Since moving to Richmond, Virginia in the summer of 2019, it’s safe to say that I have immersed myself as deeply as possible in the local brewery scene. Wanting to say that I had visited everywhere I possibly could before beginning to write anything substantial about the local breweries, I made it a mission to personally visit all breweries within city limits. This, I have long since achieved, having since moved into visiting Richmond-adjacent breweries. To date, I’ve set foot in 30 local establishments where beer is being brewed, not to mention a plethora of cideries and distilleries.
And the first takeaway I think just about anyone would come to, visiting those 30 breweries? Richmond is undeniably an IPA town. Even in a craft beer market that demands a ceaseless flow of new hazies, Richmond seems to over-index on IPA. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it can project a sense of having limited options, especially if you don’t know where to look or don’t enjoy IPA. That’s why I’m writing these shorter, nichey lists, highlighting exemplary versions of beer styles that aren’t quite so well represented in the Richmond scene. The first entry in this series: Richmond’s essential pilsners, for the lager lovers among us. Today? Richmond’s essential porters and stouts—and we’re talking non-imperial stouts, here.
Richmond is afflicted, as much as anywhere else, with the mindset gripping breweries that the word “stout” in 2019/2020 solely implies flavored imperial stout. So many otherwise great breweries simply ignore the idea of standard-strength stout. Many don’t even brew standard-strength porter, and instead solely brew baltic porter or imperial porter, also more likely than not flavored/adjuncted. Ultimately, this can leave a gap in session or standard-strength dark beer styles, especially considering that other styles like brown ale have also faded away, while something like dunkel remains a niche style. Schwarzbiers, at least, seem to be growing in popularity around Richmond, being one of the only commonly available options for standard-strength dark beers that aren’t completely focused around their adjuncts. But finding those more humble stouts and porters can still take some work. That’s where we come in.
This list purposely leaves off imperial stout/imperial porter entries, and highlights a few of the Richmond-adjacent breweries that may be lesser known, even to those who live in the RVA area.
Honorable Mentions: Legend Brewing Co. Porter, Garden Grove Brewing Oatmeal Stout, Blind Dog Brewery Mr. Nubbs Stout, Hardywood Park American Stout (possibly brewed only for GABF and briefly available, but delicious.)
Located more than 20 miles west of Richmond proper, Fine Creek Brewing Co. is decidedly off the beaten path and is a bit of a destination, but is also one of the lovelier places in the Richmond-adjacent sphere you can go to wile away an afternoon and drink some seriously unheralded beer. These guys are no slouches, producing an array of quietly impeccable offerings, including one of the best mixed fermentation saisons I’ve had in Virginia to date. What sealed the deal, however, was the company’s lovely “American stout,” a textbook example of that increasingly rare style. This is a beer that makes a strong case for exactly why I find non-adjunct stout to be both essential and not something that can simply be replaced by bourbon barrel stouts or beers that solely drink like carbonated cold brew coffee. Each of those have their place, but what this beer offers is something distinctly different than the single-minded decadence present in either of those alternatives.
This is a deceptively potent, 7% ABV, inky black American stout, which features a substantial level of roasty char, tempered by a lighter and sweeter streak of creamy milk chocolate. Differentiating itself from what one might expect in porter, it features an appropriate charge of American hops, adding some pleasant notes of pine/florals, but stopping well short of anything that might make you think “black IPA.” The hops likewise contribute a mild bitterness that balances out the more cocoa-y aspects, leading to a dry finish. This is eminently, dangerously drinkable, and indeed you likely wouldn’t think it was 7% ABV. No doubt, drinkers who order it while now associating the word “stout” with vanilla bean, marshmallow and unstoppable levels of residual sugar might be a bit put off, but this is a lovely exercise in balance, which sets the tone for what I’m coming to expect from Fine Creek.
On any given day, the best standard-strength dark beer in my fridge in Richmond is probably a can of Basic City Beer Co.’s The Transient. As with their excellent pilsner, Our Daily Pils, which I included in the first list in this series, The Transient isn’t really a beer I hear other people in the Richmond beer world discussing, but then again, what non-adjunct dark beers does anyone talk about at this point? I guess it’s not that surprising when all is said and done, but it’s an absolutely lovely (and surprisingly substantial) porter. In all honesty, it’s one of those porters that is proof enough that the distinction between “porter” and “stout” is really only an ephemeral thing in the mind of the consumer—breweries produce whatever beer they want, and label it however they think it will sell.
