No other brewery in America has managed to do what Hardywood has done—create such an intense fervor for a Christmas beer.
Bill Cox marched into the brand-new Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in late October of 2011. Onto their bar he slapped down several huge stalks of what looked like some exotic plant. It had a creamy white exterior and fronds like a palmetto. Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh had never seen anything like it before and had no clue what it was. “I was reading the newspaper one morning and it mentioned this new craft brewery in Richmond that was interested in using local products,” Cox explains. “I said, ‘Phooey. I’m gonna visit these guys and see if they’re serious.’”
McKay and Murtaugh were the co-founders of this new brewery and, along with head brewer Brian Nelson, one of its only three employees at the time. They gladly took Cox’s baby Hawaiian white ginger, which is quite different from the fully-matured ginger you typically see with its thick rind. On almost a whim, Cox had started growing it on his Casselmonte Farms in nearby Powhatan. Still, the Hardywood boys weren’t quite sure what to make with it. A light summer brew? A ginger beer? Maybe just a ginger ale?
About a week later, McKay was at an event where he met Hannah Huber, the wife of Cy Bearer, another farmer and the owner of an apiary just outside of Richmond. Like Cox, he too had an intense passion. His was for wildflower honey.
“It was really cool being in a community where we have these really passionate people with these gourmet products,” thought McKay. “Could we tie their passions into a beer we could brew?”
It finally dawned on him while driving to work the next day. As homebrewers, McKay and Murtaugh had gotten kudos for an imperial vanilla porter recipe. What about adding Cox’s ginger and Bearer’s honey to that?
“We searched the web and couldn’t find a single gingerbread stout on the market,” McKay explains. “So now we had to try to figure out how to make one ourselves.”
While today plenty of breweries produce beers that hardcore beer geeks line up for, those are usually of the canned IPA variety. Many other “cult” beers have their own release day, like 3 Floyds Dark Lord and Surly Darkness, but those are often just boozy stouts. No other brewery in America has managed to do what Hardywood has done—create such an intense fervor for a Christmas beer.
If the Belgians have a long history of Christmas beers—sometimes known as “winter warmers”—there weren’t really many American attempts at the pseudo-style six years ago. In 2011 when Hardywood first began engineering their Gingerbread Stout (now slangily called “GBS”) there weren’t even many on the market. Anchor had their annual Christmas Ale, Tröegs had the cherry brew Mad Elf, and Sierra Nevada had their popular Celebration, an IPA. While all of those were beloved in their own right, none would ever become the sensation that would become Gingerbread Stout.
The funniest thing is, GBS was only the third beer Hardywood ever made. The brewers used a Cuisinart to process a few hands of ginger at a time, blending in hot water and extracting flavor. They hand-sliced each and every vanilla bean one pod at a time too. Murtaugh and Nelson brewed a twenty gallon pilot recipe, playing around with different yeast strains, different blends of ginger and honey. They added milk sugar (lactose) to get more body and sweetness (“Like an icing on the cookie type of flavor,” explains Murtaugh). They put around a dozen different batch into separate carboys—one finally starting producing a character they liked.
“Doing the math, though, we figured we would need forty pounds of ginger for a commercial batch,” explains McKay. “That would be 100% of Brian’s growth for the entire year.”
Bottled in early November, in announcing the release, all Hardywood did was put up an event post on Facebook. About a dozen people showed up that first year and they sold a few hundred bottles (ones they’d filled themselves as they didn’t yet have a bottling line). They sold out completely in less than a week.
“This release was incredibly anxiety-creating for me,” explains Murtaugh. “We had just started getting our brewery up and running—if releases like this didn’t go well, that could lead to everything we had worked so hard for immediately falling apart. If we didn’t get these beers right, there was a high probability we might not survive a whole year. It was terrifying”
Still, to the few dozen in attendance, the first taste of this unique beer was a revelatory experience.
“It was an evening I had been looking forward to: the new craft brewery in town releasing its Christmas beer,” explains John Stoner. It was specifically important to McKay and Murtaugh that Stoner liked the beer. They considered him a tough critic with exceptional beer knowledge and a great palate. He had tweaked them in the past for their off-kilter Farmhouse Pumpkin. So they braced for his potentially negative feedback on GBS.
“We felt like we had everything riding on this beer,” McKay explains. Stoner took the first sip and they wait for his response with baited breath. His first taste was of a gingerbread cookie, fresh from the oven. There was sticky molasses with a sharp, ginger behind it. The second sip added hints of spice and cloves. A smile slowly came across his face.
“Tastes like Christmas in a glass!” he exclaimed.
For McKay and Murtaugh it was a thrilling moment and the exact response they had hoped for. Suddenly, their nerves washed away into a sense of elation. In the days that followed, more and more positive reviews began appearing online. In February they sent a bottle into Beer Advocate magazine for review. A month later, their Brooklyn-based graphic artist texted them a picture of the newest issue. It showed a perfect score of 100 for Gingerbread Stout.
“We’ve been subscribers since the magazine first came out,” McKay explains. “We’d only seen a 100 a few times before. So we were convinced he had photoshopped it.”
Later they learned the magazine had only awarded about a half-dozen perfect scores in its entire history. In May, they would head to San Diego for the Craft Brewers Conference where they entered GBS into its first competition ever—the World Beer Cup. With 80 entrants in the herb and spiced beer category, and three judges tasting them all blindly, they didn’t expect much. But they medaled.
