By: Zach Grossfeld
The spark for Blue Mountain Brewery almost flamed out over a blind date mishap. Mandi and Taylor Smack, two of the brewery co-founders, first crossed paths at a mutual friend’s house party in Chicago. Driving around aimlessly, Taylor almost turned around when he couldn’t find the right house. Arriving late night, he and Mandi finally met, leaving soon after to hang at an all-night Ukrainian Bar. Over drinks, they imagined the beginnings of a rural-style craft beer paradise. “We talked about what type of brewery we would open up if we could do it without financial restrictions,” says Mandi. Growing up in Wisconsin, Mandi Smack knows beer. She worked as one of the original servers of the Outer Banks Brewing Station and as a hostess and default brand ambassador for South Street Brewery in the early 2000’s. Earning marketing and sales experience, Mandi also spent time at Hoyt Publishing in Chicago and two magazines in Charlottesville. As co-founder and marketing director of the original Blue Mountain Brewery location and Blue Mountain Barrel House, she keeps the brewery’s heart beating.
The last co-founder completing the trio, Matt Nucci, met Taylor at a dot-com startup in the late nineties. Matt actually taught Taylor how to homebrew. “We used to daydream out by the fire about opening a place like Blue Mountain,” reminisces Taylor. “I got into brewing to make something and not sit at a computer.” Ditching his desk job, Taylor worked unpaid for head brewmaster Jacque Landry at South Street Brewery in Charlottesville. He then enrolled in Siebel Institute; the country’s oldest brewing school, in Chicago. Landing a job after graduation as head pub brewer of Goose Island, Taylor made beer a baseball’s throw from Wrigley field. Far removed from the Internet start-up whirlwind, he charmed Mandi back to the fairer weathered Charlottesville when Taylor was offered the opportunity to return closer to home to brew. Taylor worked at South Street Brewery—with Mandi sometimes joining him—for five years, before leaving for Afton to open Blue Mountain Brewery with Matt. Growing a multi-state gourmet coffee business, Matt also worked a stretch in Charlottesville. He oversaw production and franchise development at Greenberry’s Coffee and Tea Company. Now head of brewer operations in Afton, Matt gives tours on Saturdays when he isn’t perfecting the beer.
Crafting the vision for Blue Mountain, Taylor and Mandi worked day jobs before coming home to build the business every night. Once the write-up was complete, the brewery needed backing from believers. “That was the scariest thing for me. I knew we had to go out and try to get people to invest. Why would these people trust us?” says Mandi. Putting up their own money and hosting informational investing parties, the three founders went full throttle to raise capital. “It was amazing how many people we didn’t know believed in us, and this was back in 2006 before the brewery craze,” she says. Once one-third of the total capital was raised from family and silent stockholders, the three founders broke ground on faith that the rest would come. The 27th brewery in Virginia began as a small, two-room setup. Now sitting on ten acres, the original winery-style brewery location pumps out 70,000 gallons of meticulously crafted beer per year. Blue Mountain Barrel House, the larger production brewery that came on-line in 2012, adds about another half-million gallons to that equation.
From these mountains to brew havens all over the planet, people taste beer for the first time every day. The better quality and taste of craft beer is pulling more consumers away from commercialized brands. In the late 1800’s, over four thousand craft breweries ran in America. In 1979, only forty-two stood open. Today, the US has pushed back to over four thousand. Despite what many view as a craft beer bubble, Taylor believes the growth of smaller, localized breweries will not slow. “In 2013, the same amount of breweries operated in the US as were operating before prohibition (a jump from 65 million to 400 million people). We are back to where we were, but still not there proportionally,” he says. Ironically, the big beer companies that brought craft beer to its knees a few decades ago now thirst to acquire these local breweries. Anheuser Busch recently acquired Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co, Elysian Brewing, along with Goose Island back in 2011. As craft breweries continue to dent the market, overall consumption remains stagnant. Total beer consumption is expected to dip through 2019, while craft beer is forecasted to compound 8% annually, according to Euromonitor.
