A look back: Hardywood Park Craft Brewery relives its humble beginnings, successes and future expansion plans before five-year anniversary 10/22

by | Oct 20, 2016 | BEER & SPIRITS

Those outside of Richmond or those just moving to the city are probably the only ones left not hip to Richmond’s exploding beer scene at this point. With over 15 breweries, as well as cideries, and a few distilleries thrown in, the city’s cup is overflowing if you will.

Those outside of Richmond or those just moving to the city are probably the only ones left not hip to Richmond’s exploding beer scene at this point. With over 15 breweries, as well as cideries, and a few distilleries thrown in, the city’s cup is overflowing if you will.

But Richmond didn’t always have a brewery around every corner. Brewery history is a little murky here depending where you look, but it looks as though the first evidence of a dedicated brewery near Richmond is that of the Westham Foundry, near where the Huguenot Bridge is today in the mid-1700s. Most people however, remember Richbrau Brewing in Shockoe Slip which closed in 2010, so really the only one that managed to survive and dominate the craft beer market is Legend Brewing, which opened in 1994.

In 2011 however, a new brewery opened in the city, which one could argue reignited the craft beer movement here, and now that brewery, Hardywood Park, will celebrate its five-year anniversary this weekend.

Two childhood friends, Patrick Murtaugh and Eric McKay spent 10 years planning and homebrewing to eventually open their 20-barrel craft brewery on Ownby Lane in Scott’s Addition.

They got their first taste of real craft beer while working on a sheeps farm in Australia in the early 2000s, which is where Hardywood received its name.

“I was there for my orientation for study aboard in 2001,” said McKay. The owner of the farm, David Crawford, brewed his own beer and after a hard day’s work, the boys were treated to some of his home-brewed beer.

“That was what sparked the interest in home brewing and immediately after we both bought home brewing kits and ended up getting jobs in the industry and one thing led to another and now we’re here,” he said.

Since opening, the brewery has released countless beers, won a variety of awards, made concrete plans to expand to Charlottesville and Goochland, and most importantly, managed to pour their way into Richmonders’ hearts.

So how has Hardywood managed to succeed in such a competitive market and what makes their brewery stand out among the rest? I sat down with Murtaugh and McKay recently to discuss their humble beginnings, expansion plans, and what they’ve learned since entering the craft beer industry. (Oh yeah, and the scoop on their 5-year anniversary party.)

“At times it feels like its gone by in a snap and at times it seems like its been a lot longer,” said McKay sitting at a table on the brewery’s outdoor patio.

The brewery released their first beer on October 11, 2001, the Hardywood Singel, which would be their flagship year-around beer for the first year and in the years to come, they would build a reputation around Richmond and beyond for brewing creative recipes, environmentally conscious practices, and community-focused events.

But it wasn’t easy being among the first to venture out to open a craft brewery. In fact, the two were very limited legally with how they could sell their beer.

Unlike every brewery that opens today, Hardywood could not sell beer out of their taproom because at that time, it was illegal to sell beer at a production facility for onsite

Instead, they relied on distributing beer to Richmond restaurants and bars, until they, along with a few other breweries, went and lobbied to get SB 604 passed.

Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh

“It was Patrick, myself, Brian {Nelson}, our head brewer, Mark Thompson, Founder of Starr Hill, and Steve Crandall, Founder of Devils Backbone that lobbied with Virginia Craft Brewers Guild to have SB 604 passed, which was really designed to level the playing field for Virginia breweries compared with the breweries in the states surrounding us where the sale of your product on site is allowed,” said McKay.

This growth of breweries in Virginia can be contributed to the passing of SB 604 in 2012. Since then, the industry has grown two-fold, creating jobs and contributing to local economies along with simply making consumers of craft beer happy.

“The business plan doesn’t really work without the ability to sell on site,” McKay said. “The best marketing aspect we have is our taproom, that’s how we build brand loyalty, that’s why people are looking for our beer in local restaurants and local stores.”

Since conquering the Richmond market, Hardywood has expanded their distribution to Central Virginia, Northern Virginia and D.C., Western Virginia, Eastern Virginia and most recently Pennsylvania.

In addition to legal confinements, the brewery was also very much restricted geographically when scouting a location in Richmond.

“We wanted something that would be close enough to a lot of the independent restaurants…we needed a warehouse building and at the time we opened, the only way you could legally open as a production brewery is be in an industrial-zoned area so that kind of limited us,” McKay said. “This has ended up being a perfect place.”

