A Business Brews Up In The Heart Of Winchester

Article By: Paul Long
Photos By: Josh Triggs

John Hovermale was in the process of bringing a new craft brewery to Winchester when he met Art Major.

Hovermale’s efforts ultimately fell through, but when one door closes, another door usually opens, and he ended up opening a different brewery with Major as the owner and Hovermale as the head brewer.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the Escutcheon Brewing Company was born. The brewery opened its doors June 10, 2015, at 142 W. Commercial St. in Winchester, just a few blocks north of the Old Town walking mall. Major and Hovermale chose the North End, at least in part, to help that part of town get off the ground and make it more of a destination.

Now, just two short years later, Escutcheon has at least 10 different beers on tap at any given time, and its brews are available in stores and restaurants throughout Winchester and beyond. The tap room, meanwhile, is typically busy on weekends.

Lori Hovermale, John’s wife and the brewery’s tap room and social media manager, said Escutcheon is primarily a production brewery that cranks out cans and bottles of its beer for bars and breweries. Its products can be found in area Target stores and convenience stores, and, she said, in the majority of restaurants in the Winchester area.

Through the efforts of two dedicated sales representatives, Escutcheon has expanded its reach throughout northern Virginia into Maryland, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

“Our sales guys are hardly ever here,” Lori said. “They’re always out there. That’s a constant thing.”

Art Major served for a while in the Merchant Marines and brought his love for the sea along on his latest business venture. The tap room and beer names have nautical themes, and the brewery’s name is based on a nautical term. An escutcheon is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the part of a ship’s stern on which the name is displayed.”

John Hovermale is a master brewer who started out at the prestigious Siebel Institute in Illinois more than 15 years ago. He worked at breweries in Vermont, Maryland and Mississippi before coming to Winchester and working for a short time at Winchester Ciderworks. He and assistant brewer Trevor McCabe make all of Escutcheon’s beers on the premises. Major, meanwhile, focuses on the branding and financial aspects of the business. The brewery employs four part-time bartenders in addition to the sales reps. Together, they form a small, tightly knit crew. “Everyone gets along well,” Lori said. “We’re very relaxed.”

Lori Hovermale came to Escutcheon in January of this year and married John in May. Previously, she had worked for about a dozen years in the wine industry, spending 11 of those years at Linden Vineyards. But even then, her tastes were leading her in a different direction. “I always sipped wine, but I went home to beer,” she said.

Her professional transition from wine to beer, while not difficult, has been “interesting,” Lori said. She has enjoyed watching Escutcheon visitors who might not have been craft beer aficionados transform from reluctant to enthusiastic beer drinkers. According to Lori, the brewery usually has something on tap that appeals to just about anybody. And customers can take home the beer of their choice in a can, a bottle or a 64-ounce growler, which costs $18. Refills are $13.

Escutcheon’s most popular brew at the moment is its new Slip Angle Hazy India Pale Ale, or IPA. Lori Hovermale said Slip Angle is a New England-style beer with more of a citrus-type flavor, and the hops are more prevalent.

Another beer that’s been catching on locally is the John Riggins 4th and 1 Pilsner, created in honor of the Washington Redskins’ legendary fullback and Pro Football Hall of Famer. Riggins knows Art Major and played an instrumental role in the brew’s creation. It is currently being sold at Fed Ex Field during the Redskins’ home games.

While the offerings can vary from time to time, visitors to Escutcheon can expect to find a variety of IPAs, stouts and lagers on tap. Occasionally the brewery will work in a new variety, such as an Oktoberfest beer. John Hovermale said that, while they do research and development from time to time and occasionally produce a “pilot brew” for customers to try, the primary focus at Escutcheon is on its core brands.

Since it’s a small operation, Escutcheon tries to keep its products as fresh as possible. Its beers are intended for consumption within 30 days of production.

Escutcheon is currently one of three craft breweries in Winchester, with a fourth on the way soon. According to Lori Hovermale, though, the local beermakers share a cooperative, rather than a competitive spirit, and are each doing their part to help grow the beer industry in the area.

“The (craft beer) community is tightly knit,” Lori said. “Everybody’s friendly. (And) people who sell the beer are really supportive.”

Escutcheon is a member of several groups that promote the breweries as tourist destinations, including the Artisan Trail Network and the Shenandoah Spirits Trail, which promotes wine and other drinks in addition to beer.

Recently, Escutcheon joined the Helltown Trail, which is based in Front Royal and includes approximately 10 breweries as well as the Virginia Beer Museum, which bills itself as the first state beer museum in the United States.

For many tourists, craft breweries are still lagging behind the more established wine industry as a destination, but that may be changing. Lori Hovermale has seen customers come to Escutcheon from as far away as Fairfax, Va.

“That’s always been impressive to me,” she said, “that people are willing to travel (that far). I can see things starting to happen in the craft beer industry. … It’s steady but growing.”

A small craft brewery like Escutcheon is typically more intimate than a winery, and that often means visitors have a chance to do something they might not get to do on a wine tour: Meet the person who makes their drinks. According to Lori Hovermale, customers want to talk to the brewer and sample the wide variety of beers on tap.

Escutcheon’s customer base is comprised of a wide variety of beer enthusiasts. Lori Hovermale said some are trendy and are looking for the most current thing available. Others, though, are just people who have always enjoyed beer.

Its West Commercial Street location has plenty of room for additional growth, so the Escutcheon Brewing Company probably isn’t going anywhere for quite a while. “We’re in it for the long haul,” Lori said.

According to John Hovermale, Escutcheon has more than doubled its capacity since it opened, so he and Major aren’t planning to add much for now. In a year or so, he said, they might look into adding another fermenter to help increase production.

Escutcheon regularly hosts special events, including live music every Thursday featuring mostly local artists. The brewery held a ping pong tournament in February, drawing competitors from as far away as Baltimore. Since it was well received, a second tournament has been scheduled for November.

The brewery also takes part in several fundraisers, and will host one Nov. 4 for Blue Ridge Hospice. A complete calendar of events is available at escutcheonbrewing.com.

The Escutcheon Brewing Company is open Wednesdays from 4-8 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays from 4-10 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 10 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 8 p.m.

For more information, call 540-773-3042 or email info@escutcheonbrewing.com.

Author: Brian

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