“The feeling, it was like winning an Oscar,” claims Murtaugh.
Throughout the year there was continuous chatter about GBS in the Richmond area. McKay and Murtaugh didn’t exactly know how that would play out in the taproom once November came around again, but they did know there would be a lot riding on the 2012 release.
“We had seen pictures of a line forming on social media. But it was hard to believe until we got there,” Murtaugh explains. By the time they officially opened at 2 o’clock on that Saturday, there was a good 1500 people in a line that stretched around the block. “I had heard of a few other breweries around the country who could draw these big crowds for a bottle release. But until then I had never actually seen it in person.”
McKay is a little more blunt: “It was sheer exhilaration, but also sheer terror. All these people have turned out, and most haven’t ever even tasted the beer.”
They would get some complaints the lines were too long, the bottle limits (2 per person) too low, but the day was mostly a rousing success. They completely sold out in hours. Claiming they have no interest in creating an artificial hype around the beer, they’re weren’t afraid to sell some of it to retailers. For the first release, and still today, they sent a few cases into distribution at their top retail accounts. “That first year, it evaporated if it hit the floor of the store,” explains Murtaugh. Thus, many shops kept it behind the cash register, or even under the jewelry case, only doled out to customers who knew to ask for it.
“For weeks we got literally thousands of phone calls,” explains McKay. “Every other one was about GBS. Where can you get it, how can you get it?”
It’s not an easy beer to make, both time-consuming, equipment-hogging, and costly.
“At 9.2% alcohol, in brewing a batch, we’re absolutely maxing out the amount of grain we can fit in tank,” explains Murtaugh.
Nowadays, they brew it almost year round. They remain committed to using only local ginger—about 3000 pounds of it per year—though they partner with other farmers now in addition to Cox (that was his idea).
“What we’ve noticed over the years, depending on the crop year, is that ginger changes,” explains Nelson. “Some is more fragrant, some is more spicy. You add more some years; less others. It’s an agriculture ingredient, so there are always minor tweaks. Since the beginning this has been a difficult beer to scale up.”
Surprisingly, ginger isn’t the most expensive ingredient in the beer, though. That would be vanilla bean, which has gone up in price nearly 3000 times since they first brewed GBS. Honey ain’t cheap either.
It’s influence has become so massive, other breweries have followed suit with gingerbread stouts of their own, especially the big boys. Sam Adams released their Merry Maker Gingerbread Stout in 2012, Coors came out with a Blue Moon Gingerbread Spiced Ale in 2013, the AB InBev-owned Golden Road produced Back Home Gingerbread Stout in 2014. Hardywood isn’t annoyed by the, ahem, homages.
“Gingerbread is a generic thing,” claims Murtaugh. “We don’t own the rights to brewing a beer that tastes like gingerbread.”
They brewery has likewise become better at providing comforts for their chilly line waiters too, many of whom are out-of-towners these days. Release days now have coffee, donuts, and biscuits being served from food trucks. Bands play in the brewery parking lots. Even if most customers know they have the ability to score some GBS at a store, they enjoy coming to the release. They enjoy the party.
“It’s one of these things,” claims Murtaugh. “Breweries wait their whole lives to have lines out the door. And we had that from the first time this beer launched. That’s something that’s unique and very special and always surprising. It’s a great way to celebrate with your family over the holidays.”
Gingerbread Stout has continued to grow in size and scope itself since that first release. 2013 would be the first year it would be distributed outside of Richmond. 2015, the first time bottles would make it outside of the state. Variants would eventually come too.
Hardywood procured whiskey barrels from the nearby A. Smith Bowman Distillery to produce Bourbon GBS in 2012. Barrels from the Carribean allowed them to create Rum Barrel GBS in 2014. The coffee-infused Christmas Morning and Kentucky Christmas Morning would follow, using Mexican Chiapas beans from a local roaster. 2015 would bring my favorite variant so far, Apple Brandy GBS—it tastes like a spiced cider.
“We have been to every Gingerbread Stout release and seen firsthand the explosion of popularity,” says Greg Webb who, along with his wife Kim, have volunteered for every single release. “Gingerbread Stout is now its own season. Each release being another opportunity to catch up with friends and other beer fans.”
There are special cask-only GBSes too, like Christmas Pancakes, refermented with maple syrup. A gingerbread stout whiskey spin-off and an ice cream. You can get GBS t-shirts and goblets and even bars of soap. Cox has also benefited—he now has eight different alcohol companies who use his ginger for their products, including cideries, meaderies, and distilleries, though still only one brewery (and it will always be that way).
“When you put a crop in the ground, and you know it’s already sold, that’s a wonderful feeling,” Cox says of his relationship with Hardywood.
If Hardywood has about 150,000 visitors per year, a good third of those come for GBS season. It’s a boost to the local economy too, with tourists specifically coming to town for the release, staying at hotels, dining at restaurants and bars, shopping.
This year will bring two new and highly-anticipated variants, Rye Barrel GBS and Double Barrel GBS to go with all of the aforementioned. A different GBS released every single Saturday for seven straight Saturdays, starting on November 4th with the original that started this entire cottage industry.
“With each release, I have a fear. Is this the year people finally won’t be interested in it?” notes Murtaugh. “I think I’m finally starting to build a sense of confidence that it has become a bit of an institution.”
Aaron Goldfarb lives in Brooklyn and is the author of The Guide for a Single Man and The Guide for a Single Woman. His writing on beer has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, The Daily Beast, PUNCH and more.