Local craft breweries enjoy increasing numbers

John Hovermale, left, head brewer, and Art Major, owner of Escutcheon Brewery, show off a brewing apparatus. Tom Crosby/Daily

The craft beer industry in Winchester/Frederick County is blooming.

In three short years, the number of microbreweries has flourished from zero to four and four more are in planning stages for the area.

Oddly, local craft beer brewery owners yearn for more competition.

“The more the merrier,” said Art Major, owner of Winchester’s Escutcheon Brewery on 142 W. Commercial St. “We become more of a destination. People don’t want to drive to visit just one brewery.”

The lure is the exotic tastes produced by each brewery, as unique as a carefully cut diamond. In the Winchester/Frederick County area alone, there are more than 70 different locally produced craft beers on tap at any one time.

Billie Clifton, owner of Backroom Brewery, draws one of their locally produced craft beers. Tom Crosby/Daily

Those breweries will tout their wares in Winchester during Craft Beer Week June 3-9 and June 10 from noon to 6 p.m. on Old Town Winchester’s Mall for the fifth annual Hop Blossom Festival fund-raiser supporting GoodDogz.org and the local SPCA.

And by next year, two breweries may open in Strasburg, one in Front Royal and another one in Winchester, according to area planning commissions.

Winchester’s exposure to craft beer – and wine – came from Charlie Fish, who opened Murphy’s Beverage Company on the Loudon Street Mall in 1997 and stocked her shelves with Virginia wines and craft beer from everywhere.

“She is the grandmother of craft beer in this town,” said Major, who consulted her before opening his brewery two years ago. “She is so knowledgeable and supportive. She has the passion for it.”

Fish sells craft beer from her shelves but doesn’t offer tastings, as does The Better Beer Store on Valley Pike.

Caleb Ritenour, of Alesation Brewery, gets ready to open for business. Tom Crosby/Daily

Co-owner and manager Kevin Eckles, 42, has 16 craft beers on tap, filling 16-ounce cans called crowlers or 32-ounce jugs called growlers during his limited tasting hours and stocking his shelves with 450 brands of beer.

He is riding the craft beer trend, catering to an older clientele who may just want to shop and not go to a brewery, with regular out-of-town customers from Martinsburg, Strasburg and Front Royal, he said.

When the store opened 2 1/2 years ago, Eckles, a former research scientist for Bausch and Lomb, said he felt “sheer unadulterated terror” but soon discovered craft beer’s unwavering attraction.

“In this business, if you’ve had a good day, you want a beer and if you’ve had a bad day, you want a beer,” he laughed.

The area’s first craft beer brewery was Backroom Breweries, a farm brewpub born in January 2014, evolving as a companion business on the Sunflower Herb Farm owned by Billie Clifton.

Holly Redding, left, and Bonnie Landy pose in front of Winchester Brew Works' landscape wall mural. Tom Crosby/Daily

“I said hops are a herb that flowers and makes beer, so we should make beer,” she said, proving the brewery’s expertise early by winning several craft beer awards in statewide brewing competitions.

Located on 40 acres just off Reliance Road four miles beyond Middletown’s town limit, Clifton notes the family friendly farm enjoys room for children to roam and play, plus the aspect of being a restaurant as well as a brewery and herb farm.

Eric Casper and his family recently visited Luray Caverns and were heading home to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, when they pulled off Interstate 81 to get something to eat and taste beer at the Backroom Brewery.

Casper, 38, a National Guardsman, is a craft beer aficionado and like most craft beer lovers, uses social media to track down breweries when traveling, often bringing along wife Jess, 31, and their kids aged 10, 6 and 8 months.

While the family was eating, he sampled a four-beer flight, saying, “I like the variety and the ingredients, they give you a taste that is a better product than what other beers do,” he said.

Kevin Eckles, manager of The Better Beer Store, offers a tasting. Tom Crosby/Daily

The latest arrival on the craft beer scene is Alesatian Brewing Company, the only other brewpub where the designation requires serving food. It is located atop Roma Old Town Wood Fired Pizzeria on Winchester’s Mall across from the Old Court House.

It opened 10 months ago with 1,100 square feet in space – two-thirds dedicated to tasting and eating; one-third to brewing.

“We’re kind of tucked away up here,” said Caleb Ritenour, 26, who grew up in the restaurant business. His family has owned Roma’s Casual Restaurant in Stephens City since 1991.

Ritenour got his first taste of craft beer as a member of the University of Virginia’s Jefferson Brewing Society while earning his degree in aerospace engineering.

“It was more of a hobby then and then it became a business,” he said, having managed Roma below when it opened in 2014 and now Alesatian’s restaurateur/brewer/engineer.

It is the smallest brewery, limited to 48 capacity, but has a broad menu, thanks to the full-service restaurant below, and doesn’t allow under age 21 into the brewpub.

“I began cooking at an early age,” Ritenour said, and believes “beer is made to go with food. It is a social thing and when food is around people tend to stay around longer.”

No food is sold at Escutcheon or Winchester Brew Works on 320 N. Cameron St., as they are breweries, not brewpubs. However, customers can bring their own food in or have it catered to the brewery.

Brew Works is the largest area brewery and co-owned and managed by two women, Holly Redding, 31, and Bonnie Landy, 34.

With a huge indoor area holding 160 people and a patio outside that can seat another 40, they attract an older crowd early in the evening and a younger clientele later.

“We are not one of the late night spots,” Landy noted, closing at 11 p.m. Saturday and earlier during the week.

With blond wooden tables, a steel-laced ceiling, they sought a semi-industrial look.

“We want people to feel comfortable and stay,” said Redding. “They don’t need to feel rushed out the door.”

“A lot of people don’t know that some craft beer companies have been bought out by the macro breweries,” Redding said. “When they find out, some get mad and stop purchasing that brewer’s beer and turn to supporting local breweries.”

Sitting on the patio outside, Dylan Beck, 26, visiting from Pittsburgh, Pensylvania, said, “You can buy big brand beer anywhere, but this is the only place in the world where you can find beer by Winchester Brew Works.”

“Companies quashing competition and becoming a bigger monopoly does tend to rub people the wrong way,” said Landy. “I didn’t realize how much local ownership matters to consumers”

As for the future of the craft beer industry, “I have nothing but optimism,” said Major. “It’s growing so fast. People want variety and to support local businesses.”

Nationally, microbreweries and brewpubs grew approximately 8 percent to more than 5,300 last year, while global beer brewers lost market share, according to the national Breweries Association.