New River Pale Ale: Beer of the Year?

At a pizza restaurant in Virginia this past August, asked by the waitress if I wanted anything to drink, my eyes quickly scanned the fridge full of beer and a label that screamed, even from a distance, “I’m local, try me!” I did, and the bottle of New River Pale Ale was so good that later that week, I went back to the restaurant and picked up a six-pack.

The New River Pale Ale, named for the New River Valley where we were vacationing in Virginia, is a deep amber color, has an intensely hoppy nose that conjures up orange aromas. With a full head of foam that’s almost fizzy in nature, it’s full-bodied, packed with flavor and positively vibrant. While it’s big for a Pale Ale, it’s not so big that it leaves you bloated or (overly) buzzed; it just sits perfectly on the palate. Look, I don’t study beer the way I study wine, I don’t know the terminology so well, but I know a good beer when I taste one, and this was exceptional. If you want to know the exact ingredients, or more information like the fact that a “fourth addition of hops is made by adding white flower hops directly to the secondary fermenter and left to sit for an additional two weeks prior to packaging,” please follow this link: New River Pale Ale seems perfectly proud to share its recipe.

The New River Pale Ale: as good as it gets. And with a story behind it…

I was hooked, and I was also intrigued. The bottle indicated that the beer was brewed for New River by a bigger brewery, Old Dominion in Ashburn, VA. I wanted the full story. I wanted to know if the Pale Ale was New River’s only beer; I wanted to know how this custom brewing process came about. I looked up the website, and I found myself reading a heartening story of persistence by New River Brewing founder, Kenny Lefkowitz.

“I have been developing recipes since taking up this innocent home brewing hobby 13 years ago,”

he wrote.

“Experimenting with the infinite combinations of malt, hops and yeast is what I really love about brewing beer. The only problem I see is that you don’t get to live long enough to try them all.”

Lefkowitz always dreamed of opening a brewery, but despite taking courses in management and drawing up a business plan, he and his partner could not acquire the necessary financing. While his partner went off into the real world (i.e., got a job), Lefkowitz finally followed the advice his father had given in the first place: “Why don’t you get a brewery to brew your beer with you? Once you have people drinking and enjoying the beer it may be easier to get the capital to fund your venture.” Lefkowitz approached Jerry Bailey at Virginia’s biggest micro-brewery Old Dominion and New River Pale Ale first rolled off the production line in August 1999.

A success story all round, then? Not so. Under Kenny’s own essay there followed one written by his mother. Something struck me as odd about this; what did she have to do with it and why wasn’t he still telling the story? The opening paragraph confirmed my fears.

“As March 29, 2003 approached,”

wrote Judy Luria,

“I painfully recalled two years ago when I received a call at work, informing me that my son Kenny had died from a massive coronary. All my hopes and dreams came shattering around me. When the initial shock abated, I decided that whatever else happened, this company would continue. All of Kenny’s plans and dreams had to come to fruition.

New River Brewing Company has had a lot of growing pains. There was no contingency plan for what would happen should Kenny pass away – he was only 32 years old after all – and as far as we knew, healthy.”

They say that the most common symptom of heart disease is death, and Kenny Lefkowitz’s sudden death appears to give credence to this statistic. In his own statement, he had written that “I had to try to open a brewery or I would regret it for the rest of my life,” and it was a point that gained extra poignancy after reading of his surprise demise.

There’s a silver lining or two in the story, though nothing to undo the inherent sadness of the tale. Lefkowitz’s former partner, Chad McRae, the one who gave up and got a proper job, gave up that proper job after Kenny’s death and stepped in to help run New River Brewing. The beer has won many awards – including, in both 2004 and 2005, Grand Champion, Pale Ale Category, in the United States Beer Tasting Championship, is continuing to find fans, and is gaining ever wider distribution. Whether New River will ever make more than just the custom-produced Pale Ale remains to be seen. But if it doesn’t, it’s still been responsible for one of the best American Pale Ales I’ve tasted. This drink is for Kenny Lefkowitz, for realizing his dream during the short time he spent amongst us. Cheers.

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