That perfect place would end up being Scott’s Addition, a neighborhood now bursting at the seams with craft beer and other spirits like Isley, The Veil, Reservoir Distillery, Ardent Craft Ales, Black Heath Meadery, Buskey Cider and Blue Bee Cider.

Despite going through the red tape from the city, the state, and the hefty costs that come with opening a brewery, the two craft beer lovers have come out the other side wiser and stronger.

“We worked for the better park of a decade in the craft beer industry, until you’re actually in the thick of it, you really can’t predict what to expect fully so there have been a lot of lessons we’ve learned along the way,” Murtaugh said. “The way you respond to challenges is the thing that shapes you as a company.”

McKay believes it’s the people they employ that’s made their efforts so successful.

“I’ve worked in management roles, but never with a team this size, we have about 60 people on staff, I think the most important thing I’ve learned you need to find the right person for the job, but once you do, motivating that person and cultivating this sense of happiness among your team is absolutely critical,” he said. “I think that’s been one of our most important jobs as employers has been ensuring our team is happy and feeling positive about coming to work because the beer industry is not an easy business.”

That’s not to say those were their only worries. Releasing a new beer recipe that you’ve been honing and creating for months to the public was a scary thought for the entrepreneurs.

“I remember being insanely nervous about whether people would like a release because we had dedicated 10 years of our lives into making this brewery happen,” McKay said. “We put all our effort into these unique beers…you’re just terrified.”

Despite their doubts, their flagship Singel and the beers to follow, RVA IPA and Farmhouse Pumpkin were released to much success and still grace many taps around Richmond today. While they’ve managed to flourish with three flagships, canned beers like the Hardywood Cream Ale, nine beers in their barrel series, many in their brewer & artist series, and most recently the Hardywood VIPA, no beer has stood out and received as much attention as their Gingerbread Stout.

Hardywood first released the highly sought after Gingerbread Stout in December 2011 and the co-founders said they had no idea of the frenzy that would ensue, and the beast they would be unleashing upon Richmond with this beer.

“Gingerbread Stout kind of came out of nowhere, we had great feedback on our first three beers,” McKay said. “It came about as kind of a happen-stance, we were planning on brewing a vanilla stout, and met a local ginger grower, {Castlemont Farms} and after that met a local beekeeper, it kinda just clicked, what about a gingerbread stout?”

After some research, the two realized there wasn’t a gingerbread stout out there so they decided to test it out on a few lucky RVA beer lovers.

The thirsty beer lovers anxiously awaiting to get their hands on Gingerbread Stout

“We brewed 20 barrels of It from that very first batch and had less than a dozen people come out for the release,” McKay said. “I remember one of the more critical beer guys who had been coming in early on that tasted it, he had this very discerning palate, and this smile just slowly built on his face and he said, ‘this is Christmas in a glass.'”

And Murtaugh said ever the since first year its been gathering momentum, and racking up awards.

Gingerbread Stout received a 100 from Beer Advocate, and in 2012 at the World Cup received a bronze medal in the herb/spice category and a gold a year later at the Virginia Beer Cup.

“I think a lot of folks in Richmond look to it as a nice holiday gift to give to family and friends who are outside of the Richmond area so its super rewarding to see how this concept has taken off,” McKay said.

The stout accounted for about 10 percent of their total sales last year and the guys said they plan to make about 10 percent less Gingerbread Stout this year to focus on making more of one of their variations of this brew, Christmas Morning.

Besides their award-winning beers, giving back to the community has also played a major part in Hardywood’s success.

“As a small brewery doing good for your community is probably one of the best things you can do in terms of building brand loyalty and sense of local appreciation,” he said. “I think for Patrick and I, a lot of that was instilled in our upbringing or the way we’ve gone about doing business in the past. I think the best way we’ve built relevance for Hardywood has been through working collaboratively with local businesses, not-for profits, local retailers and trying to have a strong impact on our community.”

sustainRVA, James River cleanup at Texas Beach

And what an impact indeed. Since opening, Hardywood has launched an annual RVA community hop project, weekly food truck court, launched several annual festivals including the Richmond Bluegrass Festival, the Record Fair, and the Father’s Day Keg N’ Oyster Fest along with hosting bands, fundraisers, and a frequent brewer/artist series.

“All these breweries opening up we’re always trying to come up with creative ways to market our beers our front of the house team is always trying to come up with ideas to get the community interested in what we’re doing,” said Murtaugh.

