When Bill Butcher founded Port City Brewing Company in Alexandria in 2011—the first production brewery in the city since Prohibition—the American craft beer industry looked markedly different than it does today. At that time, only 40 breweries existed in Virginia and 2,600 in the entire U.S. Today that number has surged to 260 and 8,000 respectively, with 48 breweries in Northern Virginia alone. “The scene has changed dramatically, showing tremendous growth,” he says. “Breweries continue to open … meaning as the market gets more competitive, the quality of your beer becomes more important than ever.”
Consumer interest in locally made products, including artisanal spirits and wines, have undoubtedly influenced the continued uptick in breweries, but there are other factors at play, Butcher says. His brewery was the first company in Northern Virginia to qualify for an agricultural grant because Optimal Wit, Port City’s bestselling beer, uses exclusively Virginia-grown wheat, just one example of how the Commonwealth has continually supported the growth of the craft beer market.
Port City remains the area’s largest brewery, maintaining a delicate balance of widespread distribution and personalized attention to guests visiting its tasting room. But Butcher admits his brewery is a bit of an outlier. The bigger trend exists in smaller breweries focused on serving a niche market without selling their product to bars, restaurants or shops. But most breweries don’t need bells and whistles to earn their keep. “As long as brewers are focused on improving quality and dependable consistency, they can earn their customers’ support,” Butcher says.
Dirt Farm Brewing is one such operation, a brewery and working farm in Bluemont on the first ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains that’s a spinoff of the family’s 400-acre Great Country Farms. On a good day pre-pandemic, the staff welcomed 500 guests to the tasting room and stone patio overlooking Loudoun Valley.
Co-owner Janell Zurschmeide attributes the growth seen by Loudoun County breweries like hers to pro-entrepreneurial legislation including the so-called “pint law” passed in 2012 that promoted destination breweries and SB430, the “farm brewery bill” passed in 2014. “[It] rode the heels of our thriving wine industry and the local food movement to support an authentic ‘plow-to-pint’ product for Virginia,” she notes. “This new business model gave farmers and landowners a wonderful business opportunity and expanded tourism to more rural areas.”
Barry Biggar, president and CEO of Visit Fairfax, points to other initiatives to explain why the area’s craft brewing scene continues to blossom, including changes made to zoning laws that opened up parts of the county that had previously been inaccessible and the work of nonprofits like the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, which assists brewers in gaining access to lawmakers. Fairfax County now has eight craft breweries in nine locations, most of which launched in the past five years
No matter the size of the brewery, where it’s located, if you can spot its six-packs in the supermarket or need to purchase them from the taproom’s fridge, Biggar believes NoVA residents all seek two things from a brewery visit: “First, they want to experience a great craft beer indicative of local flavor,” he says. “Second, they want to experience the destination itself, similar to travelers who want to sample the local culinary scene.”
Zurschmeide agrees, adding that competition to deliver that immersive experience with stellar customer service, as well as a focus on innovative, creative and quality product, moves the needle for everyone. “The consumer has a lot to choose from, so we’re raising the bar for each other—and that’s a good thing for Virginia.”