by Krysta Huber
The biggest craft brewery in Virginia may get even bigger.
Devils Backbone Brewing Co. has its eye on the former bowling alley. It also is interested in an additional five acres of county-owned land next to its existing operation on North Wind Lane in Rockbridge County, just off of Route 11.
The company is looking for space to build a shipping facility that will store its finished products, said Josh West, director of operations for the brewery’s Rockbridge County location.
“This will be a climate-controlled building with a pretty sizable keg-cooler,” West said in an email to the Rockbridge Report. “The old bowling alley property makes sense for our operations considering that it’s directly adjacent to us.”
The 20,000-square foot building is owned by the county.
Conversations between Rockbridge County officials and Devils Backbone management are in preliminary stages because the lease agreement between the bowling alley’s current tenant, Z&T Sales, and the county, expired Sept. 1. Z&T Sales produces fabrics used in shoe soles, horse saddles, luggage and pocketbooks.
When the lease expired, Z&T had the option to purchase the building, but instead announced plans to move into the old Food Lion building in Buena Vista off of Route 60 East.
During the monthly Economic Development Authority meeting Monday, Sam Crickenberger, Office of Community Development director, detailed three financing options that Devils Backbone could pursue to purchase the bowling alley and the land.
The brewing company could buy the property — bowling alley and land included — at its current value: a price tag just under $1 million.
The old bowling alley is valued at $750,000, according to an assessment by Hallmark Properties in 2014. The remaining land is $239,000, according to a Hallmark appraisal earlier this month at the request of Devils Backbone owner Steve Crandall.
Devils Backbone could purchase the property with county financing, or it could enter a performance agreement, much like the one it agreed to when it first opened in Rockbridge County in 2011.
The brewing company opened in Virginia seven years ago, at its Basecamp Brewpub in Nelson County. Devi’ls Backbone looked to open in Rockbridge County after so many of its customers began asking where they could buy brews off the shelf.
Under the performance agreement, the county gave the brewery about 12 acres of land, via the regional Industrial Development Authority, in exchange for creating jobs and tax revenue. Devils Backbone agreed to hire five full-time employees and employ at least 10 workers within the following five years.
Devils Backbone has created 40 new jobs since opening the Outpost in Rockbridge County. The Outpost was expected to produce 10,000 barrels of beer in its first 10 years, but has already surpassed that goal within its first three years, producing 45,000 barrels.
West said he believes that every market in the surrounding 500-mile radius will be pouring Devils Backbone brews within the next five years. The company’s goal for the Outpost is to produce about 250,000 barrels per year.
West said the company added three 960-barrel fermenters to the Outpost operation just last week.
“That will take us to a theoretical 120,000-barrel annual capacity, and we have three more fermenters on the docket for January 2016,” West said. “That should get us to the 150,000-barrel mark, so we’re taking strides in the right direction.”
Members of the Economic Development Authority said they were open to each of these financing options but would first like to consider the costs that Devils Backbone estimates it will spend on improving the property for its use.
Economic Development Authority member Janie Harris said she applauds Devils Backbone for its rapid growth and success in the last four years. But she also said she believes the business is in a position to buy the land at or close to market value.
“I think we’ve given Devils Backbone a springboard to do well,” Harris said. “While we do need to make modifications to the sale to fit their needs, I’d really like to see the revenue from this sale help another business in the county that isn’t as strong. Devils Backbone has really done a lot with our initial incentive package.”
The opportunity to expand next door comes at a time when Devils Backbone is tapping into new markets across the country. The company announced in July plans to begin distributing its beer in five new states within the next year, beginning with North Carolina in August and Tennessee in September. West Virginia is on the horizon.
Devils Backbone products were already available for purchase in Maryland and Washington, D.C., in addition to Virginia.
“Given our current market and production expansions, the future shipping facility is a top priority for us—I’d say we need a to be up and running by spring 2016,” West said. “It will give us the ability to have more finished inventory on hand and to have dedicated areas to pick orders for our distributor partners.”
West also said he thinks the separate shipping facility will help to split the traffic between receiving and shipping trucks that come in and out of Devils Backbone daily. Receiving trucks will continue to be directed to the brewery’s current warehouse and shipping traffic will divert to the new facility.
“I’d really like to see the revenue from this sale help another business in the county that isn’t as strong. Devils Backbone has really done a lot with our initial incentive package.” – Janie Harris, member, Economic Development Authority
“Some days, we currently have traffic jams of three or four trucks lined up just waiting to back into our dock,” West said. “You can imagine what that looks like — on rare occasion we’ve had tractor trailers back up almost to Route 11.”
The spring 2016 goal could be ambitious. The road — all the way from Route 11 up to the bowling alley parking area—will need major improvements because the proper base was never installed beneath it, Crickenberger said.
The five acres of county land will also be challenging to develop. But Crickenberger said he doesn’t anticipate this to be a major issue if Devils Backbone plans to use it for sloped parking.
As discussion between the county and the brewing company develops, West said, Devils Backbone will continue to focus on maintaining its edge in the craft brewing industry — that is, high quality results.
“We’re constantly checking on and reworking standard operating procedures to ensure that the customer is getting the same, reliable taste they’ve come to expect from Devils Backbone,” West said. “If a beer doesn’t pass one of our checks, then guess what? That beer is not going to see the shelf, regardless of the hit to the bottom line.”