Joey Darragh’s golden red coarse beard is never longer than half a foot. He tries not to focus on it too much, but his girlfriend advises him to shave it frequently.
I ask him if he felt compelled to lean into the bar owner aesthetic by growing it out, maybe thickening it a bit to fit into Richmond’s beard town.
“Nah,” he says. “But it can be a little bit like a flavor saver if you got a nice foamy brew.”
Väsen Brewing Co., which Darragh co-founded and owns with his cousin Tony Giordano, celebrated its second anniversary in late July and sits next to Stella’s
Grocery in Scott’s Addition.
As he looks around, Darragh’s eyes pause on the massive reindeer graphic on the wall — an ode to Väsen’s spirit animal and Scandinavian culture.
This almost didn’t happen, he says.
It was an unlikely process, complete with people believing in two guys who’d never owned their own company. Darragh was fresh off the Tesla engineering route and Giordano had been promoted to head brewer at Boulder Beer Co. in Colorado.
Then they went on a monthlong trip to Europe. After tasting the spectrum of smoky and sour beers and ales available in Belgium, England and Germany, they ended the craft beer crawl in Sweden.
A year later, they quit their jobs.
After signing the lease in January 2016 and breaking ground on the 26-foot-ceiling space, its interior design fell into place thanks to a woman Darragh says he’d get in trouble if he didn’t mention: his mother.
“[She’s] the driving force behind a lot of the extra details that have gone into the taproom,” he says, referencing the planters she built on the patio and the potted plants surrounding Väsen’s boulder centerpiece.
Family is a major component of the brewery with Giordano’s brother, Peter, helping grow the distribution side of the business.
The brewery parallels their deep-rooted Scandinavian background while the tart and fruity Otter series — one of Giordano’s babies — has made Väsen a prime spot for goses.
The 20-barrel brew house is all about the creative process, which sometimes includes an hour of Taylor Swift, one brewer’s favorite artist, before Giordano switches it to Huey Lewis.
“I joke around and say it’s bad luck to brew a beer without music,” Giordano says.
As it keeps up with increasing demand, the team continues experimenting with different strains to add to Väsen’s Wanderlust series. One brewer forages mushrooms for fun and recently harvested pounds of wild honeysuckle to be put into a beer.
Giordano is excited about that one.
Each beer is named after a spirit animal. Darragh is quick to say his is a snow fox, which keeps to itself while retaining an adventurous nature. Giordano’s is a honey badger. Their years spent in California and Colorado only fast-tracked Väsen’s journey in promoting environmental awareness and staying active outdoors.
The company’s sustainability initiatives include the construction of the brew house and brewing system, using biodegradable chemicals and responsibly releasing waste into the sewer system by equalizing pH and temperature.
Väsen takes it a step further with its vagabonds project, which sponsors trips and competitions and provides merchandise to brand ambassadors.
“It turned out to be a great program where you get these amazing people repping your product in the way you really want it to be represented,” Darragh says. “Badass people drinking this beer outside.”
It also exposes Väsen to the expansive outdoor opportunities available in the area, whether it be rafting, trail running or rock climbing, Darragh’s favorite. He recommends heading straight to Väsen bartenders for recommendations.
While Darragh says the outdoor community in Richmond has room to expand, he acknowledges there are already existing groups focused on growing it. That’s where Brian Bell, founder of Keep Virginia Cozy, and the person Giordano lovingly calls B, comes in.
Keep Virginia Cozy started with litter cleanups and wilderness protection. It’s since worked with Väsen to help restore trails in the George Washington National Forest, build recycling bins for trailheads and take the brewery’s employees on backpacking trips.
“Those guys are really, really great people. … They actually care about the outdoors,” Bell says, pointing out Väsen’s stacked activities calendar. “It’s been really cool to watch them evolve into such an aware, conscientious company.”
Alongside Keep Virginia Cozy, Väsen works with Beyond Boundaries, which guides people with disabilities on outdoor activities and Blue Sky Fund, a nonprofit that connects Richmond public school students with the outdoors. Giordano says it’s all a part of what makes up Väsen — and that includes the people who invite employees out on daily adventures.
“I got a text from one of our vagabonds, Carl, and he’s like, ‘Hey, uh, interested in rafting later today at four o’clock?’” Darragh says. “Like ‘yes, sign me up.’”