WORDS & PHOTOS | JESSE FELDBERG
We sat down over the phone with Erik Jones and Jenny Davies, co-owners of Lexington’s Heliotrope Brewery, to talk about beer, pizza, wild yeast cultures, and more!
Edible Blue Ridge: Could you tell me a little about each of your backgrounds and what you do at the brewery?
Erik: I’m from Portland, Oregon, and started brewing as a homebrewer in 1994. I had just wrapped up a pretty close to 30-year career in arts administration. I was looking for a second career, so I volunteered at some breweries to see if that was something I wanted to do. I always figured everyone from Portland has to brew at some point in their life. I went to brewing school 5-6 years ago to get more experience on the professional side of it, and then we opened this place!
Jenny: I head up the dance department at Washington and Lee, but before I came to W&L, I was the executive director of a nonprofit dance company. I had over ten years of management experience to bring to the table, so when Erik had this dream of wanting to do this, that was the way I could contribute.
EBR: What was the inspiration for the Heliotrope name and logo?
E: So it was always going to be part of our ethos from the beginning to try and brew and cook with as much local and seasonal [influence] as possible, and we wanted a name that reflected that. We settled on Heliotrope – it’s a flower and a color which we both like – which means “turn to the sun” in Greek. We felt like that mirrored what we were going for because we’re “following the sun” in the sense that we’re following the seasonal ingredients.
As far as the logo goes, we worked with a really awesome advertising agency in Charlottesville. We told them that we didn’t want to be literal, so they took the astrological symbols for the sun and the earth and overlaid them on top of each other. We had this idea at the beginning – which we still might do – to rotate that logo throughout the year to reflect the seasons.
EBR: Speaking of seasonality, what’s your process towards building and changing your menu?
E: I don’t think there’s anything systematic about it. It’s kind of the same way we do the beer; it’s just what sounds good to us and what’s in season.
J: We’ll sit down and say, ‘Ok, it’s November, what’s growing right now? What can we put together that tastes good, that’s in season and we can be excited about?’
EBR: How many farms are you partnered with?
J: At the bottom of our menu, we have a list of people we’re proud to be partnered with — there’s probably about 20-25 artisans and farmers on there.
EBR: I know you hosted a fundraiser chef’s dinner in August with some great regional chefs. What other ways do you tie in your business with the community in Lexington and Southwestern Virginia?
J: Well, that was a super fun event because there were so many people involved, so many chefs and food creators. One of the primary reasons we did it was to help raise money for RARA [Rockbridge Area Relief Association] in Lexington and TAP [Total Action for Progress] in Roanoke. We have a program at the brewery called “Sharing Sundays,” so we choose a nonprofit whose mission speaks to us, and for a month on Sundays we donate a portion of the beer and pizza [sales] to them.
Part of our original founding mission behind wanting to do this was to be a big community partner and to give back to the community that is helping to support us. In addition to sourcing [ingredients] as locally as we can and supporting our farmers, we also want to support those organizations that make our community what it is.
EBR: What sets Heliotrope apart in the brewhouse? Do you put your own spin on things or keep it fairly traditional?
E: One way I think we keep it really traditional, like old school, is that we have a house wild yeast strain that came from Rockbridge County that we use for all of our farmhouse and sour beers.
J: It came from our backyard!
E: Three to four years ago, I made up a bunch of wort with test tubes and went around the neighborhood and started dropping flowers and berries and things in the tubes to see what would grow. It started off with close to 30 different samples. It was a really interesting process because some of the wild yeasts fermented out really well, but tasted like turpentine. Others tasted great but barely fermented at all. Over the course of a year, we winnowed it down until we found one that both fermented well and tasted good. A friend of mine is the head of the biology department at W&L, so we plated all this stuff out on different media to select against molds and other impurities.
The one we came up with — “The Ocho” because it was sample number 8 — it came from a basil plant that was growing in our backyard. So we kept that one alive, feeding it like a sourdough starter for a long time, and then I sent it to a yeast lab and they banked it for me in the deep freeze, so whenever I want to brew with it they just grow it up for me and send it. [They] also genotyped it, so we know our yeast strain is a saccharomyces, but there is also a wild wine yeast in there!
I really am most excited about the beers we make with that yeast strain. We also have a house lacto strain. We can either use them together and make the beer sour or use the yeast [The Ocho] by itself and make a sort of saison.
Originally, we were only going to make beers with this strain. But the realities of economics came to bear at some point and we realized if we want to be in business, we should be making some IPAs and things like that too.
EBR: Is your harvest saison [on tap at the time of the interview] brewed with The Ocho?
E: Yup! The only thing that’s not local in that beer is the hops — there’s just a handful of French hops in there — it’s got all VA malt, water obviously, the yeast, we put some hay in there from Raphine and [local] honey.
EBR: You can taste that hay, it’s uniquely delicious.
E: I’d heard of a couple breweries that used hay [in beer], but I didn’t really know a lot about it so I figured I’d try it. We autoclaved it to make sure nothing bad was growing on it (it came from an organic farm, so no pesticides or herbicides), and we used it kind of like you would dry-hop an IPA in the fermenter after fermentation. I was surprised it came through with a pretty strong cinnamon flavor. […] The thing I find most interesting about that beer is the honey — all the sugar fermented out, so it’s not sweet at all but you still get that flavor of honey, and your brain reads it as sweet even though it’s not.
EBR: What kind of music plays in the brewhouse?
J: Erik Jones could go on about this for hours!
E: The number one rule in the brewery is “Don’t change the music!” … We made this playlist of about 2000 songs full of alternative music from the 80s to the present, underground hip hop and stuff like that. My favorite band is The Clash, all of the fermenters are named after members of The Clash. I love 90s shoegaze music; we listen to a lot of hip-hop; I’ll stop there because I will just talk about this kind of stuff forever.
EBR: What local spot(s) would you send first-time visitors to within Lexington/Rockbridge County?
J: I really love this new spot called 12 Ridges Winery.
E: The Red Hen. We always recommend them!
EBR: What does the future hold for Heliotrope?
E: Our most immediate goal is to regroup after COVID. We have no real frame of reference — we opened just before the pandemic hit. I don’t want to really grow very big. There are benefits to staying small; I love that almost all of our grain is local from just down in Charlottesville [Murphy & Rude Malting Co]. Whatever grain I can’t get from them I get from North Carolina [Riverbend or Epiphany Malts], and it’s all from craft maltsters. That’s expensive per pound, but because we’re small, we don’t have to worry about that economy of scale as much.
J: I think that ideally in the future we might send out a few kegs to select restaurants in DC or Richmond, some place where people can learn about us and encourage them to come to Lexington. That’s growth in a small way.
Note: This article originally appeared in our 2021 Winter Issue