By: John Biscoe
Spencer Devon Brewing is not a normal local brewery and restaurant, nor is Shawn Phillips a normal brewery owner (if such a creature exists). The facility nestles among the historic features of Olde Towne Fredericksburg, VA, dubbed “America’s Most Historic City”, due to a rich tapestry of events and people in both Colonial times and the Civil War. George Washington’s sister, Betty, lived a few scant blocks from the doors of Spencer Devon, and as a boy, Washington himself dwelled just across the Rappahannock. Some of the fiercest fighting of the War Between the States also occurred in Fredericksburg. Today, Olde Towne Fredericksburg is a thriving mix of small business and history-based tourism. Eschewing the more industrial settings on the outskirts of the city, as favored by most of the local brewing community, Phillips opted to open Spencer Devon Brewing in prime downtown space. On April 1, 2015, Spencer Devon served their first guests.
Shawn Phillips spent virtually all of his adult life (24 years) in the United States Marine Corps. Upon leaving, the obvious career change was to grow hair and a beard and open a brewery and restaurant. When Phillips was a child in North Carolina, his mother took him to their local farm markets. During his Marine Corps service, he continued the habit, seeking out markets where he was stationed, and seeking to “Immerse yourself in the community and make the community richer for your presence.” Spencer Devon follows the same model. The brewery bears the name Phillips intended for a son he never had (he has daughters) and he talks about it with the pride of a father for his child.
One of the Marines’ well-known slogans is “The Few, The Proud,” and pride is a constant theme at Spencer Devon as well, not in an overweening sense, but rather the pride of a commitment to a particular set of goals and bringing those goals to fruition. Shawn takes justifiable pride in the fact that his establishment makes award-winning beer. Spencer Devon’s Royston Rye IPA was recently chosen Grand Champion in the Strong Ale Category at the Winter United States Beer Tasting Championship. He takes justifiable pride in serving great food that is sensibly grown. When asked what means most to him about Spencer Devon, his responses involve the jobs that he is able to provide his employees, the relationships he has established with small local farms and the ability to contribute to the betterment of his community. He is proud of helping pork purveyor Schlund Family Farm get off the ground (Spencer Devon accounts for over half of their pork sales). He is proud that his beef comes from Monrovia Farm, a Virginia Centennial Farm in Orange County.
Phillips is committed to “buying into the farmer’s dream” and to helping make that dream a reality. Spent grain from Spencer Devon’s brews feeds the hogs at Schlund Family Farm. Both the food and beer menus in the restaurant feature continuous nods to local sourcing, names and stories that are steeped in local history. Among the brews on the chalkboard outside the restaurant on the day of this interview is Cornatopia Cream Ale and Snead’s Squash Harvest Ale. Local farmer Emmett Snead provided the sweet corn to brew the Cornatopia with, and Virginia malt barley came from Tony Kvasnicka’s Longleaf Farm near Petersburg. The Squash Harvest Ale draws sweetness from Snead’s Georgia Candy Roaster heirloom squash. Ellerslie Farm in nearby King George County provides the hops for several of the beers.
When referring to the inputs of his business, Phillips uses the term “cognitively raised” and avoids typical catchphrases such as “free range,” “organic” or “sustainable” as feel-good terms for an ill-informed population. The idea that people adopt these terms without truly understanding their meanings doesn’t work for him. His take on it all is much more experiential, referencing the first hand moments he has spent at the various farms and the relationships built with the farmers. He says, “Rationally, I should buy cheaper product but I’ll close the place down before I abandon my belief structure,” followed shortly by, “I am not in this to be a millionaire.” Shawn’s belief is simply that such food is “what I would prefer to eat, so I serve that to my guests.” In the course of our conversation, Phillips repeatedly refers to his clientele as his “guests.” Not once did I hear the word “customer.”
“Immersing yourself in the community” manifests itself in many ways. In July, Spencer Devon partnered with the Spotsy Disc Golf Club and 7 other local breweries for the inaugural FXBG Brewery Putt Through - a sort of pub crawl with Frisbees. Two local home-brewing clubs were involved in the creation of Spencer Devon’s Soleil Levant Witbeir. For Small Business Saturday following Thanksgiving, Spencer Devon offered discounted beer for guests bringing in a receipt from other local small shops. Phillips is genuinely committed to leaving Fredericksburg better than he found it.
Spencer Devon’s plans for 2018 include a New Year’s Eve Block Party and 8 separate festivals, including a St Patrick’s Day celebration, a local Fall Hop Harvest Festival and what is now their annual “Beards and Brews” festival in November. Phillips also has plans for a combined Art Show and Beer Fest with local artists pairing with local breweries. Among upcoming beer offerings are a return of their award-winning Rocko’s Milk Stout (named for a departed dog) and the new Snowbird Wheat Wine featuring local ginger from Snowbird Farms. Also new on the agenda is a relationship with The Underground Kitchen from Richmond. They held their first “gastropub takeover” in November, with quarterly events, as well as an Underground Kitchen brew to come.
Head Brewer Jeff Hyatt and Executive Chef Brandon Bundy complete the Spencer Devon brain trust. They share Phillips’s commitment to bringing his vision to life on a day-to-day basis in Fredericksburg. In his words, “In starting Spencer Devon I wanted something I could be proud of, and the community can be proud of as well.” They are well on their way.
Visit spencerdevonbrewing.com to keep up with events and offerings. Visit Spencer Devon at 106 George St., Fredericksburg, VA.