By Catherine McNally
In 2004, Porter Hardy was fresh out of law school with a degree from Washington and Lee University, when his wife gave him a home brewing kit for his birthday.
Hardy, a Virginia Beach native, joined the law firm of Kaufman & Canoles in Nofolk and then worked as the in-house lawyer at concrete and building supply provider Titan America, based in Norfolk.
Chris Neikirk, assistant vice president of finance at Norfolk Southern, started brewing beer in 1989. In 1993 while at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he and a friend wrote a business plan for a brewery. But Neikirk decided on a corporate career path instead.
Now, both Hardy and Neikirk's hobby-turned-passion is becoming a business. They're working to open a brewery in Norfolk this month. And their timing coincides with a change in the law in Virginia regulating breweries.
Hardy quit his job last year to start the brewery. But it wasn't a snap decision. In 2009, after five years of researching his own brewing technique, he enrolled in a three-day brewing class at Siebel Institute of Chicago. He wrote a business plan, found investors and space for a brewery last year. A warehouse, half of which was previously leased by Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, on Raleigh Avenue in West Ghent is being renovated and Hardy is buying brewery equipment. He is the largest of 13 investors in the project and the company's president.
"The majority of the brewery's financing came from equity investment with the remainder being a loan from Monarch Bank," Hardy said.
Hardy was responsible for raising the equity but Neikirk helped to iron out issues with the initial plans.
"His contributions have been very real in many ways but are hard to quantify," Hardy said of Neikirk.
Among the other investors is Neikirk's college friend who wrote that brewery business plan with him.
Hardy and Neikirk met in 2007 and brewed beer together for a while.
Running his own business was something Hardy said he's wanted to do for a long time, but it wasn't until the last few years that he began to seriously think about combining his hobby with that goal.
In 2010, Neikirk decided he wanted to start a brewery and reconnected with Hardy, who by that time was deep in plans to start one.
They teamed up and began adding others.
Last year, Hardy hired Greg Papp. Papp, who'll be the head brewer, is a former Hungarian college rugby player who began brewing beer at Shipyard Brewing Co. in Maine after college. He has worked at a number of breweries including Victory Brewing in Pennsylvania, Lagunitas Brewing Co. in California and Mother Earth Brewing in North Carolina.
Papp responded to a posting that Hardy listed on a popular industry brewing site. After reviewing Papp's resume and speaking over the phone, they met in person and hit it off.
"He has continued to impress me with his passion, organization, brewing ability and attitude," Hardy said.
Papp comes from a culinary background. His parents had a pastry and catering company in Philadelphia.
"After I graduated college I knew that creating tasty things for people to enjoy was the way I wanted to go," Papp said.
Joining a startup brewery as the head brewer was a natural progression, he said. His experience from a diverse list of breweries gives him a robust knowledge about producing various styles of beer.
With the team almost in place, it was time for a name. Hardy had a list of 400 to 500 potential ones, but none felt right. One day he was listening to comedy radio and heard comedian Kathy Griffin say her mother used to call her a "smartmouth" when she was a child.
"The point of having a brewery is to have some fun with it," Hardy said. "But also educate your palate, drink good beer and have a 'smart mouth.'"
Smartmouth fit the type of fun atmosphere and the idea of brewing quality beer that Hardy, Neikirk and Papp want to provide. At last Smartmouth Brewing Co. had a name.
But renovation of the warehouse on Raleigh Avenue has taken longer than anticipated. Permit delays and unexpected projects caused the delay. Hardy, who had hoped to start business in July, expects to start serving beer in late August.
"Our whole philosophy is to do it the right way and be prepared for success," Hardy said.
The warehouse is being renovated with the idea of future expansion and additional equipment. The environment is another concern. The brewery has polished concrete floors instead of painted or vinyl flooring. Copper and steel are replacing plastic, and concrete floors are made with fly ash, a recycled byproduct of burning coal.
The construction delays have given Hardy and his team a chance to address a new law that was passed earlier this year and went into effect in July. Breweries can now operate like wineries, selling glasses of beer on the premises even if they don't have a restaurant on site.
Previously breweries could only offer free limited samples and closed containers of beer to be consumed off premises. The change means that breweries can have tasting rooms and host events, selling beer by the glass.
The legislation was sponsored by State Sen. Jeff McWaters, R-Virginia Beach. It was seen as economic development legislation that could help create jobs, generate more sales tax, promote tourism and encourage more breweries to open in Virginia. With an additional revenue stream through on-site sales, breweries might hire more people to serve customers.
Hardy redesigned the plans for Smartmouth's tasting room after the legislation was passed in March to include a bar that will have all of Smartmouth's core beers on tap.
Some other local breweries are taking advantage of the new law.
Justin MacDonald, president of Beach Brewing Co. in Virginia Beach, said his brewery will be doing a "series of one offs" - making rotating batches of beer that are only offered in-house.
William "Billy" Spence Jr. of St. George's Brewing Co. in Hampton said his company's primary focus is to be a manufacturing brewery. However, St. George's invites patrons to come to the brewery on Saturdays when they are selling their libations by the pint.
Kevin O'Connor, owner of O'Connor Brewing Co. in Norfolk, is looking to expand his brewery within the next year. He might hire several of the brewery's seasoned interns. O'Connor will begin selling growlers - a container of about a half-gallon of beer, T-shirts and other merchandise in the upcoming weeks.
Smartmouth will be selling pints and growlers at the brewery and kegs will be sold to local restaurants or for private consumption.
Smartmouth will offer three staple beers: Amber Ale, all American hop IPA and a Saison.
"We decided on these three because we believe that they offer a range for every palate," Papp said. "Amber being your malty selection, IPA your bitter and hoppy, and Saison being your 'Belgiany' and 'wheaty' offering."
All of the Smartmouth beers are brewed with only water, hops, malt and yeast.
The brewery will also have rotating seasonal batches of brews throughout the year that will only be available in house. Some seasonal batches might be a smoked porter, milk stout, hefeweizen or a double IPA.
Hardy said Smartmouth will focus on providing flavorsome beers and a fun experience for imbibers.
"Our goal is to make a core line up of beers that are clean-tasting," he said. "We focus on the process of brewing and we are trying to make beer fun. And outside of the core beers, we are trying to test the limits."
Besides the brewery's strong focus on creating quality beers, Hardy has other plans for Smartmouth.
"One of our long-term goals is to give back to the community," he said.
He hopes to offer the tasting room as a space for public and private events.
Competition for local restaurants to sell craft beer on tap is fierce. But the guys at Smartmouth hope to land in some of the trendiest spots in Hampton Roads. They plan to target the Ghent area in Norfolk and Town Center and Shore Drive in Virginia Beach.
The guys of Smartmouth are hopeful for the future and above all confident in their product.
"We've said all along that the beer must begin and remain excellent," Neikirk said.
It's their hope that the brewery will grow interest and appreciation for beer in the community that others have already begun.
"I'd like to see the entire Hampton Roads grow successfully as a beer culture," Papp said, "and hopefully a beer destination."nib