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AUG/SEP 2005 | REGIONAL | EAST COAST

Viriginia Beer Cup
By Gregg Wiggins

In ancient English tradition, St. George defeated a dragon. This year, St. George IPA, a traditional English-style India pale ale from Hampton, Virginia’s St. George Brewing Company, bested the competition from 42 other beers made in the state to win the 2005 Virginia Beer Cup.

Second place in this competition to determine the best beer brewed in Virginia was presented to Wit’s End, a Belgian-style witbier made by northern Virginia’s Sweetwater Tavern brewpub chain. The third-place beer was New River Pale Ale, an American pale ale that is the contract-brewed product of the single-employee New River Brewing Company.

The award is “very gratifying” to St. George President Bill Spence, but competitions are not what his brewery concentrates on. “We focus on brewing a beer that somebody wants a second glass of,” he says.

Lyle Brown, the Virginia Beer Cup’s judging supervisor, says it was St. George’s faithfulness to style that won over the judges. “That was exactly how they reacted to it,” Brown explained after the awards were announced, “noting how classically English it was, how it was a true English instead of a West Coast American IPA. It really caught their taste buds, if you will.”

“Virginia really belongs up on the top shelf with some of the better-known beer states like Oregon and California.”

The judging of the Virginia Beer Cup was done by a blind tasting panel of brewers from the adjacent state of Maryland and Washington, D.C. While he had no vote, Brown, whose involvement with brewing in Virginia began in Norfolk during the 1980s with Virginia’s first craft beer, Chesbay, calls St. George IPA “the best beer ever to come out of the Tidewater.”

This year’s revival of the Virginia Beer Cup, a competition last held in 2002, has hit “critical mass,” according to its founder, Mark Thompson, head brewer and owner of Charlottesville’s Starr Hill Restaurant & Brewery. “I think this year we finally got it,” Thompson stated, promising that the event will become the annual competition it was originally intended to be.

“We’re going to do it again next year and make it bigger and better,” Thompson predicted. “We’ll overtake the [Virginia] wine industry in 20 years.” Thompson hopes to add a “brewers’ summit” to the competition, eventually paving the way for an organization similar to the brewers’ guilds active in several other states.

Thompson, Brown and several of the competitors credit the decision to hold the competition at Virginia’s largest beer festival, hosted by northern Virginia’s Old Dominion Brewing Company in Ashburn, with a large part of the 2005 Virginia Beer Cup’s success and with a large part of the competition’s potential to publicize Virginia’s best beers. Thompson said, “This will highlight, for 20,000 or 30,000 people, what we’re all about.”

Ultimately, the organizers say, the Virginia Beer Cup will help increase the recognition of Virginia’s best beers beyond the state’s own borders and beer drinkers. “Virginia’s brewers are really making some fantastic beers,” said Brown, “and Virginia really belongs up on the top shelf with some of the better-known beer states like Oregon and California.”

As for the trophy, that will reside in Hampton for the next year. St. George Brewing Company President Spence said no one will be drinking St. George IPA or any other beer from the Virginia Beer Cup itself. “This thing would leak,” he laughed. “There’s a bolt in the bottom.”

Gregg Wiggins divides his time between doing radio news in Washington, D.C., and writing about beer in the Mid-Atlantic states. He can be reached at greggwiggins@hotmail.com.

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