[photos by Andrea Hubbell and Sarah Cramer Shields, words by Megan Headley]
It’s impossible not to like Taylor Smack–and it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s the man behind some of our favorite local beers. What you see is what you get with Taylor, the 37-year-old owner and brewmaster at Blue Mountain Brewery–and that just happens to be a fiercely genuine and tremendously funny man who works hard and plays hard, gathering friends and fans all along the way.
On a chilly, overcast day, we pass the Brewery’s hop field and pull into the driveway of the small white Cape Cod-style home that Taylor and his wife, Mandi, built five years ago just 100 yards from the business they built the same year. Today, there’s no one directing the flow of traffic at the Brewery as there is on weekends when beer lovers make the pilgrimage to Afton to eat pub food (with a local accent) washed down with creative brews amidst gorgeous surroundings.
Inside, a fire’s burning and Taylor’s done the kind of push-to-the-corners tidying that all busy parents master. Though Mandi’s at work next door (she’s the CFO and GM), and Hayden, 4, and Evan, 2, are both at school, there are signs of family life everywhere. Living and working within such a short radius maximizes their time together, but with Taylor and Mandi spending their work week on different segments of the same business, there’s a lot of shop talk after hours. And, as Taylor reminds us as he gestures out of his kitchen window, work is always staring them in the face.
It’s not without benefit, of course. There’s a knock on the front door and Taylor comes back with a six-pack of Full Nelson in cans and a smile: “Beer delivery!” These days, he spends his time at the Blue Mountain Barrel House in Colleen, the beer laboratory they opened in April. With a 7000 gallon production capacity, not only does it supplement the Brewery’s smaller 3000 gallon production, but it’s also where he gets to play Mr. Wizard, experimenting with what he calls their “high gravity” beers–brews that involve higher alcohol, barrel-aging, and bottle fermentation. “I’m famous for throwing stuff into barrels that maybe we shouldn’t.” (Like the cacao nibs from Ghana that he discovered make beer explode.)
Growing up in Lynchburg, then attending Hampden-Sydney college (where he recalls making the switch from Beast Lite to Sam Adams), Taylor started home-brewing while working as an ad and copywriter for Value America here in Charlottesville. The 600-person dot-com that Taylor jokes sold everything from “live lobsters to pet coffins” went public in 1999 and the stock skyrocketed from $18/share to $78/share. “I was 23 and thought ‘I’m going to be a millionaire!’” Six months later, the stock had plummeted and Taylor was back to the drawing board. He volunteered at South Street Brewery before heading to Chicago to attend brewing school at the Siebel Institute in Chicago. In the year and a half he was there, he scored a job as the head brewer at Goose Island and met his wife on a blind date. When South Street Brewery called with a (paying) position, Taylor brought Mandi to Charlottesville to “convince her that this is where we wanted to be.”
Their shared dream to open a brewpub was one that the couple had discussed as early as their second or third date. When developers in Albemarle were reluctant to their concept, they set their sights on Afton and by 2007, with Greenberry’s Matt Nucci’s hat in the ring, Taylor left his six-year brewing post at South Street to do his own thing.
And that thing has surpassed his wildest dreams. Blue Mountain has gone from having six to 83 employees and is now the second or third biggest employer in Nelson County. They routinely have four events booked each week in the recently expanded space, and Double H Farm had to double their hog population in order to keep up with the demands created by the pub’s beloved sausage and bratwurst pizzas.
Only able to fulfill 20 to 30 percent of in-state demand, Taylor knew they needed to grow, but was loathe to do it the conventional way. “We want to establish the brand as high-end and cool first, then flood the bigger markets with the favorites.” In the works is a 10,000 square foot facility on the 15-acre site next to the Barrel House. It will take over the business’s bottling operation, so that the Brewery can focus on the eight rotating draft pours that they offer everyday at the pub. And what are his thoughts on all the other breweries popping up? “I’d be upset if our business hadn’t gone up, up, up every time a new brewery opens.”
This afternoon, Taylor shares with us a gussied up version of a meal that makes a regular appearance in their meal rotation: toast burgers with cooked vegetables. “Since we never have buns, we have toast burgers
!” The whole dish, even in its gourmet incarnation, only uses one pan. And since the boys’ tastes are of the typical toddler variety (“It’s got to have that cellophane you pull back and that made in China taste”), Taylor and Mandi keep things simple, minimizing clean up time at every turn.
After piquing our palates with Full Nelson, Taylor breaks out the big boys. He gets a kick out of the range of their packaging–from low-brow cans to high-class 750ml bottles enclosed with corks and cages. He pops the cork on a bottle of Local Species, a Belgian-inspired, American-hopped, barrel-aged pale ale that tastes of peaches, apricots, hazelnuts, and honey.
Always one to play around with flavors, Taylor makes his burgers different every time. For us, he adds some curry powder to Timbercreek Organicsbeef. In the sacrificial pan, he sautées some bacon, pulling it out once crisp. He adds butter to the bacon fat and browns shallots and shiitakes from amFOG. He encloses carrots dotted with butter inside an aluminum foil “boat” and tosses it in the oven. All part of his no clean-up master plan.
Despite the practicality of the meal, it’s clear that Taylor knows his way around a kitchen. He took a wok cooking class when he was in the 4th grade, loved baking cookies with his mom, and has a framed recipe of her poppy seed dressing in the kitchen. There’s no doubt that Taylor’s still a man’s man though. He loves his “cheap Kmart” grill no matter the weather (“I’m the idiot outside grilling in shorts in the wintertime”) and, apparently, he has a deer hanging in one of their beer coolers, left over from a friend’s hunting excursion.
By now, we’re feeling manly too, ready for the more robust beers in Taylor’s award-winning line-up. The Long Winter’s Nap, a blonde Triple Bock, has a 10% ABV and does indeed make you want to curl up for the night. But the burgers are cooking, slices of Goodwin Bakery marble rye are toasting in the oven, Taylor is dolloping homemade dill crème fraîche onto the carrots, and we have some eating to do.
We devour our burgers
, never once wishing for buns. Taking turns in our glasses is a dark ruby-hued Belgian Christmas beer called Blitzen, and the Dark Hollow Imperial stout which treats you to a panoply of roasted flavors from coffee to chocolate to torched sugar. Taylor takes a sip of the Dark Hollow and states matter-of-factly: “I love this beer.” We ask if working with beer professionally for 13 years has taken any of the fun out of it. He takes another long sip from the glass and flashes his boyish grin: “Absolutely not.”
Out the window, we see Mandi walking home with Evan. The vast expanse of sky over Nelson County’s misty blue mountains is streaked with oranges and ambers and coppers–the same colors in a flight of beautifully made beer.