Experienced builders try their hand at running new brewery
If you’re a craft beer fan in Hampton Roads, odds are good you’ve been to a brewery that Randy Thomas built.
Thomas, along with his business partner Bjorn Marshall, operate Spacemakers, a Norfolk-based general contractor that has completed projects all over the region, including four craft breweries: O’Connor Brewing Company, Commonwealth Brewing Company, The Oozlefinch Craft Brewery, and Tradition Brewing Company.
A couple more are in the works, including Cape Charles Brewing Company on the Eastern Shore and Smartmouth Brewing Company’s new Virginia Beach location.
So when Hampton officials looked for someone to revive the city’s crumbling Hampton Armory building in 2015, Thomas had a comfortable grasp of the medium. But something special about the space spoke to the 22-year Navy veteran.
Thomas wanted to bring a bold, new idea to the Armory, as well as the local craft beverage landscape. This fall, The Vanguard Brewpub and Distillery will open as Virginia’s first combination brewpub, boutique distillery, and concert venue. The complex will offer artisanal food, craft beverages, and a performing space big enough to attract national acts – all in a single spot, a few minutes’ drive from the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.
The plan is ambitious, but Thomas predicts it will draw people from all over. “I think what we’re creating here is a destination,” he says.
His team has thought through the different elements, from food and drink to the entertainment. They’ve also cultivated the historical ambiance of the old building, an iconic downtown landmark. He plans to attract foodies with a full-service, locally sourced restaurant and central bar, as well as a 10-barrel brewing system churning out a range of craft beers sold on-site, and a 1,000-liter pot still.
Conor Halfpenny is vice president of brewing and operations. He brings 20 years of experience to the venture, most recently with St. George Brewing Company, Hampton Roads’ oldest operating craft brewery. The Vanguard will feature 12 taps, Halfpenny says, nine of them Vanguard brews; the remaining three will rotate offerings.
“We’re going to have a wide range of styles,” he says. “The lineup will be a broad mix, though heavy on the ales for our first year of operation.”
The Vanguard spirit selection will be limited to vodka, gin, and rum at first. Whiskey will be available after an aging period. Halfpenny says one day they hope to offer Irish whiskey, rye, and single malt.
Thomas says the novel idea of a combined brewery-distillery provides opportunities for experimentation.
“People are more open to things like alt-whiskey,” says Thomas. He would like The Vanguard to be able to create spirits from a beer base, for
instance, and Halfpenny will have the versatility to collaborate with a wide range of other craft beverage manufacturers.
While Thomas and Halfpenny envision expanding capacity eventually, they plan to keep the brewing and distilling components relatively small for now.
The Vanguard’s ambition is decidedly larger for its performance space, however. The location can hold a little more than 1,000 people, making it, according to Thomas, unique in the area.
“There’s a need for a venue of this size,” he says. “There are places in Hampton Roads that can accommodate crowds of 4 to 500 people, and places that can accommodate 1,500-plus people, so The Vanguard is filling a niche.”
Andy Beale, co-owner of the Peninsula’s Tradition Brewing Company, welcomes the new addition. “There’s not a venue quite like this anywhere around here,” Beale says. It’s a unique concept and “incredibly ambitious,” he adds.
“I’ve seen how Randy can transform a space. If anyone can make this work, it’s him.”
City leaders in Hampton like that The Vanguard is an imaginative use of a building that’s been vacant for more than two decades. There’s hope the venture will spark a revitalization of a long-neglected corridor.
A local unit of the National Guard (Battery D, 111th Field Artillery) once mustered in the Armory. It also functioned as a social hall. Locals gathered for performances, dances, and basketball games. Otis Redding and Clarence Clemons performed there.
Built as a Works Progress Administration project in 1936, the building’s exterior walls are partially made of locally-sourced brick. The roof has its original slate. Age led to a couple holes in the roof that exposed parts of the interior to the elements, but the vast majority of the structure remained intact, allowing Thomas to preserve large parts of the plaster walls, wooden beams, and exposed brick.
“We tried to repurpose as much of the original material as possible,” Thomas says. “This will be a historical building, but still feel fresh.”