The final stretch of the Spring Tour consisted of a weekend run of shows in Virginia... Friday in Norfolk, Saturday in nearby Suffolk, and wrapping up Sunday in Richmond.
Friday's show was at Norfolk's Benchtop Brewing Company. Since the start of the Spring Tour back in Williamsburg, people have been raving about Benchtop. A fellow at the Williamsburg show (Virginia Beer Co., 3/21) had told me that of the 100 breweries he had visited, Benchtop was in his top 3. Several people that night told me they were great, and then others during the North Carolina beach shows also sang their praises. Needless to say, my expectations were high as I rolled into Norfolk.
Benchtop has been around for a few years, and has obviously built a loyal following and reputation in the region. The brewery is in a warehouse type facility, with a sizable taproom adjacent, and a welcoming patio outside. That patio on this weekend was being expanded, which will wrap it around the side of the building, facing the parking lot as well. The taproom is a sort of industrial rustic/chic, with exposed ductwork, and significant woodwork for the bar area, as well as a mural of a farm scene on the back wall (which forms a nice backdrop for musical guests). Food is provided via hosted food trucks, or you are welcomed to bring your own.
Benchtop Brewing Co. - Norfolk, VA
Beers are available on top, as well as via growlers and some cans, in the taproom.
My first pint of the night was the Gong Water (6%) Citra New England IPA. An opaque yellow haze with a white head, a juicy aroma of mango and pineapple, and a body typical of the New England genre. What made this one a little different was it was a bit more hop forward than many of the NE's I've been tasting lately, with the hints of pineapple having a little bite and some bitterness on the back end. It was a good drink that definitely demanded your attention, as there was a lot more going on with the hoppy flavor than in your typical New England haze.
My sipping beer for the first set was the Sirena Borracha (5%) – Mezcal Barrel Aged Oyster Gose. Yeah, let that just seep in for a minute.... a Gose, brewed with local oysters, and then aged in Mezcal barrels. So Benchtop has a flagship oyster Gost called Mermaid's Scorn, and this one obviously takes that and then ages it in the Mezcal barrels, which is probably a good idea, as the barrel aging adds a sort of woodiness to the flavor that helps balance out what is otherwise a rather salty sour. Whereas I could imagine the Mermaid getting a bit old halfway through a pint, I think the Mezcal barrel elements gives it that little something extra that takes it to another level. I considered it a tasty, intriguing brew that I would definitely go back to, but at the same time I'm not sure it was the best choice for sipping slowly over the course of a 90 minute set of music. I think if I had drank it w/in 15 minutes while it was still cold I would have enjoyed it all the way through, but as a sipper I was ready for something else by the end of my set. That's all on me, though, as I don't think you can expect a beer like this to be slowly sipped over such a long period of time... it's not what it's built for. And don't be scared by the oyster thing... while it definitely has an oceanic feel and saltiness to it, I didn't detect any oyster aftertaste, and certainly not a raw oyster texture that turn some people off. I wonder, though... does the oyster make this beer more of an aphrodisiac than your typical beer? Perhaps a research grant is required...
My set break was when the evening took a rather interesting turn. As I was getting a new pint, I was approached by a lady named Liz who asked where I had gone to school, and as it happens I did go to high school about an hour away in Williamsburg, VA (but only kept track of a few people, and hadn't been back in many moons). I recognized her right away as someone from school, although I couldn't place any details, but boy could she! We sat and talked for probably 20 minutes, and Liz was dredging up all kinds of long forgotten memories and details that I hadn't thought about in decades. Details of who I hung with, how different dots connected, romantic interests, and so on... I was overwhelmed not only by the fact that I wasn't expecting to revisit these memories, but also by the details and connections that were being made. I mean like down to where we both worked at certain points in high school, and paths that had crossed there, etc. It was mind blowing!
As these things tend to happen, that conversation sort of uncorked a flood of memories of people I had long forgotten about, others I cared quite a bit about at one time, and then that just snowballed as the thoughts of one person leads to the connection to other people, and so on. Not only did it send me back to my 2nd set of music with my head spinning, but it continued on for days afterwards. When I got back to the stage, my mind still reeling with all these unexpected memories, it reminded me of music from those times, and I used the opportunity to pull deeper from my life's soundtrack from those days, which was largely what we called “college rock” at the time, the precursor to “alternative” and then “indie” rock later on. I still played a few of my own songs, but focused instead on many songs I hadn't played in years from bands like early R.E.M., the Replacements, Smiths, Elvis Costello, Pylon, VU, Camper Van Beethoven, and so on. It was a fun change of direction, and seemed to go over well.
My sipper for the 2nd set was the Ol Brodir (6.5%) sour IPA, made with guava, pineapple, and cantaloupe. This was a very refreshing, somewhat tangy brew, where the pineapple was quite dominant (which was fine with me). A hazy light yellow pour, medium bodied, it was a great thirst quencher, good for a hot day or second set after an unexpected mind#$%.
My last drink of the night was the Wishing Tree (5%) lager. A nicely balanced beer, it was delightfully straight-forward after a run of rather sour and interestingly flavored beers. Made of all German ingredients, it had a nice breadiness, and was carbonated just the right amount. This selection also benefits a nearby charity, the details of which I unfortunately do not have.
I should also note that I had a sip of a fantastic coffee porter called Walter's Brunch. I meant to grab a pint to cap off the evening, but you have to draw the line somewhere... so unfortunately I didn't. The couple of sips I had were fantastic, though, and I love a well done coffee porter or stout, so I'd recommend seeking this one out just based on the brief experience with it that I had. If I make it back to Benchtop it'll be on the top of my list next time. I should also mention that Brad from Freak Mythology was on hand, although he didn't sit in on this night, and he loved the Beet sour... I think he had like three of them!
Benchtop's staff were very friendly and helpful, and both they and the crowd were enthusiastic and responsive to the music. The clientele was a pretty diverse cross section of the usual craft brewery crowd, spanning a few generations (and while I do recall a few pooches, I don't really recall many kids on this night). The beer selection was diverse and deep, and I could definitely come back another time, drink a whole different selection of beers, and still not hit all the ones that looked good to me. So hopefully I will.
That night we stayed at a friend's aunt's house nearby, where we sat up rather late and were fed the most amazing brats I've ever had (served almost as a melt with grilled onions and melted cheeses, etc.). The next day we poked around the beaches in the Chesapeake Bay/Virginia Beach area, and then headed over to nearby Suffolk to play the “under new management!” Brick & Mortar brewery...