James River Brewery: A Simple Strategy for Success

By: Terri L. Jones
A priest, a woman knitting a scarf and 170 regulars walk into a craft brewery. No, this is not the first line of a joke. It is exactly what you will find at Scottsville’s only craft brewery. Since it changed ownership in 2015 (for the second time in about three years), the new-and-improved James River Brewery has succeeded in creating an award-winning and palate-pleasing lineup of beers … and attracted a real cross-section of fans in the process.

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Not only does the brewery’s diversity of clientele include priests who take kegs of beer back to their monastery down the road, ladies who drink while they knit (and call themselves the “Drunken Knitwits”) and 170 Mug Club members, which, by the way, is about 30 percent of the population of this sleepy little town on the James River. You will also find a Methodist minister and his congregants enjoying “Hops and Hymns” one Sunday evening a month, the mayor, town council members, people with their dogs and kids and scores of other folks who simply like great craft beer.
Three years and counting.
In 2014, James River Brewing Company was in trouble. Shannon Brown, in partnership with investors Ron and Tim Byers and Scott Minor, who had been an investor since day one, swooped in the following year to save the failing brewery, which had been unsuccessful in gaining any traction under two different ownerships.  
After Brown and his partners purchased the brewery, he recognized right away that the building needed some work before it could reopen. Brown brought on his longtime friend and fellow carpenter, Blake Sherman, to do the remodeling.


When the renovation was completed, the new James River Brewery (JRB) still needed a brewer. “Blake had always been very good at learning new things,” explains Brown. In addition, his friend had played around a bit with home brews, so Brown asked him if he might want to learn to brew on a much larger scale. Sherman immediately said, “Yes.” 
“We were fortunate enough to have two of the best Master Brewers around train him and continue to help us out with any questions that we might have,” says Brown.
The most valuable lesson JRB learned from one of these consultants, John Bryce, was to “just keep it simple.” Bryce, who trained Sherman, was himself trained in Germany following Reinheitsgebot, which dates back to 1516, but which many German brewers still follow. Also known as the German beer purity law, these regulations dictate that beer should contain only malted grains, water, yeast and hops. 
“When you get a bunch of different grains in there, it’s too much,” explains Sherman. “No one grain comes through. You get a muddled taste.”Because of this good advice, JRB’s beers remain impressively simple in a landscape of more complex (some could say distracting) flavor profiles. Even JRB’s cans are cleanly designed and monochromatic.

“We do play a little bit,” says Sherman, naming honey, habanero and mango as a few of the flavors they have tried in their small batches. However, these enhanced flavors are definitely the exception rather than the rule at JRB.
Lest you think this conformity results in beers that all taste the same, think again. According to Sherman, “You can change it up so much with just a little more hops or a different fermenting temperature.” 
The brewery offers a wide selection of beer choices, from pale ales to IPAs to stouts, which rotate with the season. Sherman says their most popular are two of JRB’s core beers: Fluvanna Fluss, a traditional, unfiltered Bavarian-style hefeweizen and Tuber, a refreshing, dry-hopped IPA.

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Happy beer drinkers beat awards.

Tasty beer is not the only reason customers pack the old brick tobacco warehouse most afternoons and evenings of the week. It is also because of the warm, welcoming atmosphere. Both Sherman and Brown agree that spending time with customers and seeing their reactions to JRB’s beers is predominantly why they do what they do.

“Sometimes I come into the tasting room when there’s somebody who hasn’t been here before and I peek to see their reaction to the first beer that they try,” says Sherman. “I love seeing people enjoy something that I make.”

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While JRB has taken home several impressive honors, with Best in Show at the 2016 Virginia Craft Brewers Cup Awards, and a Gold and a Bronze at the 2015 Virginia Beer Cup among them, you can tell that Brown is sincere when he says, “If we see a smiling face on a customer, that’s our medal!”
In addition to the 170 Mug Club members and other locals who love the place, JRB attracts outof-towners who have tried one of their beers at a festival or purchased it at a local store (the brewery distributes from NOVA to Roanoke, Scottsville to Tidewater) and who want to try more. Sometimes folks are on their way to other craft breweries or wineries and the charm of Scottsville, with its beautiful architecture and peaceful, Mayberry vibe (no stoplights!), draws them in.
“JRB is a fantastic place to socialize with community folks and visitors from far and wide,” says veteran Mug Club member and town mayor, Nancy Gill. “[But] the best JRB experience is greeting visitors to town.”
When she says, “far and wide,” it is no exaggeration! While at JRB, Gill has met both a young man from Ireland—on his way from Boston to Miami—and a young lady visiting a friend in Charlottesville from Japan.
Sidebar:  Namesake of the James. At the intersection of Albemarle, Fluvanna and Buckingham Counties, Scottsville is nestled in a horseshoe bend of the James River. “Scottsville and its history are intertwined with the James,” reads the brewery’s website. 

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In fact, every summer, replicas of late 18th- and early 19th-century batteaux, once used to ferry tobacco, grain and other goods down the James River, make an eight-day trip from Maidens Landing to Lynchburg as a part of the James River Batteau Festival. Scottsville is the halfway point on the 120-mile trip. When the batteaux dock in town, there are a variety of activities, from artisans and music to historic re-enactments for passengers of the boats and townspeople alike to enjoy.
These long, flat-bottomed, poled riverboats figure prominently in JRB’s logo. Even the décor of the brewery itself features an old rudder and architectural drawing of a batteau on a beam in the tasting room and half of a weathered hull on the stage in the beer garden out back.
The significance of the James is also apparent in the brewery’s name, which has remained constant over the three iterations of the brewery. The names of its beers, including River Runner, Tuber, James Blonde 007, Wet-n-Wild and Fluss, which is the German word for “river,” are also a nod to Virginia’s largest river.

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More than beer. Instead of inviting food trucks to pull up outside, like many other craft breweries, JRB has partnered with nearby restaurants, including Tavern on the James, Amici’s and Barefoot Country Store, to deliver their delicious fare to customers who come to the brewery both hungry and thirsty. 
You will also find music at JRB on weekends—played in the beer garden out back in nice weather and in the tasting room during colder months. In addition, the brewery hosts open mic, karaoke and trivia nights, as well as bingo, arts and crafts and other fun activities to draw people in and keep them coming back. Mug Club members enjoy discounts on beer and retail every day of the year. 

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It is also important for JRB to give back to the Scottsville community, which has played such an integral role in their relaunch of the brewery. Not only does the brewery donate to the Scottsville fire department, rescue squad, soccer and baseball teams, but they also give 20 percent of their sales to a different local charity every Wednesday night. 
What is next for JRB?

In the not-so-distant future, JRB will be opening a second, much larger location in an old laundromat in Farmville. “Because it’s a college town, with Hampden Sydney and Longwood, it should do well,” predicts Brown.
Right now, JRB is just waiting for renovations to be complete to start brewing their delicious beer there. Nevertheless, once they do, you can expect the same fun, welcoming atmosphere inside their tasting room, and of course, the same refreshing simplicity in their beer.