Before the microbrewery craze, the hops craze and the recent craft beer craze, Richmond had two breweries all its own.
While Richbrau Brewing Co. bit the dust in 2010, Legend Brewing Co. has stood the test of time and will celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend. From owner Tom Martin's small tasting room to its current output of 11,000 barrels a year, Legend has become a sort of godfather to the local brewing scene.
"The idea was to brew good, quality craft beer, but make it so people could have two or three," says Dave Gott, Legend's vice president of operations. "Tom decided he wanted to brew some traditional-style beers to give folks an alternative to the mass-produced, American-style lagers."
While Legend's popularity grew, so did its operations. It filled its warehouse headquarters, added a restaurant upstairs and managed a distribution company. Though legally separate, Legendary Distributors operated in the same warehouse as the brewery. The distribution company was sold in 2009 to make more room for brewing.
"We were separate enough to be legal," Gott says. "Tom's mother owned it."
Operating a brewery isn't easy. In addition to sustaining a profitable business, governmental regulations and growing pains make commercial brewing a challenging endeavor. Purchasing the equipment requires lots of capital, and distribution regulations can make it difficult to put beer in stores and bars. Breweries often must get creative to get their product to the masses.
"It's kind of ridiculous how stringent they are about it," Gott says. "If the owner bought a restaurant somewhere else, they could not sell Legend Beer."
Until the General Assembly passed legislation two years ago, breweries were required to operate full kitchens if they wanted to sell their product on-site. Since the change, there's been an explosion in the number of Virginia breweries. The sale of beer directly to guests offers a higher profit margin for brewers than selling in a store or bar. Though Gott says Legend still would have created a restaurant if the previous requirement hadn't been in place, he isn't a fan of the way many new breweries are run.
"I think some of these places are taking a little advantage of the law," Gott says. "They don't have to follow the rules. They can have two bathrooms and a thousand people. They can have a thousand people and no parking."
For Legend brewmaster John Wampler, the craft beer explosion has served as a catalyst to step up the brewery's game.
"It's been surprising over the last few years how rapidly the landscape has changed," Wampler says. "Honestly, it's been a wake-up call. It's caused us to take a closer look at our quality and efficiency for sure."
Heading into its 20th anniversary, the brewery put out its Urban Legend series last year — four beers that celebrate Richmond myths. Legend continues the series this year in collaboration with Virginia's four oldest breweries.
In March, Legend teamed with Hampton's St. George Brewing Co. to release Teach's Oyster Stout in honor of the pirate Blackbeard. Wampler also is collaborating with AleWerks Brewing Co. in Williamsburg to create the Belgian-style Crim Dubbel, in honor of the college of William and Mary's Crim Dell bridge. Legend will join forces later this year with Lost Rhino and Starr Hill for additional beers.
Legend also has issued a limited release of its Imperial Brown Ale, which is available in bottle and draft form in the Richmond area. Its limited release Bourbon Barrel Imperial Brown Ale — as well as the other staples of the Legend catalog — will be available April 19 when Legend throws an anniversary party. Black Girls, the Remnants, the Slack Family and Wayne Reynolds are scheduled to perform. Style Weekly Editor Chief Jason Roop will serve as master of ceremonies.
Though it may seem the oldest kid on the block, Legend is still dealing with growing pains. To expand its operation, Legend plans to raise the roof of its warehouse to incorporate larger brewing tanks, which could possibly double its beer production.
"It's going to have to happen if we're going to grow anymore," Gott says. "We're hemmed in here. The ceiling is only so high." S
Legend's Anniversary Party takes place at the brewery April 19 from 2-8 p.m. Barbecue, live music, entertainment and special-occasion beer tastings will be featured. For information visit legendbrewing.com.