Craft brewers often tell me about their beer epiphanies—those aha moments in which they first tasted full-flavored homebrew in their friends’ garages or decided while tasting local suds on exotic vacations that they would one day brew beer of their own, open breweries of their own.
For Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh, the co-owners of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Virginia, that aha moment came in the form of a homebrewed beer served on a farm in a sheep station outside of Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia.
“David Crawford was the owner of the Hardywood Park farm,” McKay says. “In the evenings we’d make a great dinner, and we’d enjoy his homebrewed beer. He homebrewed out of necessity—there weren’t exactly bottle shops around the corner.
That was what McKay remembers as his “first real experience with craft beer.”
“I was fascinated by the fact that you could brew beer at home with authentic ingredients and ultimately [produce] beers with so much flavor,” he says. He would go on to host his childhood friend Patrick Murtaugh at Hardywood, and the two would become borderline obsessed with homebrewing. Murtaugh went to brewing school at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago; McKay went to business school; and ten years later they called David Crawford at Hardywood Park about opening a brewery of their own.
“When we reached back out to the Crawford family, they had sold the farm and were thrilled to have the name Hardywood Park carried on,” McKay says. “The name is homage to our epiphany beer.” McKay and Murtaugh opened Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in 2011 in The Diamond neighborhood of Richmond, just a stone’s throw from Scott’s Addition Historic District, which in recent years has become a thriving area for craft beer. “The cultural trends in Richmond are parallel to those in great beer cities, specifically Portland,” McKay points out. “We have a strong independent restaurant scene and music scene, adventurous people, and an outdoor community that’s burgeoning. The James River had long been a source of embarrassment for Richmonders, but river quality has been improving steadily from the eighties, and now it’s starting to be an amenity of Richmond, a social outlet.”
Fun fact: Richmond is the only metropolitan city in the country with Class 4 rapids running through its center. It’s also home to Mekong Restaurant, “a Vietnamese restaurant that has embraced craft beer so wholly that it has become craftbeer.com’s Beer Bar of The Year for the past several years,” McKay says proudly. (See “Love Handles,” Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, June/July 2015, for more about Mekong Restaurant.)
Like many other craft beer–soaked towns, Richmond has a prosperous community of local food purveyors, many of which get the spotlight in Hardywood’s beers.
One of Hardywood’s first beers was RVA IPA. “We made only 20 gallons of that first batch because the full-size 20-barrel brewing system was not up and running yet,” McKay recalls. “We put out a request for locally grown hops on social media and got a great response.”
Hardywood now gives out 1,000 rhizomes each year for anyone interested in growing their own hops and re-creates this community-hopped, fresh-hopped IPA. “Our hops growers have taken a very interactive role in the community,” McKay says. “Huguenot Hops in Midlothian, Virginia, has even started their own farm. Before Hardywood got started, less than one acre of hops [was] being grown in Virginia. Now I believe there are thirty to forty.”
Another of Hardywood’s first recipes was the Farmhouse Pumpkin, for which McKay and Murtaugh wanted to use local pumpkins. “That restricted us from releasing it in July or when the other pumpkin beers come out,” jokes McKay. He and Murtaugh used flame-roasted Virginia-grown sugar pumpkins, brown sugar, freshly ground Ceylon cinnamon, whole Grenada nutmeg, whole Madagascar clove, and whole allspice. All of the spices in this brew were sourced from Richmond businesses.
The third beer that McKay remembers from Hardywood’s early days is the beer that put the brewery on the map when it won a World Beer Cup award in 2012. Gingerbread Stout was brewed with baby ginger from Casselmonte Farm in Powhatan, Virginia. “This gentleman popped in at just the right time,” Eric says about the inception of the recipe. “He had these big stalks in his hands that looked like sugarcane. He was geeking out about ginger. He’d spent years trying to grow it in Virginia, and he’d finally accomplished that with Hawaiian White Baby ginger.”
A few days later, McKay and Murtaugh met a beekeeper. “We were impressed by his product and the attention he paid to packaging it,” McKay says. “We thought, why don’t we take our vanilla cream stout homebrew recipe and add honey, ginger, some cinnamon and nutmeg, and make a Gingerbread Stout?”
About six months after Hardywood opened, Gingerbread Stout won the World Beer Cup Bronze in the Herb and Spice Beer Category. “Brewing Gingerbread Stout really solidified our commitment to the Reserve Series that showcases local ingredients,” McKay adds. “The series has eight beers, and they all have a local ingredient as the central focus. We use everything from ginger and honey to locally roasted coffee to local tulip poplar wood (which is used to condition a dry-hopped imperial IPA called Hoplar).
Beyond the Reserve Series, Hardywood offers a lineup of year-round and seasonal beers that McKay says adds breadth to the selection of craft beers native to Richmond. Hardywood brews a bock, a Pilsner, and a cream ale in addition to its flagship blonde ale, Singel. “I didn’t know the spelling of the beer name—spelled like a Belgian-style Dubel or Tripel—would confuse people so much, but we’re educating them slowly,” McKay says. “When we opened, we were the only brewery around making a Belgian blonde as a core, year-round beer. As homebrewers we made this recipe over and over, and we hoped it could differentiate us.”
Differentiate them it did—especially when guests could experience it next to beers such as Gingerbread Stout, Farmhouse Pumpkin, Smoked Dopplebock, Bourbon Barrel Cru, or Peach Tripel, to name a few. They drank so much of it that Hardywood is currently undergoing expansion to keep up demand.
In May, Hardywood broke ground on its new facility in Goochland County. It will include a 60-barrel brewhouse, and McKay and Murtaugh will continue to use their 20-barrel brewhouse as a pilot system. “We’re scaling up our relationships with local farmers,” says McKay. “It has been a challenge, but a fun challenge. It’s all about relationships.”