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Gingerbread Town

The belly-warming story behind the hottest seasonal beer in Richmond.

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More than anything else, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery is known as the creator of the popular Gingerbread Stout — which has caught on locally like gangbusters. And since 2011, other reputable brewers have been following suit.

So just hours before the first coveted bottles were in the hands of flowing crowds of diehards at the brewery's pre-sale event, Eric McKay, president and co-founder of Hardywood, chatted with Style Weekly about all things GBS.

Style: Did you know it would be something special when coming up with the recipe a few years ago?

McKay: We had brewed our first two Reserve Series beers, RVA IPA and Farmhouse Pumpkin, with fresh, local ingredients. We didn't necessarily make a rule about the series that included local ingredients, but out of the blue we had a visit from Bill Cox who owns Casselmonte Farm. He brought in some baby Hawaiian white ginger. Lord knows, we didn't even know ginger grew in stalks like that. He was geeking out about his ginger the way we geek out about beer. The enthusiasm was contagious, so we agreed it was appropriate to make some sort of beer using it. We were thinking a refreshing, summer beer. Then a few days later, I was down at Style doing a photo shoot of some of our bottles and met Hannah Huber, who just married Cy Bearer of Bearer Farms. She ended up giving me some honey and expressed that if we'd like to do a honey beer, they would love to work with us. We loved the product and started brainstorming a honey beer.

We were also preparing to brew what we had brewed in the winter as homebrewers, which was a big vanilla porter, about 9 percent alcohol. We started thinking about how we could make it more unique and it became obvious that if we used this local honey and ginger in this recipe we could make something original. We started going after the Gingerbread Stout idea, and couldn't find any examples like it out on the market, so didn't really have anything to pattern it after. We just did a bunch of taste tests and found what we thought would work. ... For the first Gingerbread Stout release, I think we had about five people show up. We were a little nervous, but saw smiles. ... [This year] we tweaked it slightly by adding more oats. The oatmeal used in the beer gives it a silky, velvety mouth feel.

Given the demand, why doesn't Hardywood make more GBS?

On one hand, we could do well financially if we started cranking this beer out all the time. On the flip side, that's not really what we got in this business to do. We want to have a well-rounded portfolio and be respected for more than just one beer. Just focusing on this would not only take away from some of the other beers that we're doing, but it would also make GBS less special. People have said, put it in cans and six-packs. We don't want to get to a point where we are watering down our ingredients, using sources that aren't local.

How much of this product do you expect to sell this year?

We could probably sell all that brew out of the tasting room, but that's not what we're about. The growth of our business is going to rely on selling to restaurants and stores. We're selling a thousand five-gallon kegs and a thousand cases this year, which is twice what we did last year. Last year, it just vaporized. It went so quickly. It should generate somewhere around $400,000 in retail sales for these restaurants and stores that carry it. We just expanded our distribution to Northern Virginia, but we don't intend to sell this specific beer there just so we can maximize what we can sell locally.

Many folks still have their 2011 bottles squirreled away. Should we continue to let it age?

Drink it [laughs]. Really, there are two sides to that. It's best fresh. [But] it is holding up well. We've tasted the 2011 bottles and there are no off flavors becoming apparent or technical flaws. The spice character settles out considerably and so you get more mellow, rounded chocolate notes, less ginger, which is what I think makes it really unique.

[As far as pairings] It's tough to say. Gelati Celesti made an ice cream using it as an ingredient and it was really phenomenal. A scoop of that in a glass of Gingerbread Stout was amazing. I think it was at Magpie where I had it with pork belly, which took me by surprise, because you tend to think of it more as a dessert beer.

Anything special happening later this year that folks should know about?

We're bringing Illumination back. We did it last year, but not to the same level. This year we'll have a few unique beers, more lights, and the gingerbread man may be making an appearance. We're also working on a nitrogenated version of Gingerbread Stout that we'll serve at the event as well.

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