As for The Transient, this one is quite roasty and coffee forward on the nose, with a French roast-like quality and hints of bitter dark chocolate, accented by a persistent note of smoke. It’s likely more intensely roasty than one would expect from most beers that breweries label as “porter,” and the smoke note also sets it apart. The flavor profile is likewise driven by roast, but it’s also quite creamy in texture at the same time, with a hint of milk chocolate sweetness, but a slight bitterness/roast astringency to balance it out. This all creates an impression that is ever-so-slightly decadent despite the modest 6% ABV—it comes off as a porter that really calls out for a complementary scoop of vanilla ice cream. Like the espresso in your affogato, those two would make a very winning combination. All in all, this is perhaps my favorite everyday porter/stout in Richmond, but the nature of it as a non-adjunct dark beer makes it exactly the sort of beer that is likely to be underappreciated in the modern craft beer climate.
A mainstay of Lickinghole Creek’s Shockoe Bottom (just east of downtown Richmond) taproom, this 5.5% ABV session stout seems to be dedicated to the neighborhood itself; something to differentiate the taproom from the original, farmstead Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery site. And indeed it does, giving the urban taproom a reliable, non-adjunct dark beer that pairs extremely well with a plate of their addictive dry rubbed chicken wings.
This stout is a bit smaller in stature than some of the other entries on this list, but is in no way lacking in assertiveness of flavor. The brewery mentions it being made with “cedar tips” from the farm, but this element is hardly a major aspect of its flavor profile, providing perhaps just a hint of something you might recognize as resin. Rather, this is a particularly fruity stout, with a pronounced red fruit/almost vinous note that pairs well with dark coffee roast and mild residual sweetness. It’s somewhat less dry and roasty than examples above from Fine Creek or Basic City, emphasizing a bit more dark fruit (cherry?) at a very drinkable ABV. It’s easy to enjoy, and a no-brainer for nights when you’re not feeling like yet another hop bomb.
Of all the Richmond breweries, Final Gravity is the one I find myself wishing I returned to more often. Unfortunately, it’s in an area of the city I rarely venture out to, but the quality of its offerings (and unsung nature) make me increasingly want to make the trip. A big part of that allure? Their surprising commitment to non-adjunct dark beer styles.
Suffice to say, no other Richmond brewery seems to have half the interest in porter and stout that these guys do. Not only do they often have both a non-adjunct porter (Montpelier Train Station) and non-adjunct stout (Obelisk) available at the same time, a recent visit yielded an 8.3% ABV non-adjunct Irish foreign export stout (Irish Goodbye) as well. Now ask yourself: When’s the last time you visited a brewery and they had three different, non-adjunct dark beers? I’m certain that hasn’t happened to me in literally years, which is just one reason that Final Gravity is my kind of place—the fact that their Doppler Effect IPA finished at #12 in our blind tasting of 324 IPAs is just the icing on the cake.
Of those dark beers, all three are solid options, but I’m partial to Obelisk, a muscular American stout registering at 7.5% ABV. Malty, nutty and roasty in equal measure, this is a deeper sort of stout, with a warming element of caramelization that is dried out by the slight astringency of ashy roast. You get a faint impression of the ABV here, which adds hints of dark fruit—I was reminded a bit of black raspberry. Very dark, bitter chocolate rounds everything out. Even if this beer isn’t your style, though, it’s likely that one of the other two non-adjunct stouts or porters will fit the bill. Kudos to Final Gravity for caring enough to continue brewing these styles of beer.
Castleburg is one of Richmond’s odder little breweries, existing in a modest, strip mall-like facade and focusing on accessibility, with almost all of their offerings being either gluten free or “gluten reduced.” This is seemingly a business plan focused on making their beer available to those who aren’t usually able to consume it, but I’d be lying if I said that “gluten free/gluten reduced” was much of a draw to a consumer like myself. There is one beer in the Castleburg lineup that I quite enjoy regardless of its gluten levels, though, and that is The Siege.
I know I’ve been banging on about “non-adjunct” stouts and porters here, but allow me a slight concession for a moment, as The Siege is a milk stout that is brewed with raspberries. In a time when the hype cycle largely revolves around pastry stouts with half a dozen distinct adjuncts, a simple “raspberry stout” hardly seems too overcomplicated, right? And this one is worthy of a bit more attention.
The Siege is a sweeter, richer milk stout, weighing in at 6.2% ABV, and provides the expected slick/creamy mouthfeel. Milk chocolate nuttiness is well met by moderately assertive notes of fresh, jammy raspberry, which is an inviting combination. In general, this is a well calculated stout, and one that doesn’t allow its fruit addition to overpower or eclipse the background stout, but instead function as a solid supporting player. Regardless of anything related to gluten, it’s a beer that most breweries would be happy to have in their year-round lineup.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.