By: Alex Hannagan of the Virginia Brew Review
Most Virginians would be forgiven if they thought that the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel actually left Virginia. That whole Eastern Shore business sounds just so Maryland. Regardless, it does feel like you’re leaving home behind when you take that last exit before hitting big blue – the warnings about gas, tolls, potential high winds all add up. Geographic gap or no, we’re here to tell you that you should take that exit, and meander on down a residential street for about 2 miles. You’ll come across a converted fire station that’s quite easy to miss until you realize that the old garage is full of teak-style paneling and mood lighting. At this point you’re just blocks away from the Chesapeake Bay. It really is just about the last stop.
Even a craft beer connoisseur would be forgiven if they had a mild panic attack when looking up at Commonwealth’s beer menu. Up to 30 beers – all brewed in house, of course – are available at any given time. The fruity, eccentric malts of Belgians share space alongside sours, wild ales, and some of the juiciest, most hop-forward IPAs this side of Boston. It’s impossible to take it all in one or even two trips, and it makes one wonder just what Commonwealth is expecting from its guests.
A beer industry analyst could be forgiven for being skeptical about one brewery taking on so many styles. Although grocery stores, restaurants, and bars keep expanding their capacity for beer, several new breweries open throughout Virginia seemingly every month, not to mention the influx of big West Coast brewers into Roanoke, Richmond, and Virginia Beach. Those of the 200+ breweries we have which choose to distribute may only get one (or if they’re lucky, 3-4) of their flagships into a rotation at a bottle shop or restaurant beer program. Even before they can penetrate those actual shelves or tap lines, they have to be able to convince a distributor to go along for the ride with them. Since distributor reps have to be both evangelicals for, and salesfolk of, all those styles, that can be a harder task than it appears at first.
Commonwealth could be forgiven for rocking this boat. They, among other young breweries in Virginia, are up against near-monopolistic control of everything from access to distributors, retailers, and even hops. Yes, we’re talking about AB-InBev. Back in 2016, they were under investigation by the Department of Justice for basically paying supply chains and stores to not carry craft/independent beer brands. Though they survived that probe and the merger which initiated it, their deal with SABMiller gave them ownership of all the hop farms in South Africa; a year later, InBev has started declining purchase orders from all American craft breweries for those hops. If you’re a farm brewery that grows your own hops and sells everything through your tasting room, that doesn’t matter so much. For folks like Commonwealth, though, it can be a matter of life or bankruptcy. Fed up with always playing against a stacked deck, Commonwealth owner Jeramy Biggie and his wife Natalie split ownership of Commonwealth into both a brewery and a distributorship. It’s brilliant in a way, but it could also be a chapter in How to Lose Friends and Make Enemies. They’ve lost access to parts of Norfolk and Virginia Beach as establishments “loyal” to AB InBev have shut them out, but you’re starting to see Commonwealth beers across the rest of Virginia for a reason. Still, it’s best to visit if just to ogle all those beers on tap.
You won’t be forgiven for enjoying your visit to Commonwealth. On trips across consecutive nights, we sampled distinctive flights that were almost uniformly excellent. That mind-bottling menu allows you to carve it up into almost whatever you want your experience to be. Yes, as in it takes your mind, puts in a bottle with a little message scroll, and tosses it into the Bay to be discovered after it drifts onto Richard Branson’s private island down in the Caribbean in a few years. On our first night we sampled our way through an impressive list of hazy IPAs, and for the follow-up we tried our best to survive the “mild insanity” that Commonwealth brings to what are typically flagship styles for most breweries. Not everyone can get there, though, so we want to talk to you about one of the beers Commonwealth is shipping across Virginia for a bit. It’s not the one most might expect, though.
Most fans of Commonwealth could be forgiven for steering you to two of the flagship IPAs, Papi Chulo and Big Papi. The latter, a Double IPA, is truly exceptional, but if you’re looking for a bit of the “mild insanity” that Commonwealth prides itself on, consider…
Oranjelo, Commonwealth Brewing Company (Virginia Beach, VA)
New Engliand IPA, 6.4% ABV, 0 IBU
Presentation: Best served in an IPA-specific glass such as a Teku. This allows all the sediment left in the beer to pool in the bottom. You still get the flavor from those ingredients, but don’t have to drink them. Try to let this one sit out of your fridge for 15-20 minutes before you pour/serve it – a lot of the flavors in “NE IPAs” come out best when the beer is between 50-55 degrees.
Appearance: Cloudy to the point of being opaque, with a tangerine flesh body flecked with darker pockets of orange. It pours a little frothy but that head dissipates rapidly.
Taste: It’s OJ (literally). It’s beer. You might call it the screwdriver of beers, and that is meant very much as a compliment. You get all the sweetness of fresh squeezed orange juice for a good reason – the beer is actually conditioned with added citrus. Columbus and El Dorado hops give Oranjelo added citrus punch without taking it over the edge. You get some late hop qualities as the beer finishes on your palate, to include tinges of florals and grapefruit. Make sure you get a big nose (whiff) of Oranjelo before your first sip, as that will enhance a lot of what’s there.
Mouth Feel: You could be forgiven for thinking of this as a hoppy beer, but in reality at zero bitterness units you’re really tasting the floral elements of the hop itself. Most of the flavors will be found on the sides and roof of your mouth.
Overall: It’s a deep cut of an IPA for hopheads, juicy for hazy beer lovers, and a mild aftertaste for those looking to craft beer for more than a numb tongue. Try this before you delve into a lot of Commonwealth’s more flavorful beers. Better yet, get its sister beer Limonjelo, Papi Chulo, and Big Papi to make your own flight. It’s the sort of experience craft beer is all about!
 Bartz, Diane. “U.S. queries AB InBev on distribution incentives amid merger.” Reuters. Washington, DC. May 25, 2016.
 Notte, Jason. “Anheuser-Busch InBev shuts out craft beer brewers by hoarding hops.” MarketWatch. May 12, 2017.