As Champion expands, owner relies on team, culture to sustain success

In the next two months, Champion Brewing will expand into a new taproom in Richmond and open a Belgian-style brasserie and brewpub on the Downtown Mall, the latter in partnership with Ten Course Hospitality.

The moves will be Champion owner Hunter Smith’s third and fourth breweries, and each will have its own dedicated brewer and a unique tap list. The restaurant, called Brasserie Saison, will be Ten Course owner Wilson Richey’s sixth restaurant.

Richey also owns The Whiskey Jar, Alley Light, Revolutionary Soup, The Pie Chest and Bebedero.

Brasserie Saison is setting out to pair Belgian-style beer with Franco-Belgian cuisine, a concept Smith and Richey said is sorely lacking in the American restaurant landscape.

“I saw what I thought was a hole in the market — we had all this great food in the area, but beer food was greatly underserved,” Richey said. “It was all pizza and wings and burgers, great American traditions … But there are some great Belgian traditions that we just don’t have.”

The new restaurant will feature moules-frites — mussels and fries — as well as Dutch-style beef meatballs and beef carbonnade, a beef dish braised in house-made Belgian red ale.

“There are these great beer foods in western Europe that haven’t really been showcased in the various establishments we have here,” Smith said. “Both of us are big Belgian beer fans, and were in love with the idea of, if you could get a big piping-hot bowl of mussels on the mall, that would rule.”

All the beers will be brewed in house by a brewer who reports to the rest of the Champion brewing staff, but who will work and produce beer exclusively for the brasserie.

In Richmond, Champion’s digs will have a vibe familiar to the Charlottesville taproom, but with food made in house in lieu of food trucks and it will be much bigger. Unlike at Brasserie Saison, the food served at the Richmond location will be a separate business.

Jason Alley — owner of Richmond staples Pasture, which until last year had a second location in the Shops at Stonefield in Albemarle County, and Comfort — will serve tacos and tortas in the space under the name Sur Taco & Sandwich.

“The idea is it’s just tacos and tortas, but we are doing it with a certain Southern slant,” Alley said. “We have a real affinity for Latin cuisine … there are a lot of similarities between the techniques and ingredients, so it was really a no-brainer.”

The shared space is a marriage of convenience and mutual respect, Alley said.

“A lot of it just comes down to best use,” he said. “Hunter is very, very talented in what he does, but he is not a restaurateur. He is starting to go down that route, but being remote, he didn’t want to do that … It made sense for us to do something together but separate.”

The new locations are the marquee pieces of Champion’s aggressive expansion in 2016. The brewery expanded capacity at its Woolen Mills production facility to 15,000 barrels a year, opened distribution networks in Maryland and part of Texas and reached statewide coverage of West Virginia.

The operation started on Sixth Street in 2012, producing about 500 barrels of beer a year. Demand quickly overwhelmed capacity, and Smith moved production to a much larger space in Woolen Mills. Champion produced around 10,000 barrels this year.

Champion’s growth and its ambitious physical expansions have all been a product of good personnel, serendipitous timing and necessity, Smith said. In the age of highly capitalized tech-centric startups, Champion has succeeded on commercial banking loans and strategic, incremental growth.

“You hear the story of the guy who had the crazy idea and met up with the multimillion-dollar guy and he built them a building and then they sold it,” he said. “If the idea for us is sort of systemic, organic growth with me as the primary operator of the business, it has to be sort of incremental, and incremental growth of a well-performing business is not hard to take to a bank at this point.”

Shooting for investment from private equity, angel investors or venture capital firms carries an understanding that eventually a business will sell for a profit. That can be a dicey proposition for a brewery, Smith said, and goes against his desire to own and operate a brewery.

“If you don’t want to own and operate a brewery for a long amount of time, don’t do it,” he said. “Because there is no guarantee that someone will buy it even if you do want to sell.”

The decision in 2013 to open the Missile Factory, the industrial-scale brewery in Woolen Mills, he said, was driven by demand and because the taproom was occasionally short of beer.

“Starting with a small brewery here, we were running out of beer,” he said. “We were happy to be in that position, but I ran into someone the other day who said, ‘I went into your place one time a few years ago and there was one beer on tap.’ I remember how painfully embarrassing that was to have a brewery with one beer.”

At the beginning, being tiny meant every employee chipped in in some way at every stage of the operation. Four years and many more employees later, Smith said, that ethos continues to ring true.

“Here we started with two employees … and so it was super all-hands-on-deck,” he said. “Everyone is wearing every hat, from pouring someone a beer to taking out the trash, it was everyone does everything.”

Smith expects the Richmond location to open in early January, and Brasserie Saison is slated to open Feb. 1.