By: Steve Cook
It has been nearly five years now since New York transplants, Joe Hallock and his wife Wendy, began brewing a variety of flavorful craft beers in the mountains of Franklin County in southwestern Virginia. Time was, when you heard anyone speak of Franklin County, you would likely think of moonshine whiskey. They still make plenty of that in the county, some of it legally. Thanks to the success of the Hallocks, nowadays, when you hear someone mention Franklin County, you just might think craft beer and Chaos Mountain Brewing. They chose the name Chaos Mountain as a tongue-in-cheek nod to Cahas Mountain, where the brewery is located.
I caught up with Joe Hallock recently. That is not an easy thing to do. He stays on the go, traveling around the state acquainting retailers, restaurants and others with his beers and taking part in various craft beer events. Although Hallock’s lifestyle may not be exactly chaotic, it is certainly not humdrum either. There always seems to be a flurry of activity at the brewery. On the Friday morning that we spoke, he tells me, “This is the first weekend that I don’t have anything going on and no beer festival to travel to.”
Nothing going on, except for the fact that every weekend at Chaos Mountain, throngs of happy beer drinkers and their families gather to enjoy the beers, the food trucks and the live entertainment. Last fall Chaos hired Alex Harless as their new tasting room manager and he has renovated the tasting room, adding some comfy sofas, as well as a couple of pool tables. Now, every Wednesday night, there is a pool tournament going on. Thursday night is Trivia Night, and based on my observations on a recent Thursday evening, this is no mild-mannered, sedate Jeopardy-like contest. The competition is fierce. There is live music virtually every Friday and Saturday nights. That is not exactly what I would call nothing going on.
Joe and Wendy have just ordered two new 60-barrel fermentation tanks, which will allow him to do double batches on some of his beers, including the brewery’s number one selling beer, “Squatch,” a Scotch ale, which he describes as, “a perfect food beer. It’s malty, with a little sweetness up front and finishes dry.” It’s a beer,” he adds, “that pairs well with roasted, grilled, smoked and even spicy foods.” The two new tanks, which should be operational by November, will free up some of his 30-barrel tanks for the production of other beers. The brewery also utilizes a 7-barrel pilot system, which is useful in experimenting with new brews.
Joe says that Chaos Mountain uses different malts in all of their beers and propagate their own yeasts, which he says facilitates their being able to use specific yeasts to try new tastes. “When we propagate a yeast, we don’t brew a base beer and dump the beer, we also brew something new and unique of the same style of beer the yeast is for. This gives us a constant supply of new releases in our tasting room,” he says. One such unique new brew is a delicious Mexican amber lager.
As for his personal tastes in beer, Hallock admits that he is not a big fan of IPAs. “Everyone has different tastes, I like beers that are more malty and flavorful,” he says, “such as a good brown or amber ale. I love the depth of Belgian ales.” However, as far as his philosophy regarding what he offers his guests and his customer base, he acknowledges, “You can’t have a polka dot shirt store just because you like polka dot shirts. Well, you can but it probably won’t last.” With that in mind, he offers 16 beers on tap and plans to increase the number of taps to 18-20, including at least four or more IPAs.
The range of beers in Chaos Mountain’s portfolio is vast. From “Marg ‘n Rita’s Lime Tequila Gose,” at 4.3 %, and “Shine Runner Pils,” at 4.7%, which Hallock describes as a great transitional beer to the other end of the spectrum with “Theory of Chaos,” an intense dark Belgian, which is being brewed now for release at the end of this year. “It will probably come in at 18.5% ABV this year,” he says. With such a range, Hallock says, “If out of 16 different beers you can’t find one you like, you probably don’t like beer.”
With so much going on, how do the Hallocks keep the chaos out of Chaos Mountain? Much of the success is due to their readiness to empower their staff. Of his head brewer, Thom Bradley and the two assistant brewers, both of whom have just completed or are in the process of completing their certification with the American Brewers Guild, Hallock says, “We give them a lot of leeway. Thom is very good at training and that allows them to take as much responsibility as possible. We give our assistant brewers, Logan Fewster and Nik Krause, the opportunity to experiment and brew on their own.”
Besides buying new equipment, brewing a wide variety of beers, planning weekly events and selling their wares across the state, both Joe and Wendy Hallock are involved in giving back to the community. For the past 10 years, they have actively sponsored fund raising efforts to support Healing Strides of Virginia, a horse riding school in Boones Mill (just down the road apiece from the brewery) that specializes in therapeutic riding and hippotherapy programs for persons (from toddlers to seniors) with a wide range of mental, emotional and physical disabilities.
Hallock says that in addition to raising money for the school, his wife Wendy volunteers much of her time working with the youngsters. “It’s great to see the kids come in. At first, it can be scary for them, but over time you get to see them develop abilities and skills they never had before. It really does change their lives and it is great to be able to give back to the community that has given so much to us.”
Perhaps there is a bit of chaos on Chaos Mountain, but it appears to be controlled chaos, and regardless of how hectic his lifestyle may be, Joe Hallock keeps on smiling. “There are very few things that we take seriously, and our beer is one of them. It really is all about having fun,” he says.
Photos courtesy of Chaos Mountain