Family Business | St. George Brewing makes it work

St George Brewery

There’s always work at a small business. Make that a family business – a busy brewery, at that. Long days can seem to run together.

“Today’s Tuesday,” William Spence Jr., orienting a recent visitor to St. George Brewing Co. “Oh, great – I get tacos.”

The microbrewery at 204 Challenger Way in Hampton has a retail shop, tastings, tours, and events. Customers and friends of the brewery gather at indoor picnic tables to share pints and pitchers – and savor the work of a Stuft food truck.

It’s a “thirsty” taco Tuesday.

Folks started coming in by late afternoon – workers off shift, fans of the brewery, families and friends. The retail shop got busy. Customers went to work on standard favorites and seasonal varieties on tap.

Meanwhile, beer was being brewed and deliveries made ready. Among those prepping a delivery was William’s father, owner Bill Spence, who came into the brewery business after his retirement as an Air Force officer.

The St. George inventory has 28 varieties, including beers brewed for big customers and to be sold under other brand names. The brewery has six full-time employees and some part-timers. Father and son run the front office.

“Could you work for family?” quipped William Spence, 34, the director of drinking operations. “Alcohol helps.”

“You have to be a little bit of everything,” said Bill Spence, 61.

“There’s more floor work than office work,” William Spence said.

“It beats having to wear a coat and tie,” Bill Spence said.

Some pressures are in the market – new microbreweries.

“Competition for tap handles and shelf space is getting a little tight,” Bill Spence said. “The amount of shelf space isn’t increasing.”

But St. George has steady customers both big and small. It is sold mostly in Virginia, with some sales in North Carolina, and, under another brand name, Maryland. About half the sales come from Hampton Roads.

Since 2012, when Virginia breweries became able to sell their beers for on- site consumption, St. George has been building its effort to become a destination.

The change has helped retail and growler sales.

St. George began as a brew-on premises business where customers made their own beer. It started at a shopping center in Virginia Beach then moved to Hampton as it made the jump to a full commercial operation.

A Christmas Eve fire in 2000 claimed that location on Kecoughtan Road, after little more than a year there.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” William Spence said. The current site has more room to brew, as well as an area for the retail shop and customers. The lot outside has also allowed for special events, including hosting a music festival. Bill Spence was a silent partner in the old St. George, he eventually took over from the owners. It was a good opportunity, he said.

“It’s one of those things,” he noted. “You fall into the briar patch. You never know where you’re going to come out.”

At the time of the fire, St. George boasted three beers and a brew made for Colonial Williamsburg. Classic St. George brews – Golden Ale, Porter, and the English IPA – still boast the same flavor profiles, said Andy Rathmann, the brewmaster. Rathmann, an Illinois native, worked as an apprentice in Germany and graduated from the master brewers program at University of California – Davis.

A Nut Brown Ale for Colonial Williamsburg remains. Rathmann, in a nod to his German background, developed a pilsner – the brewery’s first lager – in 2002. Seasonal brew have followed, as well as an Imperial Stout, an Oktoberfest now sold at Busch Gardens and – the most recent draft offering – a lemonade.

But St. George’s name suggests its core profile. Rathmann points to the Golden Ale, English IPA and Porter as ideal starting points for those interested the brewery. They are traditional, English-style beer.

“Number one is we wanted to be English, so we were doing English ales,” Rathmann said. “I’m real big on drinkability. I like people to enjoy it and not get overwhelmed right away. I like them to have a second and third.

While St. George has won its share of awards, Rathmann noted, “it’s better to just make good beer.”

Bill Spence, motioning to customers at the picnic tables, added, “Awards are nice, but the nice thing is what people think of it and what they like to drink.” Andy Cooke of Franklin was one of the customers who visited for a beer and a tour that Tuesday. He had his taste of a St. George beer at the Yorktown Pub, where he gets the Golden Ale with his oyster po’ boy.

“The Golden Ale is just good, crisp, a traditional beer,” he said. “I just want good traditional beer.”

Reach John Doucette at jhdouc@gmail.com.