Breweries open in Shenandoah Valley amid statewide boom

Isabelle Heater, 23, a server at Front Royal Brewing Co. holds a plate featuring the brew pub's Sobo burger and house fries outside the rear entrance of the Main Street brewhouse. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — By the time Jerry Welcome became an owner and managing partner for the Front Royal Brewing Co., his plans toward owning a brewery had been years in the making.

By 2012, his son had left the restaurant business in Morgantown and moved back home, telling Jerry that he wanted to start brewing beer. After his son told him about his plans, Jerry started looking into the business and saw a huge amount of growth.

“By the time we started looking at it, the annual growth rate of the craft brewery industry was over 20 percent,” Welcome said. “I mean, they were opening up breweries left and right.”

And that growth hasn’t slowed down.

Since 2010, the brewing industry has exploded in Virginia — from 36 at the beginning of 2010 to 260 in August 2018, according to data from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority.

Tim Arndt, head brewer and one of the nine co-owners, operates the control panel beside a line of brew tanks. Rich Cooley/Daily

And the Shenandoah Valley has clearly been part of that trend. In the beginning of 2010, there was only one place licensed as a brewery between Winchester and Frederick, Warren and Shenandoah counties.

Now, there are four breweries in Shenandoah County, not counting the Box Office Brewery, which is coming to Strasburg later this year; two breweries in Warren County; and four in Winchester.

Welcome cited part of the trend to a growing love of craft beer.

“People like craft beer,” he said. “They like craft — that it’s local, it’s got that local story, it’s handmade, it’s not just a big Budweiser thing,” Welcome said.

To that point, many of the people entering the industry are coming from home brewing. Tim Arndt, an owner and the head brewer at the Front Royal Brewing Co., is starting out in his first professional gig in the industry, after starting in home brewing.

At left is a glass of Front Royal Brewing Co.'s American Wheat beer and beside it is the same American Wheat beer but it is infused with lemon grass. Rich Cooley/Daily

Arndt first got into home brewing when his wife and sister bought him a home brewing kit for Christmas.

“I just started making batches five gallons at a time,” Arndt said. “And really at that point, you’re just looking to be clean, sanitary and making error-free beer.”

But there’s another factor leading to the growth across Virginia, and within the Shenandoah Valley. To see that factor, you’d need to look at Sibling’s Rivalry Brewery in Strasburg.

Kyle Slonecker, an owner of Sibling’s Rivalry, got into brewing through home brewing, much like Arndt. He was 21 at the time and thought he might save money on beer by brewing it himself.

The math only worked out when he didn’t consider the time he spent brewing the beer, but he nonetheless kept at it.

In recent years, Virginia has seen a steep rise in the number of brewery licenses. (Source: Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority) Max Lee/Daily

“I fell in love with the process,” Slonecker said. “The process itself is unique and, oddly enough, it was stress-relieving at the time.”

Now 29, he decided he would start owning his own brewery, having decided he no longer wanted to work for a boss. (He worked at Harris Teeter at the time.)

But the thing that made it work was a regulation that has only existed for six years.

In 2012, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that allows breweries to sell their beer on site. The changed regulation meant that breweries no longer had to sell food.

That change has brought about a significant increase in the number of breweries coming to Virginia.

Between 2010 and July 1, 2012, when the law took effect, one brewery opened up about every 100 days, on average. Since the new law has taken effect, that number is closer to one new brewery every 10 days.

“That opened up the doors,” Slonecker said. “That’s what really started the craft brewing craze in Virginia. Legislation just made it easier.”

That’s because before the law had passed, opening up a brewery was expensive from a practical perspective.

In order to operate a brewery without selling food, owners had to make enough beer to distribute, something that could cost millions of dollars in investment. Or the owners could go through the expensive process of purchasing and operating a commercial kitchen.

That could be too much of a burden for many people hoping to operate breweries, people like Slonecker.

“It used to be, pretty much in order to be good, you needed to be a big brewery, take it out of the gate, a multimillion-dollar project, or a little farmhouse brewery,” Slonecker said. “Those were kind of like the only two you saw in Virginia.”