What happens when two old friends join forces and leverage their restaurant-industry experience to launch a brewpub in America’s Colonial Capital? In the case of Chris Cook an Andrew Voss, owners of the recently opened Amber Ox, it’s a beautiful thing.
Chris and Andrew first met more than a decade ago in Michigan, where they worked together as General Manager and Head Chef, respectively, for a restaurant in Grand Rapids. Each went on to pursue careers that involved several moves around the country, working with a variety of food service and hospitality brands, but they always stayed in touch and harbored the idea of partnering on a new concept.
Amber Ox is that labor-of-love partnership that came into focus a few years back when Chris was operating several quick-serve restaurants in Hampton Roads. Both he and Andrew had taken up home brewing as a hobby and loved the vibe of the industry. They also loved the atmosphere of Williamsburg, but felt there was a need for fresh, new, eating-and-drinking establishments that were creative and approachable, so the idea for Amber Ox was born: a brewpub celebrating regional craft beer and Southern eats with a progressive twist.
Chris and Andrew note that, “It’s through food and drink that we connect to our roots — and then to each other.” They have found the perfect spot on which to put down Amber Ox’s roots. The 180-seat dining room, bar and patio is situated at the edge of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, and is also adjacent to the campus of The College of William & Mary.
The name “Amber Ox” is in homage to the history of the area, with oxen having played a huge role in local agriculture in the 1600s (one can still see modern descendants of these beasts of burden in Colonial Williamsburg). It is also a nod to the brewpub’s dedication to supporting local famers in both its brewing and kitchen endeavors.
Amber Ox calls the in-house brewing operation the “Precarious Beer Project (P.B.P.),” run by Head Brewer Greg Fleehart, who previously worked at several of Seattle’s top breweries, as well as Commonwealth Brewing Company in Virginia Beach. The name is meant to connote momentum and movement—two things the brewery has enjoyed from day one. Greg describes, “Precarious is about creating an incredible beer experience that's fueled by following inspiration, passion and curiosity. We don't pursue beers for the sake of being weird, but we are looking to create a unique experience through flavor, aroma, texture, sensation and appearance.”
In its first six months of operation, P.B.P has already brewed more than 50 different beers (and only made one twice!) By design, there is always something new on Amber Ox’s 18 tap handles—and regular customers look forward to the weekly releases. Regulars also enjoy the Draught Animals Club, which for an annual fee of $50, gives members $1 off pints and $2 off growlers, as well as an Amber Ox glass and tee shirt. As noted by Andrew, it takes only 18 pints “to make your money back!”
Even though the brews are always changing, there is reliability to the styles on tap, which tend to include: New England IPAs, double IPAs, pilsners, lagers, stouts (infused by elements of Southern cuisine), Belgian saisons and goses. A recent gose featured Virginia kumquats, and a stout, made in collaboration with Richmond’s Answer Brewpub, featured locally made hickory syrup.
With names like “Cheapbeer,” “Math is Hard,” “No Tag Backs,” “Kung Fu Theory” and “Cyborg Assassin Kittens,” there is no shortage of wit and creativity on the draft list. Virginia wines, along with signature cocktails like “The Virginia Workhorse” and “The Water of Leif,” round out the beverage menu. As Greg says, “You'll always have many choices at Precarious, and many new choices every time you come.”
The creative juices flow just as freely in the Amber Ox kitchen, helmed by Troy Buckley, formerly of the renowned Café Provencal at the Williamsburg Winery. By design, they make everything in-house—from biscuits and brioche to pickles to pudding. Popular dishes include the shrimp & grits, featuring North Carolina shrimp, Tasso ham and beer vinegar; chicken & buttermilk-sage waffles with confit garlic butter; and the “AO” burger featuring pimiento cheese, caramelized onion jam and fried-egg aioli. To finish off the meal, sweet-treat options range from sweet bacon caramel corn to Meyer-lemon bars.
It all sounds good, right? Customers think so too, with Amber Ox already earning Yelp’s 10th-highest rating within a 75-mile radius. Chris and Andrew attribute the endeavor’s success to the quality and “badass” nature of its team—from leadership to hourly staff and everyone in between.
As for what’s next, well…they’re just getting started. A new beer dinner series started in June and will continue through the autumn. Quarterly street festivals are also in the works, and distribution of P.B.P. drafts, hopefully, will expand beyond their current footprint that includes Richmond, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and D.C. As Andrew says, “Keep an eye on us, we have big plans.”