Let me set the scene. I’m sitting at a reclaimed wood picnic table with a flight of beers carefully chosen from 20-plus taps, including a Nitro Coffee IPA that the guy at the bar described as “pretty funky.” Behind me is a custom mural, above are Edison bulbs and exposed beams. All around are young professionals, older couples, and groups of friends enjoying live music and cornhole. A lot have brought their dogs, or their kids.
O.K.,now guess where I am. Brooklyn, right? Or Denver. Portland, maybe. Asheville, North Carolina?
You’re getting warmer. I’m at Starr Hill’s brand-new tasting room in another city in the Blue Ridge Mountains: Roanoke, Virginia.
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More than 15 breweries have opened in Roanoke and its surrounding counties in the last five years. The boom ranges from up-and-coming local labels to national brands like Ballast Point and Deschutes, which recently chose Roanoke for its $85 million East Coast hub.
It’s a surprise for me to see this in a city like Roanoke, not least of all because I grew up here. Five years ago, longtime locals would have never believed Roanoke could support this kind of urban culture. Roanoke was coming off of a 30-year population decline. The city had seen a loss of several major industries, including its once-leading railroad, and decades of declining morale.
“The Roanoke Valley just recently lost [transportation conglomerate] Norfolk Southern,” says Michael Galliher, a Roanoke resident who had become involved in community development. The majority of the jobs in Advanced Auto moved to Raleigh, North Carolina.
When news broke that Roanoke was among the finalists for Deschutes’ East Coast production facility, Galliher jumped at the chance to help make this happen for his community. “I knew the Roanoke Valley lost out on Sierra Nevada back in 2012, and I had followed the aftermath of that decision and how people would have been really excited for them to come here.”
Galliher started the #Descutes2Rke campaign, a grassroots movement in which local companies and individuals took pictures of area attractions while holding signs touting the hashtag. Not only did it ultimately help seal the deal — along with lots of other factors like access to good water for production and highways for distribution, and the hard work of the city government to make this a good business deal for the brewery — it also helped spark growing Roanoke pride.
“There was once a negative attitude from a lot of people throughout the valley, but now you are starting to see and hear a positive outlook,” Galliher says. “I think it is more from the rebranding Roanoke has done over the past 10 years, but I do think the addition of the craft beer scene has enhanced it quite a bit.”
That rebranding included a lot of rebuilding. The opening of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute brings in new young professionals every year. Roanoke has recently been pouring money into developing a network of greenways throughout the city to help get people out enjoying the area’s natural beauty, and developers have been pouring money into everything from new apartment complexes to downtown bars and restaurants, all in order to meet growing demand from 20- and 30-somethings moving to the area.
The beer industry is able to survive in Roanoke because of this growth, but it also helps move it along. Sara Sloan, the tasting room manager of Deschutes’ Roanoke location, moved back to the city for this job after years of working for breweries in Asheville. She thinks the breweries are going to really impact the future of the city in three ways: by bringing in tourism, bringing in jobs, and —most importantly — by fostering community.
Deschutes hosts events like a summer street pub, which raised $81,000 for local charities. It also sponsors a local cyclocross team, and plans to provide education to local homebrewers to support more beer knowledge in the area. “It’s really cool coming from a large beer city and seeing how much community can be built in a smaller place,” Mika Jensen, who moved from San Diego to join Roanoke’s Ballast Point team, says.
And the community has reacted with open arms. “I have noticed people coming together more often,” Galliher says. “The opening of the Deschutes tasting room had people lining up hours before the doors opened. Ballast Point in Botetourt had similar response as it was a full house every night for the first two weeks. Now there is excitement brewing (yes, pun intended) for the expansion and grand re-opening of Big Lick Brewery, which is set to open in October in downtown Roanoke.”
Bill*, another Roanoke native who recently returned to the area to work in beer, doesn’t think breweries are the sole savior of Roanoke — but he does still think they are incredibly important. Beer is “going to help create a base for other industries to grow,” he says. “It’s going to help foster a sense of community, and it’s going to start more dialogue and collaboration in the area.”
So did beer turn Roanoke around? And could it do the same for other cities? Probably not on its own. A lot more than beer is contributing to Roanoke’s revival.
Breweries do demonstrate urban investment. In a 2013 article titled “Build a craft brewery, urban revival will come,” the Associated Press reported how breweries revitalized post-industrial neighborhoods in Cleveland and Brooklyn. Breweries are also enriching evolving areas of Denver and Jacksonville, Florida.
The craft beer industry contributed $67.8 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016. The opening of a new brewery — or, in Roanoke’s case, 15 — is not a cure-all for creating more urban growth. But is it a decent litmus test for a city that’s investing in itself, and for a community excited to be part of that change? Absolutely.
* name has been changed