RAPIDAN—Open less than a year, family-run WAR Craft Brewery is seeing success and preparing to add homemade distilled spirits to its list of adult libations.
Beer maker Brad Stepp, an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, fought for his right to open a distillery at his business on a hill along James Madison Highway after neighbors aired concerns with Virginia ABC.
“Went to trial, we were able to dispel their concerns, and ABC granted our license yesterday,” he said in an interview at WAR Craft on Thursday. “I am able to start distilling right now; it’s a similar process to beer making,” said Stepp, who has been making beer in small batches for a dozen years or so.
“Moonshine, several flavors, wheat whiskey, bourbon takes two years to age in barrel, vodka and gin, apple and grape brandy,” he said of what’s to come later this fall.
The 42-year-old who moved with his family to Culpeper in 2020 believes adding spirits to his military-themed Americana taproom will make WAR Craft the first farm brewery, winery, cidery and distillery in the Commonwealth of Virginia—a quintessential quadfecta.
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They grow grapes and fruit trees and live on the 10-acre property.
Since opening last July, customers would inevitably ask about having a mixed drink, Stepp said, so he inquired with ABC about getting a mixed beverage license, but it required 45 percent of sales come from food.
“Not even touching that,” said the brewery owner. “ABC recommended we get our own distillers license.”
As required, Stepp built a separate bar, with its own exit, for serving distilled spirits, in essence, at an ABC storefront, strictly regulated by the state. Blood & Feathers WAR Spirits is a test name for the distillery portion.
He’s still waiting for approval on the storefront application and setting up the separate sales system involved with that.
“When I make distilled spirits, I sell it to ABC and am commissioned to resell their product at my location at their storefront…at their price,” Stepp explained.
The process invites a lot more scrutiny and inspections on the entire business, he said.
“But we’re ok with it, we follow the rules. If they find something wrong I would like to know so I can fix it,” he said.
Stepp, in addition to running WAR Craft and growing the business, works full-time as a government contractor and was a federal intelligence agent for 15 years.
He said he’s used to reading the laws, and felt pretty confident about adding the distillery. A stainless steel is still under construction.
By autumn, the beer maker hopes to have at least four distilled products ready to serve in the taproom, in spite of a global shortage of glass bottles. Stepp said they’ll offer unique mixed cocktails infused with herbs and organics. He is confident it will fill a niche.
“I enjoy visiting all the breweries and wineries in Virginia as well and what I would see is folks commonly sitting down, one of the two don’t like something, so it just made sense to have everything,” Stepp said.
WAR—Winery at Rapidan-Brewery—has added a lot more things since opening last July including corn hole, disc golf and soon to come, badminton in the beer garden.
The indoor-outdoor venue at Crooked Run, overlooking green fields, has live music most Saturdays and other special events advertised by word of mouth as well as a mobile beer truck. Of the growing customer base, 60 percent are tourists passing by and the rest locals, Stepp said. They get kayakers using the nearby river stopping in along with large mountain biking groups and fox hunters, teachers, cops, firefighters, longtime married couples, all kinds of folks.
“It’s a pleasure, doing better than I had hoped it would do,” he said.
WAR Craft partners with Old House Vineyards in Stevensburg and Effingham Manor Winery to lease ground for grapes and wine making for the vintages served in-house, along with the always-popular house-made sangria and wine slushes. Stepp personally brews two dozen types of beer year-round with eight on tap depending on the season. WAR Craft also leases orchard space at Son of a Bear Ciders in Rapidan for its ciders.
Stepp’s family—wife, two daughters in college and in-laws—help keep the business going, but they’re growing so much, he said, they may soon have to hire outside help. His family would like to take a vacation, but Stepp says it will take several years before the business is ready for that.
WAR Craft is also partnering, Historic Cigars, newly opened on West Evans Street in the Town of Culpeper, to offer their products in the tasting room, and possibly vice-versa. And, hot off the press, the East Davis Street restaurant, Jackleg, is now offering their Neapolitan-style pizzas at WAR Craft, which plans to expand its kitchen to accommodate the operation.
Stepp is pitching a show to Food Network about how they made spirits in colonial Virginia, based at Virginia’s first modern-day quadfecta for adult beverages. Fox News is interested in featuring the local business and Stepp wants to open as second brewery location downtown.
“You forget how to tie your shoes because you’re concentrating on so many moving parts, have to have a good acumen to put something down, able to pick something else up, run with it right away,” Stepp said, asked how he does it all.
“Like on Friday I have to set six hours aside to brew, and clean, and after that is done I’m on to inventory control, more grain, ordering that stuff, then working my day job every day, this place, 10 acres takes two and a half solid days to mow, run a mower all day for two days. My father-in-law handles a lot of it now.
“General upkeep of the farm, the vineyard, spent two days working on trellis lines had to come out of the clock somewhere as well as being around for the customers. Everyone wants to meet the owner.”
When WAR Craft made a rare announcement last week on social media that it was adding a distillery the post garnered 30,000 views in a short amount of time. He said he got kind of scared at the potential for more growth and how they will handle it.
“But it’s happening at the right time. With the kitchen coming, the cigars, them genuinely wanting to add to this business because they see it as a gravitational point for Culpeper tourism,” he said.
Stepp drinks depending on his mood, not so much anymore, but tests a lot of it for quality control. He appears laser focused on an end goal now that he’s moved out of Northern Virginia and is back in the country setting of his childhood on a family farm in Missouri.
Dave Foster, the popular founder of Mountain Run Winery in Culpeper, has been a mentor, the beer maker said.
“He was an Army captain, FBI government contractor, opened a winery, it took him three years to get to the revenue point where he could quit his contracting job, I want to follow that path. I learned that by talking to him, being a patron of his place,” Stepp said.
“That’s what I want to do—you’re working for yourself, recession-proof, and it’s fun…went from zero friends in Culpeper County to like four thousand people now who text me. It’s been awesome.”