The guys behind Hardywood see Richmond’s overflowing craft beer market as a good thing, but with a few downfalls.

“In a lot of ways that’s been very helpful in building a scene here in Richmond,” McKay said. “People are traveling from all over the country to visit the breweries in Richmond and when people come to town they’re not coming to visit one brewery they’re visiting several. For us, having other breweries making outstanding beers in this area is helpful and we’re happy to be a part of that.”

When it comes to the wholesale aspect, he mentioned the ever-expanding market has made it a bit of a challenge to what it used to be.

“There’s largely been a finite amount of shelf space since we opened and a finite amount of draft space,” he said. “Every time a new brewery opens if they decide they want to make that leap to distribute their beer, they’re going to be taking away draft lines from another brewery, but I think that’s kind of the nature of the business.”

McKay said that added competition has forced Hardywood to come up with new and creative concepts to get their beer out there and stay relevant, a big driving factor in why they looked to Charlottesville to expand.

“It was designed to have a dedicated place to focus exclusively on research and development and coming up with new concepts and continuing to try and push new boundaries in brewing,” he said.

The 3,800 square-foot Charlottesville facility is a 3.5 barrel brewhouse, a mini version of what their Richmond location has now. It’s slated to open in early December at 1000 W. Main St. between UVA and the Downtown Mall with a 60-barrel brewhouse in Goochland to follow next December.

“The point of that one is to give us the scale and Charlottesville is an opportunity to get a little more creative and brew stuff on a smaller scale,” Murtaugh added.

Besides two forthcoming locations, Hardywood has been doing equally well on the homefront. The brewery added a bottling line in September 2013, began canning in 2014, and has seen growth each year.

“Growth wise, we grew close to 100 percent per year our second year, third year we grew about 90 percent, fourth year we grew about 80 percent, this year we’re somewhat capacity constrained but we’ll probably grow about 15 percent over last year in volume and expect to grow about the same next year,” said McKay.

The brewery produced about 13,000 barrels last year, close to 15,000 this year, and plans for 17,000 barrels next year.

They are also in talks with distributors in Mid-Atlantic states from Georgia to New York who are wanting to get their hands on their beer, but they are taking it a step at a time, as usual.

“Our geographic expansion has been really slow and meticulous and only when necessary when we realize we’re starting to slow down, we’ll grow,” Murtaugh said.

Final words from the brewers to those looking to get into the business?

“Get some experience in the industry, work directly in the industry for several years,” McKay said. “Work out your recipes and focus on the basics. You gotta get your staple styles down to perfection before you start jumping to crazy leaps that take decades of experience.”

“Coming into it with as much experience as you can is the biggest tip,” Murtaugh added. “Don’t get into the business if you’re not passionate about it, you can’t be in it for the money.”

So now if you’ve even read this far, you get what you’ve been waiting for, the five-year anniversary party.

“For the first time ever we’re releasing a beer called Cassowary, a beer we’ve brewed several times but every time we’ve released it, we’ve released versions of it that have been barrel aged,” McKay said. “Its the non-barrel aged version of this beer.”

It’s the backbone to Trickery, Foolery, and Ruse, all three of which were as widely popular as the Gingerbread Stout.

“We thought it might be interesting for all these people who have become so fanatical about those three variations of it to try what it tasted like before it got the barrel treatment,” Murtaugh said.

Hardywood will be doling out 1,000 bottles of the 11% imperial milk stout with four max to a person so make sure to get there early! The brewery is also hosting 13 guest taps from around Virginia to show support of their distributor, Brown Distributing. Expect beers from Ardent Craft Ales, Bold Rock Cider, Center of the Universe, Devils Backbone, Isley, Kindred Spirit Brewing, Legend Brewing, Lickinghole Creek, Midnight Brewing, Steam Bell Beer Works, Strangeways, The Answer Brewpub and Triple Crossing.

Hardywood’s 5 year Anniversary Party will kick off this Sat. Oct. 22 at 1 pm. The brewery will have event-exclusive beers, mobile menus from Smokie JOE’S BBQ, Hungry Turtle Food Truck, Slideways Mobile Bistro, Sammich and music from Black Masala, Super Yamba Band, Gull and Dave Watkins.

Amy David

Amy David

Amy David was the Web Editor for RVAMag.com from May 2015 until September 2018. She covered craft beer, food, music, art and more. She's been a journalist since 2010 and attended Radford University. She enjoys dogs, beer, tacos, and Bob's Burgers references.

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