing from Williamsburg Virginia is an operation that doesn’t cut corners when it comes to creating beer styles that you can enjoy and share with your own friends and family. We sat down with Co-Founder Robbie Willey crack open a cold one and talk about what it means to brew beer today.
CYTIES: When did you decide you wanted to be a brewer and what’s the origin of the Virginia Beer Co. name?
Robby: Our passion to open a brewery started with people, then place, then product. I first met my business partner, Chris, and his wife, Erin, when we were students at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg VA: the eventual birthplace of Virginia Beer Co. Chris and I quickly bonded over an affinity for craft beer, which we frequently enjoyed during visits to the Green Leafe Café: one of the only places locally at the time that served not just craft beer but, at the time, an unheard variety of them across 40 taps.
After Chris and Erin graduated, we frequently visited each other in the DC Area (where I was working), New York City, and later, Boston (where Chris worked, respectively). Our trips regularly turned into excursions of the local beer bar and brewery scenes. That shared passion eventually led us to start homebrewing in our spare time. And, while we were never quite as good at homebrewing as we were at hunting down and sampling craft beers, our camaraderie of the growing craft beer industry kept bringing us back together.
When we finally made the decision to make a career of it (Chris had quit his job, and he and Erin were all-in) and return to Williamsburg, we met up in New York, in the summer of 2012, to hash out the name for our new business. Our initial ideas fluctuated between the whimsical, such as Willey-Smith’s Magic Elixirs, and the traditional, such as The Liberty Tree Brewing Co.
But we kept coming back to the origin of our joint business venture and friendship: Virginia. And, while The Virginia Beer Company name felt weighty, it was also a blank slate on which to build a brand that proudly represented Virginia’s exploding local craft beer scene that was really starting to gain momentum. That fateful weekend in New York led to the formal creation of The Virginia Beer Company, LLC and we haven’t looked back since.
We joke that you know it’s “a VBC decision” when it takes a lot of time for a big idea to be brought to life: We’re meticulous about our thought process and that’s been fairly consistent since the early days of dreaming up our business. Chris moved back to Virginia in 2012 and I followed soon after, and for various reasons, we didn’t open VBC until March 2016.
And, since we’ve opened there’s been astronomical growth in the beer scene. SB 604 was passed in 2012, allowing breweries in Virginia to have their own taprooms, which sparked double-digit growth across the state (there was a huge boom between 2012 and 2016) in terms of new breweries opening. We were right on time with our idea. Five years in, we’ve released 800+ batches and 300+ unique recipes, and we’re just getting started.
CYTIES: Why did you make Williamsburg, VA homebase?
Robby: In retrospect, Williamsburg was not just the obvious choice but the only choice. At first, it felt too obvious: Williamsburg was always on our shortlist, but returning to our college town to open a brewery felt too on the nose. So, we searched far and wide for potential brewery locations (Chris and Erin are from Connecticut and I’m from Northern Virginia, so we agreed that the East Coast would be optimal). And, throughout that process we actually put our degrees in Finance and Economics to work to identify cities in the region where there wasn’t a high number of breweries per capita, places like Augusta, GA and Blacksburg, VA.
Also, as luck would have it, that year, Chris and I were both volunteering on an Alumni Giving Board for William & Mary (we both joined in 2008) that allowed us to make a quarterly return trip to Williamsburg. This afforded us the opportunity to reconnect with our alma mater and reach out to business owners and elected officials to get a pulse on the local business scene.
We eventually realized that not only was Williamsburg a great place for a new brewery, but it was the only place that provided an authentic location for us to tell a story that’s core to our brand: the story of a few William & Mary alums who met in school and decided to create something unique in the place where it all started.
CYTIES: What drives the VBC brand?
Robby: Our company mantra is: Beer · People · Purpose. Our goal, from the start, was to build a brewery that would also be a force for good. We brew an ever-growing rotation of recipes on two brewing systems (one small and one large) to cultivate creativity, and we use our public platform to promote causes about which we’re passionate. Craft beer is all about variety and camaraderie, and when you combine that with a focus on inclusivity and establishing a legacy of building up your community, you can create something pretty special.
That’s our soul as a business. We like to say that our beers are only as good as the people with whom we share them, and we look forward to growing our ability to share Beers & Cheers with anyone who’s working to make Virginia, and the world, a better place. Every aspect of Beer · People · Purpose is important, but “Purpose” is what drives us. Taken from our roots at William & Mary, where there was real intentionality behind being ingrained in the Williamsburg community, our goal is to promote positivity and inclusivity wherever we expand our business: whether that’s across the state of Virginia or around the world (You can actually purchase our beer in the UK, Netherlands, France, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea).