With people changing the way they drink, local breweries are pushing the cheaper gateway beers off the shelves and taps. “It’s difficult to be a production brewery,” says Taylor. “Distributors are sick of the proliferation of brands with no room on the shelves.” The Blue Mountain sales force fights to keep their product on the shelves and in hands of consumers. The heavily evolving craft beer industry continues to chip away at the macros. “History suggests such movements take lifetimes, with a sea of bland, cheap beer in-between,” says Taylor. In a market dominated by trillion dollar forces, the smaller guys need support to stay afloat. Even as mergers like Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller control 28% of the market, craft brewers continue to command the way people drink. “Increasingly, folks are heading straight to the source to buy their beer, and that’s a powerful thing,” says Taylor. Drinking craft beer has turned from less of a rebellion into more orthodoxy.
Living only a few strides away from the craft brewery’s patio, Mandi and Taylor live and breathe Blue Mountain. Modeled after a winery, the space invites movement and mingling. Unlike their urban counterparts, children frequent the brewery all times of the year, often insisting their parents make the trip. Most beer drinkers in their late twenties and thirties have kids. The family atmosphere lends enough real estate for people of all ages to keep coming back. “It’s relaxed,” says Taylor. “You don’t see seventy, eighty year old people at an urban brewery.” The brewpub extends through pergolas and patios to the outdoor beer gardens. These gardens gaze at the Blue Ridge Range. Laid back and lighthearted, the atmosphere is still rooted in tradition. “Most breweries are samplers, pints, and food trucks. We do it all. Samplers, pints, table service, and awesome food we make in our own kitchen,” says Mandi. On top of the home front in Afton, Mandi and Taylor opened the Blue Mountain Barrel House in close by Arrington, and bought their former employer, South Street Brewery, in 2014. The Barrel House, which houses the largest beer barrel-aging facility in Virginia, adds more kegged, bottled, and canned beers to the repertoire at a capacity of over twenty thousand barrels annually. The developed equipment, process technology, and quality control allows for a stable and consistent brew.
Back in Afton, Matt maintains these high brewing standards. Mandi, the CFO of all three locations, runs the front and back house at Blue Mountain. “During busy season between May and October, I put in another fifteen to twenty hours on Saturday and Sunday on the floor. It’s important to me to be greeting our customers and making sure their experience at Blue Mountain is the best it can possibly be,” she says. Taylor oversees brewing operations at each location, most heavily at the Barrel House. He also deals with lawyers, bankers and insurance when he isn’t coordinating physical growth projects. “And unbelievably, I still get to brew a few times a month, just to keep it real,” jokes Taylor.
In many ways, the physical growth of Blue Mountain mimicked the business plan. Both evolved organically. “The business model was basically out the window by the end of the first full year. We get what we need, when we need it, without creating a destabilizing debt to income ratio,” says Taylor. Like the business plan, the brewery changed on the fly. Necessity, not design, drove the renovations. “If we needed it, we added it,” he says. The largest remodeling occurred in 2011 as Blue Mountain transformed from two rooms into a ten-acre formidable force. The routine for Mandi and Taylor remains relatively constant. They run the show with Matt after the school bus picks up the kids, then they flip back to Mom and Dad at 5 o’clock every evening. “It’s important to us to be with the kids and have dinner and bedtime routines,” tells Mandi. The Smacks have instilled their family-first culture into the Blue Mountain standard.
Deep in wine country, this standard pioneers the rural brewery model in Virginia. “It seems at times a little crazy to believe that building a brewery in a hay field in a county with one stoplight and 14,000 people was a good idea,” says Taylor. The rooted agri-tourism and natural attractions of Nelson County laid the foundation for Blue Mountain’s success. The James River, hiking trails and vineyards line the nearby physical beauty. The brewery stands to reconnect beer as an agricultural product to the people. “Get out of the city, stop thinking of beer as related to cranks and steam and wheels, and get back to the natural aspect of it all…deep well water, field of hops, and the beauty of the natural world,” urges Taylor. Much of the menu derives from nearby seasonal ingredients. Local sausages, veggies and cheeses all top the breads and handmade pizza dough. Crafting the menu based on neighboring farms, the food team often crosses paths with the beer team. “The chefs do a lot of cooking with our beer, so they need to work together to produce a stand-out product,” says Mandi. Many local mainstays, including Double-H Farm’s bratwurst and Goodwin Creek Farm’s bread, have stuck to the menu since the 2007 opening.
