Highmark Brewery

Interview by Natalie Beyer
Issue 49 • March 2017 • Stafford

When great friends make great beer, good times are in store. That’s what this group of lifelong buddies is learning as they cut their teeth on a new business venture.

Tucked away in a Kings Highway strip off of Route 3 East is Stafford County’s newest corner of craft beer heaven: Highmark Brewery. Opened in early February, this 3,500 square-foot facility offers a brewery and tasting room, plus plenty of beer garden-style seating outdoors with an adjacent field. It was a cool Sunday afternoon when I made the trip to meet two of its co-owners, Chuck Rau and Brandon Newton. When I arrived, couples were lounging on wooden furniture outside, sunbathing as they enjoyed tasting flights. An open garage door near the bar allowed the interior to bathe in natural light and let in a soft breeze. I sat at a table, took in the relaxing, casual ambiance, and sipped on a Lone Wolf IPA, a pale ale with a spicy kick. It was one of Highmark’s six core offerings on tap, the rest being Freshwater Blonde, Blueberry Blonde, Blue Stone Kolsch, Highmark IPA, and River Rock Stout. Tasting notes from the bunch included common elements like citrus and hops, but also more notable ones like blueberry, chocolate, and ginger.

If you feel a laid-back, friendly atmosphere when you enter Highmark, it’s because that approach is at the core of the brewery’s existence. All of the owners and operators here are childhood friends and family from Fredericksburg. “We went to high school together, played baseball together,” Newton said. In fact, you could call Highmark a product of their artist collective. In addition to Rau and Newton, there are two other co-owners: Mark Thorsted, the tastemaker of the bunch, and Brad Birack, who covers logistics. Newton went on, “Mark started brewing some really good beer, it was his little home project. We all started brainstorming about getting a space and doing it larger scale.”

The design of the place is a minimalist’s dream. Newton, who is well-regarded for his oil paintings of local cityscapes and pastoral scenes, partnered with his wife to create the artwork and lettering adorning the interior. Across a prominent wall, the words “In pursuit of happiness” loom large, a motto that perfectly captures this communal space. On an opposite wall is the brewery’s logo, punctuated by two large stars, a staple of any self-respecting venue this side of the Mason-Dixon line. Between the inviting openness of the room and the blending of indoor and outdoor seating, there’s a low-key charm that’s often missing from your average bar. “We have freedom here to do what others sometimes can’t because they’re in downtown Fredericksburg,” said Rau. “I think we have some good space that we’re hoping to activate and have some fun.”

Brandon Newton

As for the location, Newton explained that they were looking for quite a while before settling on their Kings Highway digs. Things may look unassuming at the moment, but they have their eyes on future growth. With easy access from Route 3, ample parking, and relatively few neighbors, they anticipate collaborations with local artists, live music, food trucks, and potentially even an outdoor music festival. They already have their first concert under their belt as fellow Fredericksburg-native musician, Jay Starling of Love Canon, performed at their grand opening. Newton and Rau see it as their mission to push the Highmark brand beyond just the brewing business. After all, in the spirit of their familial atmosphere, all are welcome through their doors.

That ethos does bring up an interesting dilemma, however. Highmark is joining the ranks of a handful of microbreweries that have popped up around the greater Fredericksburg region in the last few years. As a new arrival, I wondered how they planned to establish a place within the already crowded local scene; I spied two crew members from Adventure Brewing Company, another popular brewery in Stafford, sitting at a nearby table. Nevertheless, Newton saw nothing to be alarmed about, saying, “They’ve been fast friends. We’ve needed help and they’ve offered advice when we needed it. Yeah, we’ve been really surprised to how welcoming they’ve been and it’s great. I feel like we have that ‘further together’ thing going with it.” He and Rau even went on to cite their friendship with Strangeways Brewing, a notable Richmond brewery expanding to Fredericksburg in the near future. It’s clear that the spirit among the local brewing community has been one of teamwork rather than cutthroat competition.

Even in its infancy, Highmark has been bustling. I was pleasantly surprised to see the high turnout during my visit, especially since Rau and Newton mentioned they had mostly been bringing in customers by word-of-mouth. The couple sitting at the next table over from me, both Fredericksburg locals and frequent patrons of other local breweries, Steve and Holly, decided to try out Highmark on a friend’s recommendation and were enjoying the offerings. When asked if they considered themselves craft beer enthusiasts, both having ordered a flight of all six beers on tap, Holly said, “I’m not a beer drinker and I love it.” To that, Steve retorted with a laugh, “I am a beer drinker and I love it.” If you can please both the novice and aficionado at the same time, you must be doing something right.

Highmark Brewery (390 Kings Hwy, Unit 107, Fredericksburg) will host a St. Patrick’s Day party on Friday, March 17 featuring live music, games, and food. Festivities start at 4 PM. Learn more at highmarkbrewery.com.

Photography by Mike Lesnick

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