By Sarah Ramsey
The drive there is a fun one, if country highways are your thing. It offers everything a good road-trip should—stunning views, back roads that are easily drivable, and tiny hamlets with the occasional interesting, funky shop.
The Devils Backbone Brewery, and its basecamp brewpub and meadow, sits on 100 acres amid the Blue Ridge Mountains near Wintergreen, Virginia. Just down the road there’s a trailhead for the Appalachian Trail, and, up the mountain, sprawls Wintergreen Resort, the state’s largest ski area.
Steve and Heidi Crandall started the brewery in 2008. Steve chose the location to be a nexus for outdoor adventure, and Heidi wanted everyone to feel welcome—to provide a place where people could gather, unplug, and have fun.
“Folks are talking to each other, introducing each other, kids are running around,” Heidi says of the outcome.
Everything about the basecamp and brewery exudes hospitality and engagement. There’s good food, good beer, outdoor adventure, and plenty of places to hang out with friends, old and new. It’s clear you’re meant to relax and stay a while.
Though Devils Backbone provides excellent WiFi, it’s easy to unplug and simply enjoy the experience. And on a recent trip to the basecamp, we did just that.
We launched our girls’-getaway weekend with lunch in the brewpub, an excellent way to kick-off a fun trip catching up with friends.
There, Chef Frank Debons has created a menu that leans toward traditional brewery fare in the best way possible—built around the beer and local ingredients. The result is a meal that’s both comforting and trend-setting. And delicious! The food alone is worth the drive out. (Trust me, get the pretzel.)
The barbeque is a basecamp specialty and, for the record, has earned this Southern girl’s stamp of approval. It’s the perfect balance of a chewy inside and crisp outside, and it’s possible there was a friendly tug-of-war over the last bite at our table.
Many dishes, like the barbeque, use Devils Backbone beer as an ingredient, and when the chef is creative, both the beer and the food shine. We also ordered an excellent peach cobbler for dessert, though the show-stopper was a peach popsicle served stick-up in a glass of Berliner Metro Weiss, a German-style sour ale. The flavors are a feedback-loop of perfection—the peach enhancing the fruity beer, the beer making the quintessential summer-peach extra special.
Devils Backbone also provides guests a fast-casual option at the Oak Grill, if sitting outside is more your speed. It reminded me immediately of the snack-shack at the summer camps I attended as a kid, but the food is much, much better. With an open grill and smoker, its menu focuses on quick, outside-friendly dishes such as burgers, bratwurst, and the Devils Backbone BBQ Sundae, featuring cornbread, baked beans, coleslaw, and pulled-pork barbeque.
Then you have The Shanty. I’m already planning my visit back for one of the rare beers they serve in this seasonal room full of antiques, recycled material, and bar stools that date back to the late 1700s. Its vintage stove made me think of cozy afternoons spent in the company of friends.
Walking around the grounds, we wandered by two hoop houses and a garden—the heart of the brewery’s agritourism program. Being an active member of the community is important to the team, as is taking care of the land and resources. By using local ingredients they accomplish both, sourcing as much as they can from local farms and providers.
Nearby River Oak Farm, for instance, provides chicken and beef, though, to keep food and beverage operations even more local, team members are also growing food for use in the restaurant and in the brewery and distillery. The gardens provide fresh flowers for the restaurant and herbs like juniper for the new distillery. Crisp lettuce and fresh, juicy tomatoes from the hoop houses are sent to the kitchen.
Jessica Carter, the agritourism manager, said, “We are excited to be able to bring more customers here to basecamp and give them a true DB adventure complete with hiking trails, native pollinator gardens, and hands-on gardening experiences.
“We hope our passion for the land, great beer, and exceptional ingredients will shine through as we show guests what it’s like to be part of the DB family.”
Beer, of course, is the foundation of Devils Backbone.
Spending a whole day there gave us time to try a few different beers. They have “flights,” or samplers, to make it easy to sample the 16 beers on tap at the Basecamp Brewpub, including year-round offerings and seasonal brews, plus some of their experimental beers.
We were provided a quick tour through the brewery floor. It’s a little bit high-tech, a little bit mad scientist, and a whole lot of fun. Brewers were working on a new sour beer—a collaboration with local brewery Redbeard Brewing Company called “Bearded Devil.”
Devils Backbone brews in two locations—at the basecamp and The Outpost in Lexington, Virginia. The basecamp is the test-kitchen for recipe development, while The Outpost focuses on brewing beer for distribution.
If you follow the beer world, you may wonder how Devils Backbone is handling its recent acquisition by Anheuser-Busch. The only change I could see looks to be beneficial—cool new brewing equipment, including a centrifuge, horizontal lager tanks, and an open-fermentation tank.
