Work on a 5,000-square-foot new tasting room and restaurant at Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton is due to be finished by September, according to Taylor Smack, the brewer and co-owner of the booming operation with his wife Mandi and Matt Nucci. The brewery will also open two large production breweries at the Nelson Industrial Park in Colleen, just south of Lovingston, in the next couple of years, marking an extraordinary growth in a concept that started out as a modest-scale brew pub just four years ago.
“The new restaurant allows us to turn our original facility into a special events hall,” said Smack. “The new place has a huge kitchen and three-stall bathrooms, significantly more office space, and we are developing our outdoor dining area.” Terrace levels being built in the new area adjoining the existing restaurant will become a beer garten with umbrellas over tables and room for 80 people. “We’re keeping the lawn because kids use it,” Smack explained. “I feel confident we’ll be in the new space by September, but it will take that long.”
Work is now focused in the interior, which features a vaulted dining area with a large bar and good views of the Blue Ridge. It will be able to seat about 140 customers. The hallway connecting the two buildings will also house Smack’s special collection of books on brewing. Smack designed the building himself according to needs and functions, he said.
“I think we had a really good idea,” Smack said to explain the rocketing growth of the brewery. “We loved coming out to the vineyards around here, but I want to drink beer.”
So there came the idea of a brew pub.
“We fought being a restaurant. At one point we even cut out offering pizzas. We realized our vision needed to change. People were trying to throw money at us if we would be a restaurant.
“We’ve gone from seven employees to 44, with 10 in the kitchen. The brewery is in full-tilt production.”
Smack, who started out in brewing at Goose Island Brewery in Chicago, an operation since bought by Anheuser-Busch, said he is basically following the plan he saw in action there.
“They built a production brewery to focus on the product line. The pub then become the place for the experimental, seasonal, wild stuff brewings.”
The first of two plants to be built at Colleen, two years away, will be a barrel house brewery producing artisinal beer, such as Blue Mountain’s Dark Hollow, Mandolin and überPils, with a capacity of 2,500 barrels a year. The second facility will have a 50,000 barrel capacity to produce Full Nelson, the brewery’s most popular beer, which Smack calls a “Virginia pale ale,” (its technical type is American strong pale ale, he said) as well as Blue Mountain Lager and Koltsch 151. Blue Mountain is producing 2,500 barrels of Full Nelson a year now, some in cans (“We’re the first craft brewer in Virginia to can beer,” he noted), as well as 20 seasonal beers, such as Evil 8, Rockfish Wheat, Lights Out, and Oktoberfest.
There about 90 types of beer being produced internationally, he said. “Every culture has a fermented cereal grain drink.”
The new plants will cost between $5 and $7 million to build. “Barrel aging requires a lot of space,” Smack said.
A certified organic beer has 95 percent organic ingredients, he explained. “We already use organic hops and we’ll use organic chocolate and cherries, too. There are special chemical routines. Beer is already close to organic. We use only four ingredients. The barley we will use is a certified organic German barley. We’re going through the process for federal organic certification. We will be inspected. It’s like kosher certification.
“America is now the leading edge of craft beers, ahead of Belgium and Germany,” Smack said. “We have now, finally, the number of brewers we had at the time of Prohibition, about 1,700.
“Brewing is like a trade. Everything I do was handed down to me from other people. But it’s really about a process. We could guess each other’s recipes within five percent, but it’s the process, like in cooking.”
The brewery was established in Nelson County, Smack said, because he could never get a call back from Albemarle County’s business development planner. “I tried and tried. Nelson was extremely eager.” Nelson has also been very helpful about the plans for the plants in Colleen. Smack is drilling a well there for water for brewing and will use municipal water for the plants’ cleaning needs. The current brewery pulls 1.1 million gallons of water from its well in Afton. “I can work with any water, except if it’s too high in iron. We study the water chemistry and adapt processing accordingly.”
Smack said their original business plan turned out to be “a complete joke.” Sales are nearly six times what they first aimed for. “It’s been a lot of growing pains. Now it’s parking.” They just bought 3.5 acres adjoining the brewery to enlarge their parking area.
Taylor and Mandi have had two children since they opened the business. “It’s been really hard. We never stop working. Our three-year-old tries to stop us from talking business.”
“We’re always at the brewery and we know what’s going on here,” added Mandi.
“Beer is still over 50 percent of our sales, which is not typical of a brew pub,” said Smack. “Food keeps customers here, but they come for the beer. Our largest customer traffic comes from Charlottesville—for them it seems like a day in the country—and from Crozet. We want people to come when the new building is open. It’s really a step up for us.”
The current space, which will accommodate 130 people, they expect to use for weddings and special events.