Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to find a locally brewed beer within 30 miles of Blacksburg. If you had gone into any bar in town, the on-tap selection would’ve been limited to Bud Light, Miller Light or Coors Light.
Look around Blacksburg today, though, and a different scene abounds. More students and residents are raising their glasses to higher-quality, unconventional beers than they were a generation ago.
The craft beer movement has exploded nationally, and Blacksburg is following suit. Saturday begins the fifth annual Blacksburg Brew Do craft beer festival, and with specialty beer-toting additions like Blacksburg Taphouse and the upcoming Mellow Mushroom, the local beer culture is thriving from the classrooms to the local restaurant economy.
Sean O’Keefe has been teaching Brewing Science and Technology at Virginia Tech since the class was founded in 2004. After years of homebrewing and studying beer, he decided to impart his knowledge on students who are equally as eager to experience great beer. Since its initial semester, the class has grown from an intimate group of 25 to over 400 students interested in learning the newest trends in beer brewing and the history of the artisan hobby that dates back thousands of years.
“Word just kept spreading about the class,” O’Keefe said. “I kept increasing and increasing the class size every year after getting dozens of emails asking to force add.” O’Keefe, who grew up in Canada, moved to the U.S. in 1984 and recalls the limited choice of beer he grew up with. “We had Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams. But the number of microbrewed beers… you could count on your two hands.”
Though there are several different segments to craft beer, microbrewing is one of the more commonly used terms to describe a brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels a year and sells at least 75 percent of their beer off site.
The stigma of college students not caring about beer quality is quickly changing.
“There’s a notion that college students want cheap beer. But you can get good beer, cheaply,” said Sean Gart, president of the Homebrew Club at Virginia Tech. The club has over 30 active members and meets every week to try the homebrewed beer of other members, discuss different flavor profiles and take outings to local bars.
It started for Gart when he enrolled in O’Keefes class simply out of curiosity, but has since evolved to him creating new beers twice a month.
The freedom of homebrewing is pushing students to experiment and break the boundaries of what traditional beers offer.
“If you want to build a crazy beer that’s completely off the wall with some strange ingredient you can do it and it turns out great,” Gart said.
That sense of divergence is what’s propelling the movement locally.
“People want something different for a change, and that audience is being catered to locally by places like the Cellar, Blacksburg Taphouse and 622 North,” said O’Keefe. “Students are grabbing onto these microbrewed beers, and genuinely have an interest in something better than what’s been offered for years in the past.”
O’Keefe said that successful bars have knowledgeable staff members who can point the customer to something new and different.
That’s exactly what the owners of Blacksburg Taphouse Joe Nazare and Dave Powell want when customers come to their new restaurant. The restaurant, which entertained a soft opening two weeks ago, prides itself on great local food and a rotating selection of 33 beers on tap.
“Craft beer is exploding in this country,” Powell said. “We want to offer our customers the best possible beer with the best possible food.”
Blacksburg Taphouse will operate differently from other bars in town, Powell said. “We want new and different stuff to keep people interested,” Nazare said. The Taphouse is hoping to “cater to the Blacksburg crowd that wants something better that what’s out there already,” Nazare said.
“There are so many great beers out there. Why pigeonhole yourself into six or seven beers?” Powell said.
Restaurants aren’t the only ones capitalizing on this surge of beer. Brew Do festival, taking place this Saturday, offers a selection of over 100 beers from over 40 different breweries — some as distant as Hawaii.
“There are so many beer offerings and we want them here in Blacksburg,” Diane Akers, president of Blacksburg Partnership, said. “They’re popular in the restaurants and at the festival.”
The festival has taken off since its inception in 2008, which only hosted 1,000 attendees. This year, organizers are expecting over 5,000 attendees, an increase which Ackers attributes to the growing number of breweries and growth in the opportunities to try new beer locally.
“There wasn’t anything like it in the New River Valley,” Akers said. “We wanted to have a signature event that brings together people in the community and draws people in from outside the area to showcase what Blacksburg has to offer.”
As the culture is changing, so are the attitudes toward beer.
"It's just great to see how much it's grown," said O'Keefe. "And there's so much more room for it to continue growing."