At Smartmouth Brewing, The Details Make the Difference

Smartmouth Brewing Company HR Growler

Take a look at the Smartmouth Brewing Company logo. A dark beer with a hint of red at the bottom of the glass, white head on top inside a black circle on an orange background.

Now take another look.

That red might be a tongue. The white head and the bottom of the glass resemble teeth, and the orange sides look like cheeks.

Smart. Mouth. It’s all in the details.

“A lot of people miss that,” Smartmouth president Porter Hardy said. “It’s about being clever, being a smartmouth, and also literally having a smart mouth, a sophisticated palate.”

For two years now, craft beer lovers have celebrated a slate of homegrown beers to enjoy in a neighborhood atmosphere, made by people who love beer, love the science behind making beer and love having a good time.

“If the brewery has a personality, it’s that we’re a collection of misfits,” Hardy said. “The unifying thing we have is that we all care very much about what we do. If we have a motto, it’s that we are fun but professional, or professional but fun.”

Head brewer Greg Papp signed on early, coming up from North Carolina to help build a brewery from the ground up with like-minded people.

“It was a good opportunity to make up my own recipes and help build something in my own way,” Papp said. “Porter had everything very well-planned and organized. A system was in place. We had backers. It just needed someone to help pull it together.”

Papp said that organization and attention to detail is a key ingredient in the brewery’s success.

“Collectively we’re all a little neurotic and OCD,” he said. “I certainly am. I’m always checking every last detail. We have that mentality where we overthink and overanalyze, and that produces a clean, well-made beer.”

That word “clean” comes up a lot in talking to the Smartmouth folks. It’s a watchword for everything connected to the company, from the beer to the machinery to the tasting room aesthetic to the graphics, like that logo.

Hardy tapped the first keg of Smartmouth beer Oct. 19, 2012, at the Public House in Norfolk. The Smartmouth tasting room - a gleaming space of industrial gray and black with long wooden tables jammed together European-style and a blackboard wall featuring ever-changing artwork - opened on Raleigh Avenue in West Ghent a few weeks later.

“I’m very protective of the tasting room and the community-hangout feel,” Hardy said. “That’s the thing I’m most proud of. I can walk out of my office and see people enjoying what we do. That makes my day. That might sound a bit rainbows and unicorns, but it’s true. That makes it all worth it.”

A turning point came while the brewery was still under construction with a change in Virginia law that allowed breweries to serve beer on site, Smartmouth partner Christine Neikirk said. She and her husband, Chris, were original investors in the brewery.

“I think that was a big part of our success, that people could come and hang out in our space and have a sense of ownership,” she said. “The neighborhood has embraced us, and we've been really lucky. People were in the mood for craft beer -- good beer. And we have a happy, welcoming team of people working with us.”

The brewery opened with two full-time employees, including Hardy, who gave up his job as a lawyer. It has since grown to 25 full- and part-time workers.

That tasting room immediately attracted regulars from nearby neighborhoods and all over Hampton Roads. Dan and Laura Lupton regularly brave the tunnel tolls from Portsmouth to get their Smartmouth fix. A home brewer and a fan of cask-conditioned ales, Dan enjoys the atmosphere, but it takes a back seat to the beer.

“If the beer wasn't good, it wouldn't matter how nice the tasting room is,” he said. “This is one of the few places that has a beer engineer who knows how to make and serve cask ale – the right temperature, the right pour, the right taste.”

“What stands out is the attention to detail. I think the initiative to drink and make beer is creative, but actually making it is scientific. To reliably produce good beer consistently, there’s a science to it.”

Hardy and his business partners weighed the pros and cons before jumping in.

“I thought it would work, obviously, or I wouldn't have done it,” Hardy said. “My right brain said, ‘We need this. The community will support it.’ My left brain was busy crunching numbers.”

The success of O’Connor Brewing Company, another homegrown Norfolk brewery, and the burgeoning local food movement encouraged him.

“O’Connor’s showed that local beer could sell well. He paved the way,” Hardy said.

The number-crunching, the worrying, the employees and the customers have combined to make Smartmouth a success, Hardy said.

"After two years we are approaching volumes that I projected for years three and four,” he said. “The demand has outpaced supply, and we’re trying to catch up. I did not predict that. It’s been a happy surprise that we've grown so fast.”

This summer, the brewery began its canning operation, and now cans of Murphy’s Law Amber, Rule G IPA and Alter Ego Saison are available in cans from Richmond to the Eastern Shore.

“Outside of opening, canning has been the biggest thing we've done. I thought it would go well, but it’s been crazy. Again, we made it to where I thought we’d be in a year in a month,” Hardy said.

Last year, the brewery produced 1,400 barrels, Hardy said, and 3,000 this year. Next year, he expects production to grow again by 50 percent.

“We have to figure out how to satisfy the demand that’s out there, as well as how to reduce costs, expand capacity and add product lines. People ask all the time if we’re going to can Notch 9 (Double IPA) or our seasonals. The answer is yes, we will do that at some point - once we figure out how to do that and keep up with demand,” Hardy said.

“The last two years have been phenomenal,” Papp said. “We’re continuing to grow and expand all the time. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s great.”

The brewery continually churns out ideas for new recipes, which are still tested on small-batch home brewing equipment. Recent additions include Mispelt Belgian Golden Ale, a crisp ale made with spelt grain, the caramel and spice concoction Outta Yer Gourd Pumpkin Ale and an upcoming brew to celebrate their second anniversary, II.

“We’re using a New Zealand and Australian hops, which have a fruity flavor, as opposed to a pine, citrus flavor,” Hardy said. “I would like to do a smoked porter, too. We've never done that.”

In addition to the anniversary beer they will soon unveil Velvet Glove Imperial Stout, the brewery’s first barrel-aged brew.

Head brewer Papp draws on his own experience and ideas from other breweries for new recipes, which are tested by trial and error then fine-tuned in that scientific, logical way.

While there’s obviously no lack of inspiration for new brews, Papp and Hardy said they still enjoy making their flagship beers just as much.

“We actually have a lot of fun making the same beers again and again, tweaking the recipe a little each time,” Hardy said.

So for Hardy, the gift of a home-brewing kit after graduate school led to a full-time job and a more than full-time obsession with beer. It’s a journey he has been happy to take with a merry crew of beer geeks, science nerds and professional fun-makers, or fun-making professionals.

“I’m not the kind of person to sit back and think, this is going well,” Hardy said. “I should do that more. This just might work.”


By Jim Washington