Richmond Beeristoric: A History Of Beer Brewing In RVA

by | Jan 2, 2014 | EAT DRINK

At this moment in Richmond beer history, it seems that we are living in a golden age of unprecedented abundance. Since its founding in the early 18th century, Richmond has had a community of people united by a love of beer. However, Richmond’s history of brewing has been characterized by transitions between boom and bust – very much like the city of Richmond itself.


At this moment in Richmond beer history, it seems that we are living in a golden age of unprecedented abundance. Since its founding in the early 18th century, Richmond has had a community of people united by a love of beer. However, Richmond’s history of brewing has been characterized by transitions between boom and bust – very much like the city of Richmond itself.


The first boom was the long period of English-dominated culture during the Colonial era. Visitors to taverns in Colonial Virginia, of which there were many in the Richmond area, could expect to find ales and porter on the various bills of fare – probably brewed on site or imported from England. The first evidence of a dedicated brewery near Richmond is that of the Westham Foundry, near where the Huguenot Bridge is today. This brewery was likely destroyed when Benedict Arnold’s Redcoats sacked and burned Richmond (after drinking the Richmond taverns dry) in 1781. Not coincidentally, this marks the first bust for Richmond’s beer scene.

Sometime around 1800, the Richmond Brewery was opened on the corner of Canal and Fourth Streets. Though details of breweries over the next six decades are sketchy, knowledge of styles of beer was plentiful by the time of the Civil War. Note the knowledge of style and quality found in the following article from the Richmond Dispatch of October 13, 1863:

Real Lager beer. – We have received from the City Brewery a sample of the beer made there. It is fully equal to Northern beer, having strength, softness, and a foam equal to cream ale. Before the war beer was just displacing whiskey in the popular stomach, and the good effects were becoming apparent. Compared with the poison now sold at the rum mills under the name of whiskey, the worst beer would be welcome; but when a man can get such an excellent beverage as that made at the City Brewery he ought to be willing to drop the poisonous compound of oil of vitriol, nails, strychnine, &c., which is sold to him for one dollar per drink as bourbon, old rye, &c.

Is this the same brewery that called itself the Richmond Brewery in 1800? Annoyingly, the Richmond City Directory of 1860 does not even include a section for breweries. However, there are 80 saloons listed in that directory. They must have been getting their beer from somewhere – though as the above article suggests, quite a bit of it may have been imported from the North.

Two trends contributed to the huge growth in Richmond beer that had begun by the time of the Civil War: The population of Richmond absolutely exploded between 1850 to 1860 – from 27,570 to 37,910. This was primarily due to Richmond’s emergence as an industrial center. And due to the need for workers in these factories, the immigrant population of Richmond increased by 136% during this same time. Intermingling with native-born whites and enslaved Africans were now Welsh, Jewish, Irish, and most importantly for our story, Germans. Two brothers in particular, Edward and Louis Euker, were brewing their “Celebrated Lager Beer” by 1858. By 1860, advertisements for their establishment noted a “XX ale” as well as London porter and Scotch ale. The German influence provided beers not just for the German palate; Richmond had become a cosmopolitan and diverse city by 19th-Century standards.

The Civil War marked an interesting transition for Richmond’s drinking population – as the city was under martial law, only a few licensed proprietors could legally sell spirits or beer. As we have already seen, the quality of liquors had declined dramatically (probably propelled by the Civil War equivalent of bathtub gin), leaving a void which beer could fill. We will never know the degree to which this was done – most of the industrial area of the city was destroyed in the Evacuation Fire on the night of April 2-3, 1865. City officials dumped medicinal whisky into the canal, and the Union soldiers who occupied Richmond found very little left among the ruins with which to celebrate their victory – the industrial, cosmopolitan city was at its knees.

Though much of industrial Richmond was in ruins, the city quickly rebuilt, providing jobs to even more immigrants, and in particular, Germans. Within a year of the end of the Civil War, Edward Euker opened a beer garden and brewery at Buchanan Springs, at the corner of Harrison and Clay Street. Other beer gardens were in operation at the Hermitage Fair Grounds (where the Redskins’ training camp is today) and Elba Park (Brook and Broad). Beers sold there were described as lagers, demonstrating the continued German influence. John Deuringer opened City Spring Brewery at the north end of 8th Street (above Leigh Street).

