Beyond the Zip Code: Sperryville

Jan 15, 2021
Thinking back to the time of road trips and quick weekend getaways — most of us can relate to falling under the allure of a small town's charms. There is undoubtedly something deeper and oftentimes more complicated than the trope of simplicity there. Small towns are inextricable from beverage production. The wines (and beers and ciders and spirits) we sell almost always come from small towns. Some are charming, some are barren, some are barely towns at all. But they're all places that express the delicate relationship between agriculture, commerce, and history. Whether small villages along the Cher River or niche breweries off US-522, seeing how that delicate balance bears fruit amazes and excites us.

This year, we're spending some time getting to know the small towns of our favorite producers in the United States and beyond. The origins of bottles painstakingly trucked, freighted, and dropped on our doorstep to then be driven, delivered, and shipped all over the US. We believe there is a value in knowing. Place and history can tell as nuanced a story as taste.

We start things off with Sperryville, Virginia, currently home to 350 people and one of our favorite breweries in the country (and world), Pen Druid. A partnership between the three Carney brothers, Lain, Van, and Jennings, Pen Druid is a favorite weekend outpost for our DC customers. We occasionally have their rare beers and ciders at the shop and recently partnered with them on creating a natural wine list at their brand new brewery in Sperryville. Two hours west of DC in Rappahannock County, the town was founded in 1820 in an area then primarily used for farmland. (Before the British, French Heugnots, and German settlers began making their way along the Rappahannock River, it was the Manahoac tribe's land.) Known in the early 20th century for the sale of fruit trees, Sperryville had an apple juice processing plant, a tannery, and a once-functioning grain mill along the Thorton River. Today, it is best known as a destination for hiking in the Shenandoah National Park with access to Skyline Drive at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  

This beauty has also come at a price. "Well known but largely not discussed so much is that the [Shenandoah National] Park, which comprises a large portion of the county and serves as the western and partial northern boundary, was home to thousands of people until the Federal Government physically removed them from their generational lands in the early 20th century," says Pen Druid's Van Carney. Kerry Sutton, a local business owner and organizer of SperryFest, says that the role of African-Americans in the area isn’t well documented. "In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mr. James Engham, a freed black man, owned over 38 parcels of land and ran a series of successful businesses on the Main Street of antebellum Sperryville."

This is a place made to grow. We spent some time pouring over the US Department of Agriculture’s Soil Survey of Rappahannock County Virginia, Issue October 1961, reading detailed accounts of soil types, agriculture history, and industry. It’s an overwrought gem of a past time, when land was treated with incredible importance. Pen Druid is located on terrace soils which are primarily loam and clay subsoil, ideal for root growth (aka farmland.) 

With wild-fermented beers like Pen Druid's and their famous Belgian counterparts, there is always an emphasis on yeast and microbial cultures. The Carneys, a fourth generation Sperryville family, began by cultivating yeast from outside their brewery and it has developed into a wild, mature yeast strain unlike any other. When we drink their beer (and cider), we're tasting the entire history of Sperryville: the babbling streams, spring buds, and hearty soils of the Carney Brother’s hometown. 

We asked the brothers to describe what their home smells like. "In the spring, new soil; in the summer, honeysuckle; in the fall, fermenting leaves and pine woodsmoke; in the winter, oak woodsmoke and deep loam." 

Sounds like a pretty wonderful place for those 350 people.