We’ve been teaming up with several non-profits since we opened and have taken on championing more social issues as part of our “Purpose” focus. We joined Threes Brewing’s People Power initiative to support the ACLU. We teamed with Weathered Souls Brewing Co. for their Black Is Beautiful collaboration, and used the release of our version to support a local group called Media Mentors, which advocates to give a voice to those who are, too often, marginalized and left voiceless. And, each summer we release Friends Of Dorothy, a Pride IPA that supports LGBTQ+ rights and causes in and around Virginia.
Breweries, historically, have been integral parts of their community, and our community extends around the globe. I believe we will continue to see breweries take a stand to address social issues and speak up for causes they believe in. And, even if that trend doesn’t continue, we will continue to do so and even look to scale up that part of our business.
CYTIES: What’s a typical day like for you at the brewery?
Robby: Organized chaos. But that’s the life of a small business owner (or so I’m told). I work to manage a lot of the marketing and social media for the brewery, in addition to working directly with our team and doing what I can to support our managers. Plus, there’s the occasional day on the road when the Sales Team needs some back-up and time spent doing general business planning with Chris. There’s also the occasional management retreat to discuss upcoming beers and release events with our Brewmaster. And, pre-COVID, we were traveling to beer festivals, both locally and to places as far away as England and Japan. I’m prepared to go wherever the team needs me!
CYTIES: What’s been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a brewer?
Robby: Helping to open and manage a brewery has been a dream come true. Chris and I realized very early on that we couldn’t do everything ourselves, and we’ve worked to bring on a really solid and nimble team of managers and staff who’ve been with us since (or before) Day 1. Our Brewmaster, Taproom Manager, and Director of Sales are all OG members of our crew and getting to work with that group (plus one of my best friends in Chris) day in and day out has made every day of this venture worthwhile.
With that said, of course, there are challenges. Working to stay relevant is the biggest one: No matter how good our beers are or how engaging our taproom space is, people always expect to see and try new things. We are constantly innovating, and while that’s invigorating, it’s also a very time-consuming process to always be looking back at what’s been done while looking ahead to the future. There’s never one steady compass point, but it makes the beers we create at the end of the day that much more enjoyable!
CYTIES: How has the pandemic changed the way you operate and engage customers? What changes do you want to be permanent?
Robby: We still remember the day that we made the decision to go curbside-only. It was March 16, 2020. We had just released our Waypost Anniversary Imperial Stout, and its associated barrel-aged variants the weekend prior, and we were gearing up for our big 4-year anniversary party later that month. The management team met and we went into overdrive to pivot to an outdoor to-go operation: We added local delivery for the first time and pivoted to fewer draft-only releases and more can releases.
We were fortunate to have our own canning line and plenty of tanks, so even though margins are far tighter on cans than draft, we knew that pivoting to can releases would be important. Variety was key to keeping people coming back and to ensuring we could offer almost all of our recipes to-go. In 2020, we more than doubled the number of can releases we typically do in a year to the tune of 125+ releases. And, going forward, we hope to maintain that trend, as long as our resources align.
CYTIES: Do you have a favorite VBC brew?
Robby: Yes! Elbow Patches Oatmeal Stout. Elbow Patches is one of our year-round recipes, first developed at home by our Brewmaster during his early days of becoming a professional brewer. The name is super fun and pays homage to his days as a teacher. And, not only is it a smooth, surprisingly easy drinking dark beer, but it’s also our most award-winning beer (having won awards in the US, Australia, Japan, and Europe). It’s a 6.2% abv ode to the origins of the Stout style that can be enjoyed at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or anytime between.
CYTIES: What does success look like for VBC five years from now?
Robby: We’ve been blessed with five years of growth in terms of our team, our distribution territory, our portfolio of beers, and our ability to give back to the community. During the pandemic, we’ve worked hard to pivot to not only keep our business afloat but to keep our staff employed; We had a 100% team retention rate during the curbside-only months and as we slowly moved into limited outdoor service, followed by limited indoor service, we were actually able to grow our team. In addition, during the past 12+ months, we’ve been able to increase our normal rate of charitable giving, despite the pandemic. And, if we can continue to grow and build on our brewery’s solid foundation as a place that takes care of its family, through thick and thin, while also being a positive part of the community in which we live, brew, and play, we’ll be pretty pleased with where we are in Year 10.