No doubt responding to the Phoenix-like rebirth of Richmond, in 1866 David G. Yuengling Jr. left his father’s successful brewery in Pottsville, PA to establish an absolutely enormous new brewery in Richmond. He called it the James River Steam Brewery, and built an entire complex of buildings at Rocketts’ Landing, just below the city. The Richmond Whig noted the opening:

Steam Brewery. – Just below Rocketts… Messrs. Betz, Yuengling & Beyer have put up one of the finest breweries in the whole country. Built of amazing strength, and of the very best material, it is some eighty feet high, seventy feet wide, and one hundred feet deep, and has seven stories, and one hundred and ninety-six windows. Deep down in the earth, away from the light of day, are huge vaults capable of holding six thousand barrels, and within these deep recesses is a solid built ice-house, containing some two hundred and fifty or three hundred tons…everything that wisdom, ingenuity and liberal outlay of money could do, has been done to make the establishment perfect… The working capacity of the establishment is 400 barrels per day, and the building cost about $200,000. Now here is an enterprise of great magnitude just commenced its work, furnishing employment to a number of hands and affording facilities for dealers in porter, ale and beer to get on the spot an A No. 1 article…and at a rate less than which they would have to pay outside the State…There is no use talking of elevating the State from its depressed condition if we don’t co-operate with those who are able and willing to give us a helping hand.

The city that didn’t even include breweries in their directory seven years before was suddenly applauding this “helping hand” from the North. It brought jobs and an “A No. 1 article” to the tune of 400 barrels a day(!) – who could complain? Richmond’s beer tradition had just begun; five breweries were operating in Richmond, and the future looked VERY bright.

No one counted on the Panic of 1873. Over-capitalization of start-up railroads and changes in currency standards overseas caused a global depression that wrecked the American economy. When people of the 19th Century referred to the “Great Depression,” this is what they meant. All breweries in Richmond felt the pinch as industries began laying off workers. In 1874, David Yuengling attempted to use political favors to his advantage. He wrote to J. L. Kemper, the Governor of Virginia, that “I sent you per Steamer [one barrel] of Old Stout in Bottles. This has been brewed three years ago and considered the Best. Should you find it too strong, add water to suit your taste, and it will be a delicious stimulant. Hope it will do you good.”

Even a gift of aged stout was not enough. Four of the five operating breweries in Richmond, including the Eukers, closed in 1878. The next year David Yuengling Jr. faced the reality himself and closed the massive James River Steam Brewery. By 1880, there were no breweries left in Richmond.

Though Richmond, and much of the country, was in financial ruin, people still demanded beer. To meet the demand, outside breweries began distributing to Richmond. Bergner and Engel Company of Philadelphia was the first. Their Richmond branch was on Broad street, next to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac depot. They advertised ale, porter and lager beers, and their “Tannhaeuser Brand.”

With no local breweries to match the demand, in 1886 Anheuser-Busch opened a Richmond branch at 1817 East Main street. Several breweries from other cities, such as Alexandria, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, set up branches in Richmond during this time. Beer was being supplied, but not locally. This tenuous boom mirrored national trends. Many American cities were like Richmond – their local breweries had disappeared, and large breweries swooped in to fill the void. At the time, Richmond’s industrial output was booming like it never had before. The ability to mass-produce the cigarette had caused a local boom, drawing in thousands of industrial workers; it is not surprising that beer followed the boom.

Suddenly, in 1892, local Richmond brewing returned, and it came from Richmond’s growing and powerful German community. Peter Stumpf and Alfred Rosenegk, who were both managers of outside breweries with branches in Richmond, as well as officers of the Richmond German-American Society, started their own local, and enormous, breweries. We can only speculate why two competitors decided to throw off their cozy jobs and strike out on their own in the same year, but so it was.

Rosenegk, formerly of Anheuser-Busch, a man of Prussian nobility and an officer who had seen action in the Franco-Prussian War, opened the Richmond Brewery at Hermitage Road and Leigh St (where Todd Lofts are today). Eventually, this was renamed the Rosenegk Brewing Company. Rosenegk had been something of a community organizer for Richmond’s local German community – yearly “German Day” parades were invariably presided over by him, and clearly, he saw his rise in prominence as a validation of the rise of German political power in America.

Peter Stumpf, formerly of Bergner and Engel, opened what was eventually called the “Home Brewing Company” at Euker’s old brewery at Harrison and Clay. Their first year of operation brought about 38% net profits and brewed 12,790 barrels of beer. Their slogan encouraged customers to “Patronize Home Industry and Build Up Your City.” For whatever reason Stumpf threw off Anheuser-Busch, note that he deliberately put the focus on the local nature of the beer to make his business thrive.

