Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Local or for Locals?

It is a mere 7.2 miles, via the back roads of Virginia, from my house to my local brewery, Patch Brewing, by far the quickest and easiest place for me to get to for a pint. I took advantage of this fact several times this holiday season, whether it was afternoon drinkies with my neighbour on Christmas Eve, getting my boys out of the house to run around in the kids play area on Boxing Day, or just having an afternoon drink with Mrs V and the boys whilst playing ludo in the main bar.

Patch has been open for a little over a year now, housed in a former VFW hall on something like 15 acres of land just outside Gordonsville. Their plans include things such as pick you own berries and walking trails in the woods to complement the existing pair of bars, I am a big fan of the outside space though it is sadly closed for winter right now. The brewery itself, and the main tap room area, are housed in the actual VFW hall, an open space with dartboards, a juke box, and trestle tables that remind me of central European beer halls.

When it comes to the beer itself, Erik is really starting to come into his own now that he has his brewhouse set up and has been brewing on it for about 6 months. Erik's previous job was working at the Devils Backbone Brewing Basecamp, and before that at Three Notch'd Brewing in Charlottesville. As such, he has worked under two of the best brewers I know in Jason Oliver and Dave Warwick respectively. An example of this would be his porter that I recently tried again over the holidays having not been wildly impressed when I had it on opening, it was excellent. Testament to the fact that it pays to give a brewer time to work out how to make his system work for him before passing judgement.

It was on my Christmas Eve trip to Patch that I was stood at the bar, there was basically no one there other than myself, my neighbour, and the general manager, who was tending the bar that day. I've know the GM for quite some time now, initially through the local homebrew club, but also as he has been in the beer industry for the best part of a decade I think at this point. The rest of the bar staff know me as a pilsner drinker, and Erik's Pylon Pilsner is definitely my most regular tipple at Patch, but the GM knew what I was there for, their "copper ale", which in my mind treads a fine line between dark mild and the kind of darker best bitter you get in the south of England.

As we chatted, I asked what the brewery's top sellers are. Pylon comes second to Lempicky Light Lager, an American light lager brewed with Murphy & Rude malted corn. When I tried it in the early days of autumn, having stumbled over the name several times (it is lem-piky, not the lem-pitz-ky my Czech brain reads it as), I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, nicely refreshing, not wildly bitter, but also not bland in the slightest. In discussing the Lempicky, the GM noted that part of Patch's ethos is to make beer "for local people" rather than just being "local" by virtue of proximity.

I have to admit I really like that approach, as well as the fact that the malted corn used in Lempicky is grown and malted locally too, with Murphy & Rude being less than 20 miles from the brewery. Outside of bigger urban areas, Gordonsville proper has a population of about 1500, and away from major tourist haunts, breweries need to cater more closely to the tastes of the local populace, and as such have a broad selection of styles rather than going deep into a particular style. In Charlottesville you can afford to have your taps dominated by IPAs because you are always going to have transient business by virtue of it being the local major hub and a tourist destination.

This also got me thinking about how so many of the beer styles we love and take for granted are a combination of location in a physical sense and locale in a population sense. Take Pilsner Urquell, its location has insanely soft water, which extracts less colour from malt than the hard water of London, for example, and is a key element in what made it such a revolutionary beer. Yet, from my understanding of the history, the brewery was started because the people of Plzeň were drinking more and more imported lager type beer from Bavaria. The good burghers of the city basically decided they wanted a slice of the action, and thus gave the people something they wanted, and the world a new beer style into the bargain.

When I was a student, back in the dim and distant past of the 20th century, one of the things that came up in homiletics classes - yes, I studied to be a preacher - was the importance of understanding your audience, which is basically analogous to understanding your customer. When the majority of your customers come from your locale, presenting them with something they understand and like is key. Sure they may never become a dedicated craft drinker with a penchant for hazy IPAs, but if they become a loyal drinker of your light lager then you have gained both a customer and an advocate, and that can only be a good thing.

Being "local" is all good and well, but I feel as though being "for locals" is better.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, I wasn’t sure where you would go with this. One facet is that historically, beer has been strongly influenced by local ingredients. Many breweries a no longer encumbered by sourcing locally so while the beer might be made nearby, the ingredients come from far afield. It is interesting to approach the situation where local tastes may not perfectly align with styles of beer that would suit the location. But, we live in the modern era and I appreciate all efforts to find the balance here and cater to the customer base (rather than force the latest trends on an unwilling audience) while also trying to brew with what is available close by.


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