In the midst of Blue Mountain’s mission, the realities of the industry do come into play. Handling the differing personalities of 160 employees can stir up problems. A brewery attracts workers from all walks of life, creating a diverse professional atmosphere. Like any business with an expanding work environment, head butting ensues. Situations can get heated, but the relationships and the product are never compromised. “If anything, you can just step back and say ‘hey, it’s beer, no one’s dying or anything,’” laughs Taylor. As the mix of personalities colors the establishment, pointless red tape and distribution laws can sap much needed dollars and energy. “Many aspects of regulation are frustrating in that they accomplish nothing of value, but cost considerable time and money,” says Mandi. All three founders stand behind distribution laws, but not at the expense of wasted hours and funds. Even under these times of extreme stress, the smile on a returning customer’s face makes the effort well worth it. “It must mean we are doing something right,” she says.
As customers keep returning, the beer keeps flowing. The customer base more than tripled upon the major expansion back in 2011. Needing to transport beer quickly from the brewery side to the expanded area, management opted for a stainless steel pipe circuit. Freshly filtered cold beer flows from the brewing station to the storage tanks behind the new bar. “This pipe is a circuit, so that after transfer we can create a cleaning loop,” explains Taylor. Trailing the roofline of the brewery, the circuit pumps ice-cold, pressurized beer to the indoor holding tanks 300 feet away. For a seamless tap-to-keg transition, the team invented the “Chadifold,” a manifold named after Chad Dean, the Director of Brewing Operations at the Barrel House who helped create the contraption. “It is an intersection of beer supply lines (from tanks and kegs) and tap feeder lines (lines from the bar to the taps) that allows us to put any beer on any particular tap with a quick connection,” describes Taylor. A smoother, more efficient alternative during busy season, the Chadifold conducts beer into precise tasting order at the bar.
High quality malt arrives from all over, including Belgium, Germany and Canada. Two hop fields in Afton and one in Arrington grow over 1,000 hills of Cascade variety hops for seasonal and harvest beer. “We spend money on ingredients, not Super Bowl ads,” says Taylor. Next to the fields, a water treatment facility processes waste and recirculates treated water back into the ground. Taking utmost pride in the personalized brewing process, the three co-founders have named brews after their own children. “Evan Altmighty” is a German style altbier named after Mandi and Taylor’s son Evan, and pays homage to the film starring Steve Carell filmed in close by Crozet.
When they aren’t busy naming beers, Matt, Taylor, and Mandi have little time to research the latest industry buzz. They rely on the younger staff to delve into changing trends or technology. Information also spreads through conferences, seminars, or by word of mouth through the business. “Most brewers are friends with one another, but it’s not as tight as it used to be,” says Taylor. Mandi, Taylor, and Matt all drink, hang out, and swap yeast and hops with other breweries. Against withholding info, Blue Mountain publically shares recipes and ingredients. “We want to get people in touch with the American beer tradition,” says Taylor. The once tiny startup off the side of I-64 now gives customers a transparent view into the lifeblood of craft brew.
For those looking to enter the industry, Taylor has a few words of advice. “Show up and work for free. Show up earlier than asked and stay later than expected. If you show that kind of heart and sacrifice in the beginning, you will be noticed.” The sacrifice has paid dividends as Blue Mountain celebrates ten years in business this November. “Our anniversary is actually October 23rd, but we’re so busy that we’re already pushing the celebration back a few weeks,” says Mandi. True to form, Taylor will brew a special beer for the occasion. Before the anniversary, Blue Mountain will revamp their identity this spring with a fresh new look on the shelves. Since 2007, that identity has harnessed creativity, authenticity, and passion. At its roots, Blue Mountain will continue to strive for the best brew possible from the barrel to the bottle.
Blue Mountain Brewery
9519 Critzers Shop Road, Afton, VA 22920