Thomas Martin eased into the booth side of a table at Legend Brewing Co. last month, joining a conversation in progress about the sheer number of breweries in Richmond these days.
“Oh, I’ve noticed,” he said with a wide grin, an obvious sarcastic crack at the changing nature of an industry he’s been part of for decades.
Legend — Virginia’s longest continuously run brewery at 321 W. Seventh St. in Manchester — is 25, and to mark the silver milestone, its founders are throwing a big party Saturday, April 13, and inviting the whole neighborhood. BYOB, it’s not.
Festivities are from noon to 8 p.m. at the brewery. Admission is free. Patrons can sample the first of three anniversary double IPAs that’ll be showcased throughout the year. The IPAs will be on draft and sold in 16-ounce cans.
Martin’s presence at the table brought the total number of years of Legend brewing experience to 100. A decade or two ago, he, its president and owner, and his cohorts — Vice President of Operations David Gott, Brewmaster John Wampler and Vice President of Production Rick Uhler — were wondering why there weren’t more breweries around town. They had to explain to patrons where Manchester was, and total capacity in the original brewpub — currently downstairs from the restaurant — was 15. Their first grocery store retail space was in Safeway stores.
By 25 years, “we were thinking we’d be on the Riviera by now, but that hadn’t worked out,” quipped Gott.
A congenial bunch who joked that their ideal customers are “anybody who can afford beer,” they now find themselves staring down a future that looks much less familiar than the first quarter-century. Along the way, rules were changed, and now competition encroaches from all sides. Real estate — both on store shelves as well as along the south banks of the James River, where Legend’s large deck provides an expansive view of Richmond’s skyline, at least for now — is at a premium like never before.
The self-described “last of the old guard” among Richmond’s beer scene, Martin said, “It’s kind of like we have to start over now that we’re ready to retire.”
Nearly 40 breweries operate within the sprawling metro Richmond area, with seven others on the way, according to the most recent licensee data from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority. Five years ago, there were 11.
What started as a ripple in Richmond has turned into a tidal wave, particularly after a law changed in 2012 that, among other things, allowed breweries to exist without selling food. In short, unlike Legend, which had to sell food in order to sell beer, today’s craft breweries are allowed to simply brew beer and sell it. Today’s establishments can also use all of their premises to do so — parking lots and all — whereas Legend and restaurants need additional permits to use those areas.
“They’re not really following what we’re doing because we were required to have a restaurant to sell beer on the premises,” Martin said about the craft breweries that have opened since 2012. “It makes a better business model to not have to run a restaurant — it’s expensive and difficult.”
Legend opened in January 1994 with four kinds of beer — lager, pilsner, brown ale and stout. Bright, clear beers that seemed to quench the thirst, pun intended, of a culture that didn’t move far beyond national brands. At best, Legend was competing with imports.
“When we first started, it was difficult to get anybody to even try anything that wasn’t mainstream American light beer,” Uhler said.
With Bud and Miller beers as the cultural standard, when Legend opened its doors, patrons would show up for tastings and comment that “this doesn’t taste anything like beer,” Gott recalled, to which he’d explain that with 500 years of English and German brewing practices as evidence, their products do indeed “taste like beer.”
As it’s done for years, Legend today offers its lager, golden IPA, pilsner, brown ale and porter. Seasonally, there’s the Spring Pale Ale and the Ember Ale. The taproom series offers Bourbon Barrel Brown Ale, Anniversary Imperial Brown Ale and Legend Belgian Style Tripel.
Legend’s business model was built around high-volume retail sales. Beer is sold to wholesale distributors, who then sell it to grocery stores and local retailers.
Today’s market, however, is very different.
Unencumbered by food requirements, more breweries are trying their hand at opening tasting rooms and making money solely onsite rather than through distribution. And because they’re small, they can change their beers often, way more than seasonally, something Legend can’t easily do.
With large-scale production, “it’s difficult to say, ‘Let’s just throw this in and see if it tastes good,’ ” Gott said. “People will drink 10 kegs’ worth of beer and [say] this is the best thing I’ve ever had — even if it’s awful — because it’s new.”
But he added, “if you have to brew 60 kegs at a time, that’s another story.”
Martin said the competition also means less shelf space in stores for those who do pursue retail production.
With all of the new breweries “all making 10 beers, all of them trying to get their beers into the markets, the distributors are essentially flooded with product,” Martin said. “That impinges on us because when we do come up with a new beer, we have to fight harder for space even in the distributors’ consciousness, much less on their floor and on their beer shelves.”
“That’s always been our goal,” he said, “production, as opposed to just selling on premises.”
Meantime, local brewers who opened in recent years say Legend’s founders paved the way for today’s independent craft brewers.
Tom Sullivan, co-founder of Ardent Craft Ales, credits Legend with making popular the “buy local” concept before it actually caught on.
“They succeeded and grew in a time when the brewing industry as a whole showed little support for small, independent breweries,” Sullivan said by email. “And even after all of those years of hard work, they welcomed the most recent wave of brewers like Ardent into the fold, showing us how open and collegial the craft brewing world can be.”
He said reaching 25 years “is a testament to their tireless effort to make and share well-made craft beer” with Richmonders and outsiders alike.
Jeff Metz, a brewer at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s West Creek location, worked at Legend, both in the brewery as well as the restaurant.
He said when Legend opened, “they were offering a lot of different types of beer that you couldn’t find in this market,” particularly the popular Brown Ale that continues to be a best-seller.
“I learned a lot working with them and I’m thankful for that,” Metz said, adding that what’s kept them around is their loyalty to their products, “sticking to those core styles … and focusing on consistency.”
A nice reflecting pool might be nice — or maybe an ice-skating rink? Wishful thinking for those who fear the oncoming development in Manchester may one day replace Legend’s view with the backside of high-rise condos, office buildings and other structures.
Change is indeed on their minds.
Legend opened up a second location, in Portsmouth in 2017. There — and more recently in Richmond — they created a separate three-barrel brewing system that allows them to experiment with variations of their current beers, but in smaller batches. They can also create custom brews.
“We still like to do traditional-style beers as much as we can,” Martin said. But “we do have to have some adventurous things on tap occasionally.”
Martin said they’re looking at ways to revamp the brewery. Some of the aging Richmond equipment needs to be replaced, and they’re looking at recapitalization potential. He suspects Richmond hasn’t reached craft beer saturation — yet.
“Do we have two on every corner yet?” Martin asked, referring to cities like Portland, Ore., which has upward of 200 breweries. Then he answered his own question. “No, so maybe there is more room — another couple dozen at least, I would guess.”
For all the competition it places on them, Martin said he’s not opposed to the diversity he sees around him. Good beer is good beer. And some of what he’s tasted around town is very good beer.
“Many of the new breweries are … making some very fine beers with a great deal of skill,” he said. “From a brewing perspective, they are certainly not to be ignored.”