John Schoeb, Crozet dentist and co-owner of Pro Re Nata Brewery, plans to move the major part of the brewing operation to Staunton. The tap room, music stages, meeting and event spaces would remain at the brewery’s present location on Rte. 250W.
Schoeb said he’s unable to brew enough beer at his existing space to meet the demands of his patrons, despite expanding several times. “We might have 1,500 people come through here on a Saturday,” he said. He noted that brewing beer requires a lot of water, and Pro Re Nata is not on a county sewer or septic line. Despite many requests, he’s been informed by Albemarle County that it’s unlikely it will ever be.
“That’s because we’re just outside the growth area,” he said. “Unfortunately, that means we’ll be investing $3 million elsewhere.” “Elsewhere” means the former Coca Cola bottling plant on Augusta Street in Staunton, a hulking building that’s been vacant for 50 or so years.
Schoeb has been in talks with the Staunton City Planning Commission to rezone the property. The next meeting is set for Sept. 21 at 5 p.m. City Planner Tim Hartless said there will be time for Schoeb to answer questions from the public. He said Schoeb’s request was originally scheduled for an August meeting, but confusion about timing, as well as concerns from the neighborhood, caused the committee to postpone a vote.
Hartless said Schoeb and his brewers could move into the building tomorrow and begin brewing beer and staffing a tasting room, so long as they also operated a restaurant on the premises, as required by Staunton under B-1 zoning. “Understandably, he doesn’t want to open a restaurant right away,” Hartless said. Pro Re Nata can increase its beer production in advance of the eventual restaurant opening, providing it’s granted the B-2 zoning that would allow it.
The plant hasn’t been used since 1970, when Coca-Cola moved to a location outside the city, and city leaders have been trying to figure out what to do with it. The planning staff has recommended approval of the rezoning, a recommendation that fits in with Staunton’s reputation for preserving, rather than destroying, historic commercial buildings.
“I’ve been trying to buy it for years,” Schoeb said. It’s suited for brewing beer in more ways than its size and its location on the Staunton City sewer system. The plant already has a number of long trench floor drains. These are essential for brewing beer, and Schoeb estimated there are probably $600,000 worth of them already installed.
The staff did have some reservations about parking around the building. Schoeb said this would not be a problem at first, when just a handful of employees would be coming and going to staff the brewery and tasting room. Some Pro Re Nata employees live in Staunton, and there are presently four parking spaces actually inside the building. When he sets up the restaurant operation, more parking will be needed, and he’s been working on some creative ideas for that.
“I’ve been over here a lot, and I’ve noticed that the people of Staunton do a lot of walking,” Schoeb said, “so I imagine we’ll have a lot of walking customers.” He’s also in touch with the owners of a number of vacant city lots nearby to enquire about purchasing them.
“Then there’s the Staunton trolley,” Schoeb said. “It costs 25 cents, and I’d love to have it stop here.” He envisions Mary Baldwin College students and staff, along with other downtown residents, visiting the tasting room and eventual restaurant by trolley. He said he’s also in talks with the neighbors to address their concerns about noise and traffic.
“I believe John will be able to address their fears about noise,” Hartless said, “but the parking will be the harder issue.”
He added that anyone coming to downtown Staunton for any purpose is going to have to consider parking, but that’s part of being a small urban downtown. “We have public parking lots,” he said, “and the Johnson Street lot, in particular, always has spaces. There’s also public parking on North Augusta Street. People may need to walk a little bit, but probably not more than three or three blocks.”
Hartless said he is mindful of neighbor’s concerns. “It’s a trade-off,” he said. “Do you want the building to just sit there and crumble, or do you want it to become part of a vibrant community?”
In an interview, Schoeb referred to the repurposed bottling plant by his own temporary designation, “Pro Re Nata II.” He also referred to “Pro Re Nata III,” a temporary name for a third location in the former steam plant that powered Western State Hospital and the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind. Plans are for it to become a restaurant that will serve Pro Re Nata beer. He has a partner in this, Chip Clarke, who owns it as well as several other Staunton buildings. Clarke had been looking for a partner to transform the dilapidated building on Greenville Avenue and Richmond Road into a brewpub ever since it became vacant in the mid-90s.
Schoeb and Andrew Messina built the Crozet brewery eight years ago. No one could be more surprised than Schoeb at its success: “When we started, I had in mind a nice little neighborhood brewery,” he said.
One of his goals for the use of the space freed up when hundreds of huge barrels are removed to Staunton is to build a longer bar. “I want people to come here to sit at the bar and meet their neighbors, kind of like Cheers,” he said. “We got away from that during the pandemic, and I’d like to see it return.”
Follow the progress of both projects on Facebook, under the heading 709 North Augusta Street.