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Mashing the Past, Fermenting the Future: Terry Hawbaker, The Farmer’s Cabinet, and the Rebirth of Shenandoah Brewing Company

Opening a brewery is hard. That’s the first thought that flew unceremoniously into my head as I walked into the, until recently, defunct Shenandoah Brewing Company.

As I surveyed the space, I saw the noble chaos that change can bring; kettles, hoses, casks, and other brewing implements littered the area, seemingly at random, in a space that not long ago held picnic tables, menus, and, sadly, very few patrons.

After swinging open the door for me, brewmaster Terry Hawbaker quickly hustled back to a table near the window and sat down at his computer. Nestled between Terry’s hat and pack of American Spirits were stacks of papers which seemed to be recipes…lots of recipes. This immediately thrust me into a positive state of mind and reminded me of why I was there in the first place.

Inanely, I offered, “So…it looks like you’ve been busy.” Terry looked up from his work with a smile. “Yeah, we certainly have been. It all happened so quickly.”

Terry at the soon-to-be Farmer's Cabinet in Alexandria.

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I first visited the Shenandoah Brewery in December of 2010 after my girlfriend bought me a gift card for their “Brew Your Own” program (aka “BOP”). I went with a friend of mine one Saturday afternoon and brewed up a damn good Centennial IPA and a pretty tasty Honey Porter. Despite the shoddy surroundings, occasionally lacking service, and microwaved food, we had a fun time joking around with the staff and knocking back a few beers while we brewed. As a homebrewer, I have to say that having someone else deal with the mess was a welcome treat. The place had a rough charm, sort of like a dive bar or a well-worn classic car. However, there was certainly room for improvement.

While we were lounging around Shenandoah’s brew kettles full of boiling wort, my friend joked to one of the staff members, “So let’s say I wanted to have a set-up like this at home…” referring to their row of polished copper kettles lined up adjacent to our table, as well as their industrial brewing equipment in the back. To our surprise, the employee responded, “Well, hey…you could always buy this place!”

After hearing that, and looking around the place one more time, it all seemed to make sense: the Shenandoah Brewery was on its way out. That certainly explained the rusted metal, broken tiles, overall lack of bottled beers in the fridge, and the general nonchalance (bordering on malaise) of the staff. After returning there to bottle our IPA and Porter, neither my friend nor I ever set foot in the Shenandoah Brewing Company again. To be honest, had it not been for the extra cases of beer I had from my visit, I don’t think I would have ever checked up on it.

A few weeks ago, I noticed an article come through on this very website. At the 11th hour, someone had purchased the Shenandoah Brewery. Naturally, I had to investigate and answer the question ringing through my mind: could someone turn this place around?
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After spending seven years at the Bullfrog Brewery in Williamsport, PA, Terry joined up with The Farmer’s Cabinet, a Philly-based brewpub/restaurant looking to expand. After taking on Terry as their Head Brewer, The Farmer’s Cabinet purchased the Shenandoah Brewery around June 24th, and sent Terry south to get the place up and running.

Terry brought both his brewing pedigree and a distinct style: a fondness for farmhouse-style European beers (Lambics, Grisettes, Saisons, etc.) and a desire to turn these styles, at least to some extent, on their heads.

“I’m not a traditional brewer,” Terry said to me as we walked through the brewery-in-transition. “I mix old world styles with new world techniques. I may take traditional Belgian ingredients and add some bold American hops to the brew. I’m not sure where I’m going to take this just yet.”

So where is Terry going to take this place, really? “We’re trying to think of this as an urban farmhouse brewery. We’re tossing around the tagline ‘makers of artisanal/primitive field beers,'” he told me. These are the kinds of beers Terry likes to make, and he is sticking to his guns.

Terry’s personality and passion for these kind of beers certainly find their way into the finished product. We tasted an (uncarbonated) riff on a Grisette he was working on, straight out of the tank. The low ABV beer (according to Terry, it sits around 3.8%) tasted bright, with hints of fruit, and that farmhouse funk you’d normally associate with relatives of the Belgian wild yeasts that float around some of Belgium’s more famous breweries (I’m looking at you, Cantillon). “I think we want to focus on session beers,” Terry went on. He and his Farmer’s Cabinet associates believe that this is the style that fits best with both their rustic image and personal tastes.

Don’t think, however, that this means Terry and The Farmer’s Cabinet will be abandoning other more standard styles. “We’re going to start with an IPA (Citra/Galaxy hops), a Porter, and an American Wheat (Amarillo hops), and, of course, the Grisette and the Berliner Weisse I’m working on now.” Also, as demonstrated by the wine barrels throughout the brewery, Terry will be working his way into barrel aging, hoping to bring something unique to a technique that has become more and more popular of late.

Distribution isn’t set up yet for the DC area, but the beers will be available at The Farmer’s Cabinet’s original location as well as in stores throughout Philadelphia (of course, you can always stop in at the brewery and pick some up once the Alexandria location opens with its tasting room).

As far as the brewery-on-premises operation from Shenandoah goes, we all have to bow our heads and say a somber goodbye to it, at least for now. Terry has decided to scrap the program for the time being and, as he said, “focus on what we all wanted to in the first place…beer.”  At first, he and his associates wanted to keep the program going, allowing patrons to completely customize their beers in a revamped setting. Terry explained, “You can walk away with a beer and say, ‘This is my beer. I created it myself. It’s totally unique.'” When faced the realities of shaping the operation up, however, Terry was forced to lay it by the wayside and focus on what he does best: brewing beer, not facilitating others’ brewing their own.

Copper kettles line the old brewery-on-premises area of The Farmer's Cabinet as barrels wait nearby for their fill.

The Farmer’s Cabinet is shooting for a limited soft opening in late August, at which time they will serve some of their first beers. But don’t expect much for a while as they try to get the beaten-up place shining like new (details to come as DCBeer.com gets them). If you’ve ever been out to the location when it was still Shenandoah Brewing Company, expect to see some changes. Over the next few weeks and months, The Farmer’s Cabinet crew will be revamping the brewery’s interior, bringing it more in-line with their old-school European look. They’re repairing and updating all of the older and defunct equipment and generally giving the place the love and care it deserves.  They hope to open a tasting room soon, allowing patrons to come in and sample the many terrific styles Terry is working on out in Alexandria, but, for the time being, it’s all about production.

If you’re wondering what exactly Terry is whipping up right now, take a list at this impressive list below:

  • FreshHop Saison (wet-hopped super saison with fresh Citra hops)
  • French Country Ale
  • Roggenbier (fermented with saison yeast)
  • FieldHop Saison (a Grisette wet-hopped with a blend of fresh hops).
  • Saison-er Weiss (Terry’s saison aged in a neutral/white French oak barrel with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus.)

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As I got up to leave the brewery, I took a last look at Terry as he sat back down at his laptop and began shuffling through papers. I didn’t need to see the sweat on his forehead or the slump in his posture to remind myself that, yes, opening a brewery is hard. In some ways, resurrecting one might be even harder. So, what keeps guys like Terry going? I’m not entirely sure, but I am damn glad that people like him will put in the time and effort to make places like this shine once again.

Check out Terry Hawbaker’s Facebook page, which chronicles his everyday activities at the brewery. We’ll keep you posted as we hear more.

The Farmer’s Cabinet

652 South Pickett Street
Alexandria, VA 22304

and

1113 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107

http://dcbeer.com/2011/06/24/shenandoah-brewing-confirms-sell-last-day-of-business/

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