Field Trips: Craft Beer Getaway Near Shenandoah Natl. Park
Front Royal Brewing is worth the stop, especially if you like good beer.
All photos by Phil Galewitz.
Front Royal, Va., is one of those places you drive through—usually in a hurry—to get to Shenandoah National Park, with its northern boundary lying just outside of town. With the park’s majestic green mountains and numerous hiking trails, its no wonder most folks speed through this small city except to fill up on gas or supplies on their way to it.
But craft beer lovers would be wise to pull off the Interstate and stay for a while. A visit to a beer museum, historic district brewpub and herb farm turned farm brewery awaits.
When I first heard about the Virginia Beer Museum in Front Royal, I was a bit dubious considering the major growth in craft beer in the state is less than seven years old. But as soon as we walked in to the old home that houses the museum, we were glad we made the trip. Our two dogs were invited right in, too. Just to the right of the front door is a small parlor that houses the bar filled with 15 Virginia-made beers on tap. We grabbed a pint and headed up the wooden stairs to the second floor that had stickers from more than 200 Virginia breweries. In the corner was an old style television playing black and white beer advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s, a time known as the “bland beer era,” according to the museum. On another wall were about 400 beer cans from the 20th century.
Another room houses numerous beer steins and old bottles. Throughout the house was signage describing the history of beer in Virginia from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to present. After we finished our tour, we sat in the parking lot behind the house that has been turned into a biergarten of sorts, with tables and chairs on a giant oak tree.
That’s where I met museum owner David Downes while he cooked burgers on the grill. “It’s a labor of love,” Downes said of creating the museum that’s free to visitors. He explained that he runs a law practice in a neighboring building and had bought the vacant building 20 years ago. With several historical museums nearby and his love of craft beer, Downes thought a beer museum would be a perfect fit for the town. “Beer has played a huge part in Virginia’s history,” he said, noting how General George Washington wrote to Congress asking for beer rations for the Continental Army.
Downes did his own battling with the Virginia legislature to allow his museum to serve beer. “What good is a beer museum without any beer?” he asked. His hard work led the legislature in 2018 to allow beer sales at non profit museums that educate the public about beer.
Front Royal Brewing Company
Less than a 5-minute walk from the museum is Front Royal Brewing Co., which opened in 2018. In its first year it won a NY International Beer Competition award for 2019 Virginia Brewery Hefeweizen Brewery of the Year. The Siren of the Shenandoah, its signature Hefewiezen, was the first beer I tried. With subtle notes of clover and banana and just slightly hopped with German yeast, the Siren did not disappoint.
With nearly 20 house made beers on tap—from milk stouts to IPAs—the brewery has something for everyone. Co-owner Jeff Carroll said his company’s vision is to make Front Royal into a outdoor destination beer town like Asheville, N.C. where hikers jump off the Appalachian Trail and head into town for showers and good beer. In fact, adjacent to the brewery is an outdoors shop that offers a locker with a washer, dryer, showers, and resting area for hikers.
The brewpub is located in a former city parking garage. As a result, it has certain character inside and out. Carroll brings marketing expertise to Front Royal Brewing. Tim Arndt, who has home-brewed for about eight years, is making beer on the professional level for his first time at the brewery. Carroll said another goal is for the brewery to play a small role “changing the vibe of Front Royal” and attracting people to “stay in town on Friday nights.”
If folks want to get out of city, they only have to go about seven miles to Backroom Brewery, a serene farm brewery off a country road with mountain vistas and a lone horse to watch while drinking beer. Several greenhouses line the 40-acre property, which still functions as its original use—a herb farm, growing culinary and medicinal herbs for garden centers. In 2012, they started growing hops on the property and in 2014 started making their own beer to turn the farm into a year round business. Today, the brewery make several beers and food menu items using herbs and produce grown on the farm.
Backroom Brewery Owner Billie Clifton, who moved from suburban Washington D.C. to the Front Royal area in 1998 in search of a better quality of life, said beer and herbs make for a great match.
After one sip of her Lemon Basil Wheat Beer, I was a believer. This thirst-quenching beer made with lemon zest and fresh basil grown in their greenhouses tastes fresh and has perfect flavor balance. The Cilantro Lime Wheat beer was another winner with its homegrown ingredients. We tasted these in a quaint tasting room that opens into a garden overlooking the property. Earlier this year, the brewery opened a 10,000 square foot barn to add more tanks for brewing and also to accommodate large parties and catered events.
Clifton handed me two basil plants as I left. While I struggle to keep them alive in the city, their pleasant aroma makes me think about Backroom Brewery, that basil wheat beer and the peaceful life in the Shenandoah Valley.