Another Charlottesville brewery has set up shop in Richmond, following a trend of beer-makers heading east.
The newest satellite, Champion Brewing Co., began pouring at 401 E. Grace St. in January, with an unexpected addition on its way: onsite food service from two well-known Richmond restaurateurs.
Champion opened in 2012 with an emphasis on unusual beers. As founder Hunter Smith said in “Charlottesville Beer: Brewing Jefferson’s Shadow,” by Lee Graves: “Even in 2012, people were looking around for ‘What’s next? What’s new? What haven’t I had before?’”
Smith introduced a Berliner weisse and a gose to his lineup early on, two slightly tart styles that since have found their way on the lists of other craft breweries.
Familiar beer varieties poured from his tap lines, too, including the flagship Missile IPA, Killer Kölsch and Shower Beer, which won gold at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival in the Bohemian-style pilsner category.
Smith soon outgrew his small brewing system. While maintaining the original three-barrel setup and tap room, he added a 30-barrel production plant with a 15,000-barrel capacity. And although Champion beer has been distributed in Richmond since 2012, the new satellite location aims to give the brand a more personal presence in the market and help move its products at local restaurants and retailers.
Champion is opening in stages, initially serving beer made in Charlottesville and adding Richmond-brewed beer and on-site food preparation in mid-February.
The East Grace Street pub is similar in size to Champion’s original location, with a small, high-tech, 3.5-barrel Deutsche brew system with four seven-barrel tanks.
“That gives us the ability to double brew to fill a tank,” Champion RVA brewer Ken Rayher says, “so we’ll have a respectable volume for a small space.” He says he hopes to make 500 barrels in 2017.
The spacious, high-ceilinged tasting room includes two levels and two bars, with 12 taps on the first floor and four upstairs, plus a to-go area with canned beers, retail products and crowlers — not growlers, but extra-large cans that can be sealed on the spot to take home.
Ultimately, the taps will pour an even mix of beers from Charlottesville and those brewed in Richmond, striving for a balance of styles to please a variety of palates. As state law allows, Champion will self-distribute between locations.
The draft list is rich with familiar products, such as Missile IPA, Black Me Stout and Megalodon Imperial Coffee Porter, and lesser-known varieties, like Melkor’s Discord and Violator Doppelbock.
The unfamiliar products illustrate how this new taproom benefits Richmonders — we’ll be able to enjoy Champion beers that didn’t previously make it to the area. In addition, we’ll have easier access to more of Champion’s popular seasonals, including Fruit Basket, Santa’s Cookies, Malibu Nights and beers from the brewery’s new foeder program — sour beer that’s been aged in wooden vats.
Brewer Ken Rayher worked as lead brewer at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond. There, his innovative beers included Große Teufel Lichtenheiner Ale, which won silver in 2016 at the prestigious Great American Beer Festival in the historic beer category, and Walpurgisnacht, a German-style smoked maibock.
At Champion, Rayher anticipates brewing some of his favorite styles, he says, including small-batch India pale ales, traditional lagers — look for a dunkel lager and unfiltered keller lager — and kettle sours, plus different takes on the Charlottesville taproom’s beers.
“That’s one advantage of a small system,” he says. “If we want to use a crazy hop that’s extremely expensive or hard to find, we don’t have to source as much.”
The old bank building where the brewery has set up shop provides plenty of space for visitors. A small stage left from previous tenant Aurora offers indoor corn hole and might be used for bands down the road, says Rayher. You’ll find a scattering of televisions, plus benches and tables providing seating on the main floor, and couches upstairs.
Champion’s curvaceous pint glasses include a grid of nucleation sites along the bottom, to keep the bubbles rising to the top, accentuating the aroma and thus the taste.
The Richmond satellite’s concept reflects another trend — breweries with separate food-production facilities under the same roof. Champion is working with well-known Richmond restaurateurs Jason Alley and Michele Jones, who will operate Sur Taco and Sandwich inside the pub. Alley and Jones chose to focus on Southern-influenced tacos and tortas.
“From our perspective,” Rayher says, “we think that’s a good choice. There are a lot of pairing opportunities.” S