As with everything at Devils Backbone, the consumer comes first when it comes to beer. One of our favorite things about collecting a flight of beers was the helpful guidance offered on the menu. There are indications for alcohol-by-volume and international beer units as well as guidance as to where the beer falls on the bitter-sweet and golden-to-black scales. If you need more direction, the staff will guide you on the right path.
A quick note for your future trip planning—Devils Backbone is adding a distillery at the basecamp, which will open in late September.
For a little activity, we decided to try a little cornhole with our beer flights. (Pro tip: never challenge the girls from West Virginia when a cornhole victory is on the line.)
Even on a quiet weeknight, we found people ready to engage in friendly competition. The players at the cornhole set beside us were from Scotland, visiting a friend in college nearby. There may have been some political chatter and banter over our collective cornhole skills or lack thereof.
It’s easy to strike-up conversations with other visitors, and that’s on purpose. At the center of the basecamp is a giant campfire kettle surrounded by circles of wooden chairs. Though bonfires there are seasonal (lighted August through May), it’s a gathering place even when it’s not bonfire weather.
“Folks that don’t know each other, know each other by the end of the evening,” Steve Crandall says.
That’s one reason the Crandalls created the space. It’s hard to find common ground among people these days, but here it’s easier to shut out distractions and differences and enjoy the company of good people getting along.
Many outdoor areas have been created in which to sit and talk, including an outside bar that serves a set of beers differing from those served inside the brewpub and “secret gardens” in which to escape the bustle of the kettle or outside bar.
After dark, we headed back to the Brewpub for dinner. (If you’re into good bar food, the fried pickles and nachos are winners.) Then it was time to head to our home for the night, a quick walk from the basecamp proper. With all respect to Texas, the stars shine just as bright in the Blue Ridge. Step outside at night to see a galaxy worth. There’s essentially no light pollution, and, on a clear night it’s easy to get lost staring up at the sky. If you’re staying at one of the houses, or anywhere else in the area, bring a telescope or a good star map. Bonus points if you visit during a meteor shower!
The next morning, relaxed and rested, we headed back to the basecamp for the most important meal of the day—coffee. Devils Backbone buys its coffee from a local roaster, Trager Brothers, and serves it alongside breakfast sandwiches and pastries in The Summit, an old train depot that now sits next to the brewpub. Moved from its original location, its historic character is evident. The atmosphere, plus the warm morning light and large tables, encourages an easy-going morning.
One thing we noticed on the menu board was a special dish created by Chef Debons called the “Camping Breakfast”—a stew of sausage, white beans, and kale topped with two eggs and toast. Given that we were headed back to the road instead of the trails, I decided to save that for another day, but it sounds just the thing to fuel-up for a day of hiking or biking.
The Devils Backbone Family
Though with 200 employees and a growing operation, Devils Backbone still feels like a family operation. Every member of the brewery staff demonstrates a sense of pride and personal ownership and true hospitality. Each goes above and beyond in crafting quality products and providing a welcome to all visitors.
Training includes a “boot camp” wherein new employees spend a week learning about the beer, food, and values that make up Devils Backbone. This creates a sense of comradery and a deep knowledge of the brewery.
One example of how family and community fit into creating great beer is its Family Beer Project. The entire staff is divided up into 12 teams, each led by a brewer. Each team comes up with a recipe and pitches the recipe, name, and beer style. Eight of the 12 are chosen for brewing, and then five of those are selected by the brewers to be released as part of a Family Beer Project Adventure Pack.
Heidi Crandall notes that the project is “a great way to involve teams of family members while allowing them to be creative and, for many, brew for the first time.”
It’s a win-win-win: staff are engaged and involved in the brewing process, brewers have an opportunity to educate staff on techniques and ingredients, and beer drinkers get the benefit of some darn fine beers.
You can try the family beers at the basecamp or at The Outpost in Lexington as long as a supply is available, or you can wait for the Adventure Pack release.
Devils Backbone offers all sorts of adventures for visitors, from trail rides and hikes to Trivia Nights and Sunday Sing-Alongs. Or sign up for a Devils Backbone adventure like its Brewery-2-Brewery bike ride from the basecamp to the Outpost.
If you’re coming in from the Appalachian Trail, know that the brewery is part of the Trail Angel program. Giving back to the local community, a dollar from every case of its Trail Angel Weiss beer goes to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Brewery staff also hold special events like Hoopla, a weekend of camping, workshops, outdoor activities, and an outstanding live-music lineup.
They’ll have a campsite cooking challenge, guided hikes and bike rides, and a kids’ parade in which all the little ones will have a chance to build their own instruments and jam on the main stage.
If you’re looking for a fun day trip, a weekend adventure, or a mid-week getaway, look no further than Devils Backbone, a perfect location for great beer, great food, and a chance to connect with friends you know and friends you haven’t met.