Nestled in the heart of Chesterfield County among a strip of corporate workspaces is the unassuming storefront of Steam Bell Beer Works. Marking the brewery’s territory is a large wood-paneled sign adorned with bold black letters and lengthy vines. The simplicity and rustic nature of the Steam Bell logo not only mimics the brewery’s industrial interior but also the down-to-earth nature of its founder, Brad Cooper.
Cooper, a Chesterfield native, spent years working for Martin Marietta Materials before breaking into Virginia’s craft beer industry. His days often consisted of laborious aggregate work in the quarry followed by hours of experimenting with his homebrewing kit. “As soon as I bought that starter kit from WeekEnd Brewer, I was hooked,” remembers Cooper.
His passion for beer grew stronger as he became more confident in the craft, ultimately inspiring him to join a local Homebrew Club. It was during one of the club’s meetings that Cooper connected with Eric McKay and Patrick Murtaugh, co-founders of Hardywood Park Craft Brewery. McKay and Murtaugh were seeking extra hands at the brewery and Cooper was one of the first to sign up.
One week later, Cooper received a call from Hardywood asking if he could assist on the brewery’s bottling line. He quickly agreed and spent the next 12 months labeling, filling and capping Hardywood beers with nearly a dozen other volunteers. He not only remembers work on the bottling line as extremely monotonous, but life-changing. “I knew I had to work in the beer industry,” says Cooper. “I started to wonder what it would take to open a brewery, and the short answer was a lot of money. I remember thinking there was no way I’d be able to find that kind of money, so I put those dreams on the backburner and stayed with my day job.”
A promotion at Martin Marietta demanded much of Cooper’s time, forcing him to surrender his volunteer work at Hardywood. The more time Cooper spent away from brewing, the more he missed it, and the greater his disdain for mining became.
As life would have it, Cooper lost his job in the fall of 2014. While the sudden loss of revenue was shocking, the layoff gave Cooper the push he needed to make his brewing dream a reality. With his parents’ support, Cooper dove head first into the creation of Steam Bell.
He enlisted both a branding agency and an attorney to get his idea off the ground. He then sold his brand new truck and moved back in with his parents to make ends meet.
“I really dug in over the winter and went to friends and family to raise some capital. I hit my minimum goal in May 2015 and opened the brewery nearly 13 months later in June 2016,” says Cooper.
To show even greater support for Cooper’s dreams, several friends and family members agreed to work for him. His mother, Connie, ensures all office operations are running smoothly as his father works to get his son’s beer in as many local restaurants, bottle shops and grocery stores as possible. Also joining Cooper was his sister, who recently came on as a business partner. Tyler Ossowski, Cooper’s friend and former Martin Marietta coworker, currently works as Steam Bell’s head brewer as well.
“Steam Bell truly is a family business,” says Connie.
Dominating much of Steam Bell’s interior are Cooper’s stainless steel fermenters. The metal giants are constantly at work as brewery patrons enjoy a cold one at one of Steam Bell’s custom wooden tables. Earlier this year, Cooper purchased an additional 3,000 square feet of storage space, which he hopes to convert into a larger-scale brewhouse and canning room, thus allowing him to expand the taproom.
Much like its trademark sign, Steam Bell’s taproom is rustic and inviting. The walls are painted in a deep, navy blue and hung with handcrafted accents. Strings of twinkling bulbs line the ceiling as well, creating an intimate space for beer connoisseurs.
An entertainment space sits at the back of the tasting room, hosting a new musician every weekend. Also on Steam Bell’s list of weekly events are Thursday night Brew Times. The event, spearheaded by Cooper’s father, is geared towards trout fishermen and invites them to tie flies while enjoying good beer.
Flowing from the bar’s wooden tap handles are well over a dozen libations. On the beer list are a variety of goses, sours, altbiers and IPAs, including the tropical Old Beau IPA, dry farmhouse Time is Money IPA, raspberry Deuce Deuce sour, Margarita Gose and the fan-favorite, Extra Plenty Gose.
The Extra Plenty Gose is one of the few Steam Bell beers in distribution and packs in an abundance of summery flavors, including cucumber, hibiscus and a touch of Himalayan salt. Also on Steam Bell’s favorites list is the award-winning Tiramisu Stout.
The velvety beer was initially brewed as a small batch release between Steam Bell and Midlothian’s Sergio’s Pizza, but gained widespread notoriety seemingly overnight. The rum-conditioned stout aged on vanilla beans and coffee from Ironclad Coffee Roasters is now one of the most highly sought after beers in Central and Northern Virginia. To keep up with the demand, Cooper intends to release six variations of the stout between October 2018 and March 2019. Each variation will include surprise flavors like chocolate and coconut.
For Steam Bell’s visitors abstaining from alcohol, Cooper designed a line of Trussing Craft Fizzes in flavorful combinations like Ginger Lime, Apple Sage and Blackberry Basil. All fizzes are made with stevia so that diabetic visitors can enjoy them as well.
Another selection of Cooper’s exceptional brews can be found at his second brewery, Canon & Draw, in Richmond’s Fan district.
Steam Bell Beer Works is located at 1717 Oak Lane Blvd., Midlothian. To learn more about Steam Bell Beer Works and special events, visit SteamBell.Beer