When Shawn Phillips first dreamed up his idea for a new brewery in downtown Fredericksburg, he was clean shaven and sporting a “high and tight” haircut. This was back in 2013 when he was newly retired from the military and had just recently relocated with his family from California to Virginia. However, as the dream slowly transformed into reality, he began taking in his local surroundings and living the life of brewer. Suddenly, the hair style that had served him well for so many years felt slightly out of place. That may explain why when he pours you a beer from the newly opened taps at Spencer Devon Brewery, you’ll see a much more relaxed hairdo and a beard that would make Kris Kristofferson jealous.
Located at 106 George Street (long vacant since Fatty J’s shut down years ago), the brewing tanks have been operational since February 15, but for the time being, they’re doing pint-only pourings on select evenings. “I went into it thinking it would be a good three month project,” Phillips joked. Needless to say, that ended up being a dramatic underestimate. The enormity of the buildout that they have accomplished is impressive: behind a central glass-walled chamber are several rows of gleaming metal tanks, all supported by an industrial floor suitable for retaining liquids and easy cleanup. Surrounding that centerpiece are wraparound wooden bars, lit by free-hanging Edison bulbs. The new layout, combined with the large picture window overlooking George Street, gives the whole interior an open atmosphere without feeling cavernous. The last hurdles to clear are the kitchen inspection and final staff training, but if everything goes according to plan, they expect to be fully operational by mid-April.
Phillips first learned the art of winemaking while living in California, but once he and his family landed in Fredericksburg, his interests shifted toward beer. Virginia has seen a huge increase in craft brewers in recent years. The national shift toward better beer appreciation combined with recent legislation allowing breweries to sell their product on-site has pushed the total number of craft brewers in Virginia to well over 100. To hone his skill, Phillips spent time apprenticing at the most well-established brewery in Fredericksburg, Blue and Grey Brewing Co. From his experiences there and with the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, Phillips quickly realized that this was the community where he belonged. “No one is in it for themselves,” he explained, “They all want to support one another and give craft beer drinkers something to remember Virginia by.”
Phillips has gathered a solid team to help fulfill his goals for Spencer Devon. John Ritenour and Mariah Gavin both left their jobs at Arbor Brewing in Ann Arbor, Michigan to not only serve as resident brewers, but also build the place from the ground up. “I was sanding floors and hanging drywall,” Ritenour said proudly, “a lot more than I probably should be allowed to.” The two knew that they wanted to relocate to the D.C. area and spent a whirlwind weekend interviewing at various breweries in the region. After meeting with Phillips and walking along Caroline Street, something clicked. As Gavin explained, “We had that feeling in our stomach that this was going to be right.”
Spencer Devon has five brews as an initial offering. When I inquired which was Phillips’s favorite, Ritenour was quick to add, “Next you should ask which is his favorite child.” Though it’s hard to play favorites, Phillips ultimately conceded that he was particularly proud of the artistry behind their dry-hopped IPA. According to him, it has “lots of hop complexity without losing the malty character.” As for Gavin and Ritenour, they go back and forth between the brown and the pils. The team has lots of ideas for future flavors including roasted winter squash, sours, and oak barrel aging techniques (supplied by none other than the Fredericksburg-based A. Smith Bowman Distillery).
Chef Justin Cunningham, previous owner of Fizzlebottom’s Cafe, will be managing the food aspect of Spencer Devon. He plans to have a smaller, seasonally-rotating menu with locally sourced ingredients, something that he says will be “high-end but approachable.” In addition to full entrées, Cunningham will also be serving “session plates,” smaller samplers for those who just can’t decide and want to try everything. There will be a lot of interplay between the kitchen and the brewery as the menu evolves. Many of the sauces and marinades will use the brewery’s beer as a key component, and Gavin and Ritenour are eager to work with Cunningham in sourcing their flavor ingredients. “We’re taking great pride in our beer, so we want really great food paired with that as well,” Phillips said.
So far, the community support for Spencer Devon has been overwhelming. In spite of their limited offerings, the soft opening nights have been regularly packed. Phillips hopes that as the brewery grows, the people of Fredericksburg will play a greater role in dictating the direction of their recipes by choosing flavors and inventing names. “Every community deserves its own craft beer,” he said, “and they want it.” Even as final interior decorations are being put in place, Phillips is looking towards the next expansion. He’d like to build an outdoor patio on the adjoining property, though talks with the city are only in their initial phases. In the meantime, regular tours will be available so that patrons can better understand the brewing process. It’s all part of what Phillips sees not as a trend, but a movement. As he puts it, “Craft beer is here to stay.”
Spencer Devon Brewery plans to be fully operational by mid-April. Until then, stay up-to-date on their soft openings by following them at facebook.com/SpencerDevonBrewing.
Photography by Stephen Graham