By: Terri L. Jones
The name “Castleburg,” and its logo, call to mind knights and parapets, and all things medieval. However, after being served a “Flight of the Round Table” and hanging out at Castleburg Brewery and Taproom for a while, I think the medieval term that most aptly describes the atmosphere here is “chivalrous,” no, not the archaic connotation of male gallantry (although that may be true too), but rather the more timeless meaning of courtesy and generosity. In fact, Castleburg’s owner and head brewer, Karl Homburg, says he and his staff pride themselves on their friendliness and personal touch.
Rhonda Groves, taproom manager and Karl’s life partner, tells the story of a couple who recently stopped by the brewery on a slow Sunday, right at closing time. The couple was from Minnesota, and the man had run the Richmond Marathon the day before. They had Richmond Beer Trail cards, and Castleburg was their last stamp. Rhonda and Karl gladly unlocked the doors, stamped their cards, awarded them their Beer Trail hats, and poured beers for them – on the house, no less!
“I don’t know if that would’ve happened anywhere else,” says Rhonda, not boastfully, but from personal experience.
Longtime customers of RVA craft breweries, Rhonda and Karl appreciate it when they’re made to feel at home at breweries they patronize. Remembering their names scores bonus points with them.
“That’s the reason we go back and become loyal customers,” she notes. “It goes a long way!”
So, when they opened Castleburg Brewery and Taproom, right down the street from Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s original location on Ownby Lane, in the summer of 2016, they made sure to give their own customers that same warm welcome and friendly service. If you’re a member of their Knights of Malta mug club, you may even find your mug waiting on the bar when you walk through the door.
Their beer tenders not only treat their regular customers like old friends, but they’re also eager to help new customers choose a beer they love. To point you in the right direction, “They’ll ask you questions about what you like and what you don’t like,” explains Karl. Then you’re welcome to sample a few brews to ensure you select the perfect one.
Running the gauntlet
Finding a beer that you really love requires some experimentation, but not as much as brewing that beer. A good example is Castleburg’s Black Knight brew, a favorite of the owner and quite a few of his customers. This Black India Pale Ale actually took Karl two to three years of trial and error to perfect.
“It started as a kit and I took that kit and tweaked it a little bit, and from there, kept tweaking it until I got it to where I liked it,” Karl recalls. “It took seven or eight iterations to get it to that point.”
Rhonda likens the process to cooking: “A chef may have Grandma’s recipe that they’ve been making forever and decide that they can do it better. That’s what he (Karl) was doing – taking recipes and making them different.”
The result of all this experimentation is traditional-style beers. With a name like Karl Homburg, you might assume traditional German beers, but Karl says his heritage (his grandmother migrated from Germany) really hasn’t had an impact on his brewing style.
Castleburg’s beers are simply good, solid brews without many extra ingredients like fruits or flavorings. Even when Karl and his assistant brewer, Josh Starliper, add something like Vermont maple syrup or star anise, that additional flavor is understated and secondary to the foundational flavor of the beer itself.
“Castleburg’s beers are little more distinctive and not as focused on trends,” notes regular Ashley Scruggs, whose favorite is Black Knight, followed by the mOatmeal Stout.
The joust of the brewmasters
While Castleburg is still young, the brewery has already established itself in the eyes of craft beer experts – and not just the ones enjoying a brew in the taproom! Karl won numerous homebrewing awards when he was still making beer on his stovetop, and since becoming a professional brewer, he’s continued to wow the judges at the Virginia Craft Beer Cup.
In the brewery’s first year in business, my personal favorite, Bishop’s Brown (Brown Ale) won a Silver medal. Then in 2017, Castleburg’s Cream Ale landed a Gold, and the Court Jester (Porter) a Bronze. Most recently, the Queen’s Garde (Bier de Garde) won a Bronze medal in 2018.
Being able to note these awards on the board over the bar gives Castleburg, which is also the smallest brewery in the city of Richmond, legitimacy with beer lovers and its brewmaster cred with his peers.
Troubadours, jesters and sages
Since opening, Castleburg has expanded into the space next door and has grown from about 50 seats to 120, including a stage and a quality sound system. With this extra space, the brewery hosts bands two to three nights a week; Books & Brews, a monthly book club led by Mandy Huff; and weekly trivia competitions, led by Erin Barclay. In fact, Castleburg ranked second for trivia in Style Weekly’s 2018 “Best of Richmond” issue.
Once a month, Castleburg also holds an open mic comedy night called Game of Jokes. Hosted by Mike Engle, the show features 2 headliners and as many as 12 up-and-coming comedians, who compete for extra time on stage. Some of the comics are homegrown, but others come from as far away as D.C. and Virginia Beach. A popular event at the brewery, Game of Jokes, generally packs the house.
Customers have also chosen Castleburg as the setting for their business happy hours, birthday parties, reunions and many other gatherings. When you throw a party here, you have access to not only great beer but also whatever entertainment is scheduled – at no cost for the space. In addition, you’re welcome to bring in your own food or enjoy the six varieties of panini sandwiches served at the brewery. The only caveat is the space must remain open to the public.
Knights of the square table
While there’s no shortage of medieval allusions at Castleburg – even their brewing tanks are named “Lancelot,” “Guinevere” and “Arthur” – you won’t find any damsels in distress or even round tables for that matter (except for the clever round trays used to serve flights of beer). You will, however, find a warm, congenial atmosphere in this castle to meet up with friends, talk about the dragons you’ve slain that day, and maybe even find your own holy grail of beer.