Willow Spring: At the First Brewery in Orange, VA, Every Beer Has a Story

Image: Willow Spring Brewery

Image: Willow Spring Brewery

Much like a home-cooked meal, a locally-brewed beer is rich with local flavor and personality.
Willow Spring Brewery, the first brewery in the town and county of Orange, Virginia, hand-crafts four distinct beers that draw both locals and visitors to a long and cozy wooden bar. The brewery resides in one of Orange’s established restaurants, The Light Well on Main Street.

The married duo of Emily Van Santvoord and Dave Ganoe are The Light Well’s managers and two of its co-owners, and Dave is also the chef and brew master of the in-house Willow Spring Brewery. Emily and Dave like to say, “Willow Spring beer is Orange!” They are proud of their connections to Orange and grateful for local patronage. “We depend on word-of-mouth and repetitive business. It's a big deal to have the support of the community -- without it, you're not gonna’ do good business,” Dave says.

THE BEGINNINGS OF ORANGE'S FIRST BREWERY

“We have both been very interested and involved in the restaurant business in some way, shape or form for most of our lives,” Emily says. She grew up in the local food scene -- her mother co-owned the Firehouse Cafe in Orange’s old Firehouse Building for 10 years. Emily says it was “a very popular spot for the locals,” explaining:

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"I spent a lot of my childhood there, whether it was baking muffins early in the morning before school or hanging in the back booth doing homework after school. As soon as I was legally old enough to work, I worked in the kitchen as well as the front of the house and loved it. The Firehouse closed in 2000, the year I left for college."

On her visits home from school, Emily realized Orange needed “a good gathering place to meet with friends and family” and came up with her own solution.

“We stumbled upon the open building that owners David Perdue and Dan Gregg were fixing up with the intention of making it a restaurant. One thing led to another, and [in six] months, we opened The Light Well,” she says. There were six original founders, and of those, three -- she and her parents -- now remain at the helm.

The Light Well restaurant opened in 2010, and about a year later, Dave transitioned from Whole Foods to The Light Well, “to help amp things up,” Emily says.

Dave and Emily met on a blind date through a mutual friend about six years back. It was a one-of-a-kind date that “actually that spanned 10 hours and lunch, dinner, ice cream and drinks,” she says. Emily and Dave are now proud parents.

Dave envisioned starting a brewery about four years after The Light Well opened.

“We started making beer to offer something to our customers that other restaurants aren’t,” he says. His culinary expertise and personal love of beer made brewing a natural choice. As Dave puts it, the similarity between cooking and brewing is “as simple as combining ingredients to get the flavors that you want.” He adds that while cooking allows him to experiment with a wider gamut of ingredients than brewing does, that difference is part of what makes brewing both challenging and fun.

The first keg of Willow Spring’s signature beer, The Fat Nancy, was brewed for research and
development in May 2015, and the brewery has now been in consistent operation for two years. Dave is largely a self-taught and self-made brewer who has carried out his brewing education and research on the job.

“Dave has done some brewing with friends in the past for fun, but this venture is his first experience brewing on a larger scale,” Emily explained.

“I'm basically a home brewer on steroids who has a commercial space,” Dave says, adding that he “reads a lot, counsels with people, experiments a little bit,” and challenges himself every day to keep learning.

Willow Spring Beers

“Every beer has a story,” Dave says.

Willow Spring’s flagship brew is the American Style Pale Ale called The Fat Nancy. Each beer is steeped in Orange culture; the Fat Nancy commemorates an 1888 train wreck and a missing trestle-watcher named Nancy. The Willow Spring brewery itself is named after a group of sparkling springs on Emily and Dave’s family property, and the pair has a long-term goal of utilizing the springs for their sole source of brewing water in the future.

Dave says the Fat Nancy has a “nice, bold character,” but is not “overreaching or overpowering.”

He handcrafts a Double IPA as well, which he describes as having “hoppy upfront flavors and a smooth finish.” It’s called the Mad Jimmy, named after President James Madison, whose historic home of Montpelier is just down the road. This ale is the brewery’s high-alcohol offering, with Dave aiming for nine to 10 percent alcohol content, and new batches coming out every week or so.

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The Rapidan Rye is also on tap -- a red ale that pays homage to the Rapidan River, which provides drinking water for the surrounding counties and is also one of the premier headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. The innovative use of rye as the base grain makes this ale stand out, and it is Dave’s personal favorite.

“I like my rye beer, it's hard to find a really good rye beer,” he says. One of his favorite moments as a brewer centers on a shared appreciation for the Rye with a former Willow Springs regular. This customer, who has now moved out of the area, ran a successful and award-winning brewpub in the Northeast. He had extensive experience in crafting beer, and Dave was eager to get his feedback on the Rye. "Oh, brother! Let me tell you, that's a hell of a beer you got there! ... Bottle that, put that in a competition, cause that'll win you a metal,” the trusted fellow brewer responded.

“That meant something,” Dave says.

The most recent addition to Willow Spring’s popular flight of beers is the Chicken Mountain Stout, a dark beer that harks back to European brewing traditions.

“I made that for Emily,” Dave says. It’s named for an Orange summit and brewed with locally harvested chicory. Chicory was often used as a coffee substitute by soldiers during the Civil War. According to Dave, it has an interesting flavor profile and is “still big in the South,” sometimes blended with coffee.

Dave has plans to add a lager in addition to their four current beer varieties. The duo also has a vision of moving the brewery into a separate facility, but for now, it will stay in its Light Well home.

"There is always something new to learn or understand,” Dave says of brewing. While running a restaurant and brewery simultaneously can prove challenging in terms of time and space, he enjoys the work and connecting with the community. He says communicating with customers helps him to understand what beers they like and what they are looking for from the brewery. In his opinion, it allows them to “go on the journey with [him].”

Willow Spring’s four original brews are made in limited quantities and are popular with residents of Orange and its many visitors, who venture to its downtown from Charlottesville, Louisa, Culpeper and farther north. During wedding seasons, Orange is a popular scenic destination that brims with guests from all over the country. The Light Well serves up burgers, handmade pasta, crab cakes, prime rib, salads, brunch fare and more, usually made from ingredients sourced nearby. It also hosts displays of local art. The restaurant-brewery offers a unique and memorable mixture of home-grown flavors and small-town Virginia culture.

Dave thinks a neighborhood brewery can have a positive effect on a community. He says: "It means a lot more when you can go around the corner to your local pub and have a beer that
we make here, with the water that we have here, and some of the ingredients we get here; it's the blood and the sweat and the tears of the local guy that you know … there's a sense of pride in it, hopefully within the communities, and you build on that."