New brews on the block

brewery

If Back Bay Brewing Company seems a bit out of place among the clubs, hotel bars and souvenir shops along the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, that’s very much by design.

Back Bay’s owners and operators have created a relatively quiet and rustic space with their brewery and tasting room, a neighborhood place a few blocks from the bustling boardwalk at 614 Norfolk Ave. in the Shadowlawn community.

“The Oceanfront has been kind of a forbidden zone for craft beer – kind of a fizzy yellow beer kind of place,” said Back Bay’s Dan Yarnall, head brewer and chief operating officer. “First we had to get people used to the idea of craft beer. I think we filled kind of a void for people who didn’t want to go to the Oceanfront.”

Yarnall sat at the bar around lunchtime on a weekday, fielding a seemingly nonstop series of phone calls concerning everything from booking a corporate event to how much it would cost to sew patches onto hats. It was hours before the tasting room would open, but he and manager Travis Kesler were already preparing.

“We’ve been in the weeds, in a good way, every weekend since we opened,” Kesler said.

The tasting room, which opened in March, serves all the breweries offerings, including three made on-site – Atlantic Avenue IPA, Betty Blonde and False Cape Amber – as well others brewed by contract at St. George brewery in Hampton, including Beach Cruiser Pale Ale, Steel Pier Bohemian Lager and Summer Shandy.

Doors are open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3-10 p.m., Friday and Saturdays from noon to midnight and Sundays from noon to 8 p.m. The brewery is closed Mondays and Tuesdays to let the staff focus on brewing.

“We found it wasn’t wise to have people in here while we’re brewing,” Yarnall said. “It’s hot, there’s a lot going on, and I’ve been known to become a bit prickly while I’m working.”

“If the heat doesn’t get you, the chemicals will, or Dan will,” Kesler added.

Yarnall used to work for Beach Brewing Company, another local brewery that along with Young Veterans Brewing helped usher in a wave of well-respected craft beer-makers in Virginia Beach.

A Pittsburgh native, Yarnall moved to the area four years ago. He worked at Whole Foods as a beer buyer, then at Beach Brewing Company before moving to Back Bay.

“This was a chance to make the beers I wanted to make,” he said.

“I was offered a number of production jobs where I would be making the same beer every day, but here I get to experiment.”

That adventurous spirit helps not just the beers but the Back Bay atmosphere as well.

The brewery worked with local artists and craftsmen to recreate a bit of the real Back Bay, a 9,250-acre national wildlife refuge famous as a temporary home and feeding ground for thousands of migrating ducks, geese and swans each year.

“We wanted to bring a little bit of that here, since obviously we’re not in Back Bay,” Yarnall said. It’s about 18 miles away, for the record.

Like the brewery’s namesake, they liked the idea of a creating a retreat for thirsty locals and travelers.

“It has a nice character to it,” Yarnall said. “It’s just a nice place to hang out and talk beer all day. We want to be part of the community, and that’s been a big part of our success. We have created a sense of comfort. To me, where you drink is as important as what you drink.”

The historic building is nestled next to a couple of restaurants, an art gallery and a wedding chapel, should the mood strike.

A local artist who goes by the name Igor created indoor and outdoor signs with a weathered look, and the room features duck decoys and a map of Back Bay.

The tasting room includes tin walls made from the roof of a Back Bay barn and builders used local cedar for the bar, tables, light fixtures, tap handles, bathroom sinks and more, made by local craftsman Pat Ryan.

The light covers are about as local as you can get – made from Back Bay growler bottles.

A bar and two long tables provide seating, plus an upstairs hangout space with couches and a foosball table next to the business’ office. The brewing station is right up front downstairs, plus a smaller brewing set up intended for use as a teaching tool.

In fact the brewery has plans to allow home brewers to come in and use the equipment and store the results.

“Part of our original mission was to educate consumers about beer and beer-making,” Yarnall said. “I don’t know any home brewers who drink Coors Light.”

The space did not get this way easily, Yarnall said.

The building contains plenty of VB history. The site was once a fish house in the 1920s, Yarnall said, then later home to local surf company WRV (Wave Riding Vehicles). Back Bay president Josh Canada once worked at WRV, at a different location, and had his own history with the area.

“I used to live in Shadowlawn, that’s where I met my wife,” he said.

However, the building had become something of a relic itself when they found it.

“It basically looked like a crack house, or a murder scene,” Yarnall said. “All that was missing was the chalk outline.”

After months of work the tasting room opened at the end of March.

Opening night quickly morphed from slow to busy to overwhelming.

When the doors opened, the place was empty, Yarnall recalled. “A couple of people came wandering in, that was about it. Then after about an hour we were well past capacity,” he said. “Pretty soon here was a line wrapped around the building.”

Business has progressed steadily since then, with locals embracing the brewery (the Shadowlawn neighborhood association holds meetings there) as well as the occasional tourist wandering down from the Oceanfront. Yarnall figures that will increase dramatically as the summer goes on.

“Oh it’s going to be madness,” Yarnall said. “It’s going to be crazy.”

The location has another advantage, sandwiched between two well-regarded local restaurants - Zeke’s Beans & Bowls on one side and Gringo’s Taqueria on the other, with the Icehouse and Tad’s Deli just down the street.

“A lot of breweries like to bring in food trucks,” Yarnall said. “We’re lucky – we’ve got built-in food trucks on either side.” Canada said the cozy tasting room is a long way from his original vision – opening a big production brewery churning out beer by the barrel – but he loves how it turned out.

“We went small as opposed to huge,” he said. “The response has been so much more than we thought, and it’s just been so much fun.”  

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