Its brewer's guild site is pretty sparse and its breweries fairly clustered, but Virginia's 37 breweries are enough to make beer fans stand up and take notice.
Even if a craft beer fan's only experience with Virginia beer comes from a visit to the Washington, D.C., area, that's not a bad start. The Capitol City Brewing brewpubs are a nice set of training wheels that don't offer time-consuming tours but pour workable brews such as Capitol Kolsch and Prohibition Porter while leaving time to see the sights. It gets slightly more labor intensive in historic Alexandria, where distractions such as the Hops Grill and Brewery chain can take precious time away from tours of the Port City Brewing that just opened in January.
If the D.C. area's going to be your only stop, though, there are two real must-sees. Shenendoah Brewing has fine stouts and red ales and lets visiting brewers make their own beer on the premises. Falls Church's Mad Fox brewpub/beer bar just opened this year, but has nine solid beers on tap including a wee heavy, belgian strong ale and saison that are complemented with a strong selection of local meads and ciders.The sweetest reward is reserved for those willing to go far beyond the beltway. The Blue Ridge Mountains and the home of the Virginia Cavaliers, Thomas Jefferson and the Dave Matthews Band in Charlottesville are also home to a collective of some of the state's finest breweries, which have started referring to themselves as the Brew Ridge Trail. For adventurous craft brewers, there's no better trailhead than that marked by the giant, cabin-style brewery of Nelson County's Devils Backbone Brewing. In the middle of a sprawling field with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background, Devil's Backbone could have gotten by on middling brews, live bands and a decent burger on the bar menu as long as it kept its outdoor seating and gorgeous view of the valley and big stands of Cascade hops for tourist photos. Instead, Devils Backbone went ahead and brewed a Gold Leaf Lager and a Baltic Coffee brew that took home gold medals from the Great American Beer Festival last year and got another bit of gold hardware for its Baltic-style Danzig Porter at the Brewers Association's World Beer Cup. The brewer's World Beer Cup foray also earned a bronze for its Kollaborator dopplebock, made with the help of another great Blue Ridge brewer, Crozet's Starr Hill Brewery. Originally right in Charlottesville, Star Hill moved to the mountains to increase production of such brews as its low-alcohol Lucy summer ale, its Festie lager and its upcoming pumpkin porter. Starr Hill's still incredibly active in Charlottesville, sponsoring concerts at the Charlottesville Pavillion and Jefferson Theater, but if you want a growler of its Jomo lager, a few sips from its tasting room, a glimpse of the bottling line or a taste of the full weekend of bands at the Starr Hill-sponsored FloydFest, you're going to have to take the hike. Charlottesville isn't left out of the mix completely, as the South Street Brewery just off the Downtown Mall has a cozy brewpub and live music to match its selection of laid-back brews, including the hoppy Olde 420 Stout, but it's tough to compete with an outdoor patio at Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, shaded in arbor and featuring mountain and farm views in almost every direction. The brewery's views, sprawling hops farm and upcoming August hop harvest detract only slightly from a broad selection of beers that start out as mild as its lager, beef up a bit in cans of Full Nelson Pale Ale and start packing a wallop with dubbels and a 10% alcohol by volume Mandolin artisinal ale. The brewpub also does a fine job on keeping beer lovers' eyes on the prize by rotating 20 draft-only varieties, including a wee heavy, imperial pumpkin and barrel-aged chocolate cherry bourbon stout on its taps and occasionally hosting "Steal The Glass" nights that allows visitors to keep the glass when they pay for a $5 pint.