From Virginia Tech Homebrew To Hardywood: A Chat With Brewmaster Brian Nelson


Brewmaster Brian Nelson’s love for beer and brewing started long before Hardywood Park Craft Brewery became a staple in the Richmond beer scene. It all began while he was studying mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. “I studied mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and I loved brewing beer in my free time. I would experiment with different ingredients and techniques, and before I knew it, brewing beer became a passion,” says Nelson.

Brian Nelson / Hardywood Brewing Company
Photo by @majormajor____

After college, Nelson worked as an engineer at Honda in Ohio and shadowed some breweries in Columbus such as Elevator Brewery and Barley’s Brewing Company in his spare time. He also worked at a homebrew shop on weekends to gain more experience.

After several years, his wife got an opportunity in New Zealand, so they decided to move there. “During the year and a half we were in New Zealand, I knocked on every door I could to try to get into the local breweries,” says Nelson.

Back in 2011, the craft beer scene in Richmond was seeing tremendous growth and was well on its way to being recognised and respected across the country. A significant factor for that growth was a change in Virginia alcohol laws in 2012, which Hardywood played a crucial role in. Previously, only three two-ounce samples of beer were allowed to be served per person in a brewery. Hardywood, along with Star Hill Brewery and Devil’s Backbone, put in money towards lobbying and got Senate Bill 604 passed, enabling on-premise consumption of beer, similar to wineries and other alcohol producers. That opened the floodgates for the industry here in the state.

And right before the Richmond craft beer boom, Nelson and his family moved back here, and he finally got the chance he was waiting for. “I heard Hardywood Park was setting up shop in Richmond and I decided to bring some homebrew that I was doing to their door. We sat and chatted and they invited me over for one of the pilot brews on their 20 gallon pallet system,” says Nelson.

He knocked on the right door, and the rest is history.

Brian Nelson / Hardywood Brewing Company
Photo by @majormajor____

When asked about his favorite beer to make, Nelson says, “It is no secret to anyone in the company that my favorite style is a West Coast IPA. I like a lot of hops. But during warm weather months, I like a nice southern pilsner.”

And what makes a good beer? “It’s always balanced. You want a nice, balanced profile that isn’t too sweet or too bitter. We add fruits and other ingredients like toasted coconut and coffee, but you still need to maintain that balance so the flavor pops, not having an overwhelming flavor or an underwhelming flavor in our beers with those ingredients. Overall, it’s all about balance.”

Photo by @majormajor____

When talking about what beers Hardywood has in store for us this year, Nelson discussed one of their signature series is the Virginia Root Series, which was formerly known as the Reserve Series. This series of beers is seasonally appropriate and uses agricultural elements all sourced locally from Virginia.

The brewery is set to release Hot Pepper, an Imperial IPA or Double IPA, conditioned on Virginia local wildflower honey and malt grown and malted in Charlottesville.

Their Peach Tripel is another popular offering, a classic Belgian Style Triple flavored with peaches sourced from Chiles Family Orchards in Charlottesville. Hardywood works with a local company, Produce Source Partners, to get fresh local ingredients, such as peaches and ginger, and process them safely for use in their beer. The addition of these ingredients is done post-fermentation to maintain the proper rotation.

This weekend Hardywood has been partnered with Agriberry and using their fresh raspberries for their Raspberry Stout. The chocolate malts complement the raspberries and make for a great wintertime offering with a fruit-forward character. ed. note: We had a sample and it was delicious!

In the summertime, Hardywood will offer the Virginia BlackBerry, a Belgian White Ale with refermented Agriberry blackberries and in the later season of September and October, they have their Farmhouse Pumpkin, which uses sugar pie pumpkins grown in Virginia from Snake Creek Farm. These pumpkins are ground and added to the hot side to provide both sugars and flavors.

hardywood raspberry hardywood raspberry
Raspberry Stout on the counter at local collectible shop Paper Tiger, photo by @majormajor____

And he spoke about the creation of their most popular and famous beer, the Hardywood Gingerbread Stout:

“In 2011, I created the RVA IPA using local hops and that recipe went into our Farmhouse Pumpkin beer, which is still a staple today. We then moved on to our base single and experimented with batches that incorporated cocoa, coffee, and vanilla. Suddenly, Bill Cox from Castleman Farms came in with a big bunch of ginger and asked if we could do anything with it. He was trying to find restaurants in Richmond that could use it. This ginger had big green stalks that were four feet tall, and the root has “hands” that were in the ground. It was baby ginger, meaning the translucent flesh was edible without peeling the outer skin. So he presented this to us and we were grinding our gears when Eric McKay came up with this idea, how do we integrate gingerbread? There wasn’t a gingerbread stout out there in the market — it had never been done before and we still consider our gingerbread stout, the original gingerbread stout. So I took the ginger and along with Patrick Murtaugh we started making little doses. How much honey? How much ginger? Cinnamon? Vanilla? Just doing some trials until we thought we had the right amount of ingredients added into the beer. And then when we served it, we were thinking it’s a great style and it has that balance. It wasn’t too overly ginger, wasn’t too spicy and the vanilla rounded everything out — and everybody right away was just enjoying it off the tap. It wasn’t until the next full year when we released it that we started have lines out the door! Where people would be lined up around the building…  which was just absolutely fantastic! Just see everybody being happy and having some fun.”

Speaking of beers, introducing new craft beer drinkers to the taproom is fun for Nelson and the team too. He suggests starting with the Richmond Lager, a smooth and clean lager with a hint of citrus from cascade hops, to make the experience less overwhelming. As drinkers become more familiar with craft beer, they may prefer hoppier or stout beers, which is okay too. Hardywood’s focus is on consistency and quality, ensuring that their beer is just as flavorful in the grocery store as it is in the taproom.

And when we asked what is the best part of making beer for a living? “It’s still getting down to those baseline ingredients every day. Where we are brewing and making sure every step along the way is done right. For me as a brewmaster, it’s always rewarding to have something at the end pf the process in a bottle or in a keg off the tap.”

For more information
Follow Hardywood on Instagram: @hardywood

Photos by @majormajor____

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work:

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