Sunlit and roomy, the Ardent taproom is a pretty chill spot.
Hanging above opposite ends of the unassuming bar, two older-model speakers play light and airy modern bluegrass pop. There’s a small sign requesting patrons curb their dogs — yes, dogs are allowed inside the garden area.
Outside the taproom sits a large beer-garden patio with strings of outdoor lights stretched above the wooden deck. It feels like this could be a microbrewery in Colorado or along the West Coast, rather than an urban oasis tucked within the industrial district of Scott’s Addition.
“We’ve had people in the neighborhood say this is their new back porch to drink beer,” says Kevin O’Leary, head brewer of Ardent Craft Ales, which opened its brewery in the spring. The Zen feel reflects their approach to brewing.
“The main philosophy of our brewing is balance,” he says. “We don’t want to wreck your palate with bitterness.”
A prime example is O’Leary’s honey ginger beer, designed as the perfect summer refreshment. It’s higher in alcohol content (7.8 percent), but the ginger and honey — which they get from Golden Angels apiary in Harrisonburg — are perfectly balanced.
Like many famous brew tales, this one started in a garage.
In 2010, on the same block in Church Hill where the Roosevelt soon would open, a collective of like-minded brewers started making beer and inviting people inside to learn about the process firsthand.
“Not much was going on around then,” says Thomas Sullivan, Ardent’s operations manager. “We would brew all day on Sunday, and once Roosevelt opened, we kind of became their unofficial waiting room for brunch.”
The co-op got its name from studying the history of brewing. “Ardent spirits” is a term still on the books in Virginia, meaning prohibited, dangerous drinks — the kind that made you burn or glow.
A former Virginia Commonwealth University punk rocker, Sullivan used to work in information-technology for a pharmaceutical company. But he says he burned out and turned his focus to beer after visiting Monticello with his wife. “We were having a Sam Adams,” he says, “and I thought it’s a shame someone hasn’t done a historical re-creation of what was served there.”
So he went home, got on the Internet, found a home-brewing kit and was hooked. Lots of home-brewing conferences followed. “In IT you can never know it all and the important people are in the stratosphere,” Sullivan says. “What I love about brewing is there was so much that was unsettled. You could ask an expert a question and they would say, ‘I don’t know, try it.’”
O’Leary moved from Cambridge, Mass., where he worked as assistant brewer at a local mainstay, Cambridge Brewing Co. His girlfriend had gotten a job at the Martin Agency and he came with her to check out Richmond, meeting Sullivan at the Commercial Taphouse within his first two weeks.
When they started writing their business plan, Hardywood hadn’t launched. When it did, its success helped strengthen their pitch to investors. Other local breweries provided helpful construction tips — the beer community here is competitive but friendly.
“The momentum helped us more than anything — people weren’t so skeptical anymore,” Sullivan says. “We had solid numbers that proved Richmond still had a large community and the current breweries couldn’t provide enough to fill the need.”
A small-plate, meat-and-cheese menu continues to be refined. But Ardent also allows you to bring food in.
“We want to be a place where people can sail in, chill out, and even when it’s bustling, nobody is stressed out,” Sullivan says.
With 10 employees and about 30 draft accounts across town, Sullivan says Ardent is working to stabilize production and build on its quality, streamlining along the way.
The Ardent building, which used to hold a shipping business, holds four fermenters and a 15-barrel brew house that requires two brews to fill one fermenter up. That starts a two- to three-week fermentation process. Sullivan estimates making 1,400 to 1,500 barrels a year initially.
“For now we’re keeping it simple,” he says. “We’ll have a pin or two, get people out and make sure our accounts are happy. Then this fall we may open the throttle a little and plan some events.”
Ardent Craft Ales
3200 W. Leigh St.
Wednesday-Thursday 4-9 p.m., Friday 4-10 p.m., Saturday noon- 10 p.m., Sunday noon-6 p.m.