Despite the sudden focus on the local scene, in 1898, Pabst Brewing Company set us a branch in Richmond at 308-314 Hancock Street (roughly where the VCU School of the Arts is today). At this time, Pabst and Anheuser-Busch were the only national breweries with branches still operating in Richmond.

By 1906, three local breweries existed: Home Brewing Company, Rosenegk, and Portner (despite being from Alexandria). The city also held three national breweries: Annheuser-Busch, Pabst, and the newcomer, Schlitz. Unlike before, these breweries weathered several national recessions and continued on. This period of stability and prosperity lasted for nearly 20 years.

In 1916, fully a year before the rest of the nation, Virginia enacted Prohibition. Halloween 1916 was the last day beer could legally be sold in Richmond. Consequently, Richmonders, who had voted against Prohibition, drank the city dry that night. In the wake of this law, the Rosenegk Brewery closed, never to re-open, and Home Brewing Company shifted over to making local soft drinks, such as “Tru-Ade” and Climax” sodas.

This self-imposed bust left Virginia with no legal breweries until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Repeal did not throw open the floodgates of brewing. Only 3.2% beer was allowed to be sold. This severely constrained the variety of styles available to brewers and served to narrow what most people considered beer. In addition, the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control was established – never again would beer and liquor sales go unregulated.

Home Brewing Company quickly shifted gears back to brewing beer, and renamed their 3.2% product “Richbrau Beer.” Reporting on the re-opening, a Richmond newspaper stated that “the plant’s capacity will be 50 per cent greater than in 1916. Brewmaster [George] Bernier assured reporters that his plant now has a capacity of 50,000 barrels a year. Judged by any standard, that is a lot of beer.” Richbrau would be the only local beer produced for the next 25 years. Not surprisingly, outside breweries such as Budweiser, Pabst, and Schlitz rushed back in to distribute beer. At finer establishments, patrons could even find imported beer such as Pilsner Urquell and Guinness.

Then, in 1935, the Kreuger Brewing Co. of Newark, New Jersey, joined with the American Can Company to test-market canned beer. Richmond was chosen as the test market for the first-ever cans of beer: Krueger’s Cream Ale. By the end of the year, 36 breweries throughout the US were producing beer in cans. By contrast, Home Brewing Company, still pushing to get their beer into bottles, would fail to offer Richbrau in cans until 1952.

Despite heavy competition from outside breweries, by the 1960s, Richbrau appeared to be doing quite well – they began canning beers, expanded their production, and even sponsored the Richmond Virginians – the first AAA baseball team in Richmond.

Then, on October 14, 1969, Home Brewing Company announced that they had been operating at a loss for the past three years, and that due to “increasing competition and higher costs,” they were ceasing operations. The headline that appeared in the Richmond News Leader accompanying this announcement read, “Saddest Day in Richmond Since April 1865.” No locally made beer would be produced in Richmond for nearly 25 years. During this time, the national breweries increased their market share as local breweries everywhere failed to remain competitive. Locally produced beer tended to be viewed as “old-fashioned,” while popular culture naturally favored breweries which could advertise and reach a national market.

Suddenly, in the early 1990s, two local breweries began operations. As a tip of the hat to Richmond’s history, Richbrau Brewing Co. opened in 1214 Cary Street. The resurrection was in name only, and the new brewery had no connection to the old Home Brewing Company. Meanwhile, Legend Brewing Company opened their brewpub just across the river from Richmond.

Once again, the economy conspired against local beer – in 2010, in the midst of a long recession, Richbrau closed its doors, leaving Legend Brewing Company as the only Richmond brewery. This could easily have been the start of a new bust, but unlike the trends we have seen so many times, the economic downturn had the opposite effect. Craft beer had made considerable inroads in Richmond, and breweries started opening like they had never done before. In 2011, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery opened, near the old Rosenegk building. In 2012, Midnight Brewing Co. and Center of the Universe Brewing Company opened. 2013 has seen the opening of Strangeways Brewing and Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, with even more breweries set to open in 2014.

As we look back at Richmond’s brewing history, we can only marvel at what is currently happening. In an economic climate that would have seen mass closures of breweries in the past, we are seeing the opposite trend. There have never been more local breweries in Richmond than today. Will this trend last? Will the breweries in town have the longevity of Home Brewing Company? When we re-read this article 10 years from now, will this be seen as the beginning of a wonderful boom, or another of the seemingly inevitable busts? It is far too early to tell, but right now, Richmond is a great place for beer enthusiasts.

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

Former GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.

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