You’ll get whiplash if you try to keep up with every brewery that opens in Richmond. The area’s craft beer scene has exploded, meaning more revenue for the city and environs, plus a nascent beer tourism scene that seems to have unexpectedly sprouted.
It wouldn’t have happened to this extent without the support of J.R. Walthour at Brown Distributing Co.
Without him, the latest craft brew wouldn’t be on tap or sitting in a cooler at your favorite restaurant. Walthour is always looking a little ahead of the curve.
“What we saw happening across the country — we thought it was possibly the new wave [of beer],” he says. Small breweries were springing up everywhere, in such cities as San Diego and Portland, Oregon.
Brown Distributing had always carried beer from Richmond’s oldest surviving microbrewery, Legend Brewing Co. But when Hardywood Park Craft Brewery came along, Walthour recognized that something new was happening.
“After that,” Walthour says, “the floodgates opened.”
As director of special events and community relations, Walthour has pushed to get small breweries’ beer in front of large audiences. Besides events that include Broad Appétit, Shamrock the Block and festivals across the city, Walthour has made sure that Richmond’s breweries are represented in venues as diverse as the Richmond Coliseum, Altria Theater, the State Fair of Virginia and The Diamond.
It was a different scene when Walthour started with Brown in this role eight years ago.
Wathour cites the presence of local beer at Richmond Flying Squirrels games: “Back in those days,” he says, “you’d never see craft beer somewhere like that.” Now you can watch the games with a cold one from Hardywood, Center of the Universe Brewing Co., Strangeways Brewing and Ardent Craft Ales.
When he and the Brown team are pondering whether to pick up a new brewery for distribution, Walthour looks to see if it can scale up quickly if the beer proves popular. Cost is a factor, but the taste decides. “Do we want to pursue it?” Walthour says. “Will [the style] sell if it we bring it in?”
Walthour also serves as an informal adviser to the small businesses. “I emphasize that with craft beer, you really have to get into the community,” he says. “Hardywood — that’s what made them what they are.” He’s not sure if every local brewery will survive, but he wants them all to have a shot.
“What I love about the craft beer community is that it stretches [Brown] over our line,” he says. “It used to be a Miller Lite town. … Now, I think as far as craft beer goes, we have the right ones.”