I’ve seen it firsthand. Someone comes up to writer Lee Graves, recognizing him from his photo in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Oh, I know you! You’re The Beer Guy!” Graves’s reaction is modest and even a bit embarrassed, but the recognition is deserved. He first began covering beer news for the Richmond newspaper in 1996, and after a hiatus for another a job, he returned in 2013.
Taking the knowledge he’s gained as The Beer Guy, a homebrewer, and simply a fan, and using the interview and research skills he fine-tuned in nearly 40 years as a professional journalist and writer, Lee Graves has written “Richmond Beer: A History of Brewing in the River City.” The book was commissioned by The History Press, which has published dozens of beer-centric works among their 2,000 local and regional history titles.
Covering the central Virginia story from 1607 to the present, from “The Founding Brewers” to “Beyond the Brewhouse,” Graves weaves the tale of the beverage in with the history of the River City. “I quickly came to understand that the story of beer reflects the story of Richmond itself,” he states in his introduction.
Certainly the details that Graves provides would not have been part of our grade school history lessons. Though we might have learned that 23 Englishmen sailed up the James River and shared food and beverage with the Powhatan tribe, the teacher may not have told us the import of beer in that exchange. We may have learned the tribulations that Jamestown faced, but we probably didn’t learn that the settlers regretted their mistake in not bringing a brewer along on their trip to the New World. When we learned about Richmond reconstruction after the Civil War, we didn’t read about the part played by brewers and bottlers of beer.
Other details are too trivial for the history books but of great interest to those of us who move about the streets of Richmond every day: early taverns, a brewery at Westham (spared by the intercession of a widow) and one on Chimborazo Hill, and structures still standing that once housed successful breweries.
“That’s the thing that has made this so fascinating for me, is realizing that Richmond can claim to be one of the most historic beer cities in the country,” Graves told me as we sip ales at one of Richmond’s newer beer bars. “ I don’t think people realize how interwoven beer is in the history of the city… I was lucky to find some things that I don’t think people are aware of that are just fascinating stories.”
Beer lovers may be interested to read about the arrival of East India Pale Ales and lagers to Richmond, of German influences, and how porters were credited with saving a Civil War soldier’s life. Those who know the cooperation and camaraderie that abound in the contemporary RVA brewing community may be amused to read about the “Wrangling Over a Blue Ribbon” between early brewers Peter Stumpf and Alfred Rosenegk. And newbies to Richmond’s craft craze can appreciate the peek into Virginia’s early microbrewing surge, including Chesapeake Bay, Richbrau, Williamsville, Mobjack Bay and early homebrewers.
For those of us who know and love Richmond, the book is also a colorful snapshot of the present. Nearly a half of the book looks at today’s local breweries and peeks into the projected future. It’s a tale of the faces behind the breweries that are bringing our city into the national spotlight, of the beers, and of businesses, bloggers, and fans that support the movement.
Whether for your own use or to entertain out-of-town guests, the handy appendix will make finding a brewery or craft-supportive restaurant a snap.
No surprise is the acknowledgement that Graves gives in his book to the local beer community for their “support, help, encouragement, friendship and downright love.” He voices that same appreciation in person.
“What makes writing about beer so wonderful,” he told me, “is the community is absolutely fantastic. I sound like a cheerleader, but it is true. From the time I started, that has always been an identifying characteristic of the brewing community, the camaraderie and the cooperation.” He added, “You know what I’m talking about.”
And I do. As The Beer Guy says, being a part of the community that’s reflected in his book is “Gratifying, rewarding and humbling, all at the same time.”
The supportive community is hosting multiple book events, beginning with the official launch on Nov. 5, giving the public the opportunity to purchase a signed copy and chat with the author.
“Richmond Beer: A History of Brewing in the River City” is available at Fountain Books and Chop Suey, at some area restaurants and breweries, including Mekong, The Answer and Strangeways, as well as online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and The History Press.
Or if you happen to see The Beer Guy, he might just have a few copies in his trunk he can sell and sign. The book will be your own personal Richmond beer guide.
Local book signing events for “Richmond Beer”:
Official book launch, hosted by Fountain Bookstore
Nov. 5, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Southern Railway Taphouse, 111 Virginia St.
Valentine Shoppers’ Fair
Nov. 7, noon-2 p.m.
Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St.
Book signing with beer
Nov. 8, 6-8 p.m.
The Answer Brewpub, 6008 W. Broad St.
Book reception and signing hosted by Chop Suey Books
Nov. 14, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Portrait House, 2907 W. Cary St.
Book signing with beer
Nov. 16, 4-6 p.m.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, 2408 Ownby Lane
Book signing with beer
Dec. 3, 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Strangeways Brewing, 2277 Dabney Road
Book signing in the midst of history
Dec. 6, 11 a.m.-noon.
Sixty West Antiques, 8004 Midlothian Tpk.
Dec. 6, 1-3 p.m.
Barnes & Noble, 11500 Midlothian Tpk. (Space 440)
Dec. 13, 2-4 p.m.
WeekEnd Brewer, 4205 W. Hundred Road, Chester