There’s something about fall days that just demand a drive through the woods. I suppose you could take a walk through the woods too, but if you’re planning on going where we were going, it would take way longer. Because it was on one of those gorgeous fall days that we decided to venture from the Roanoke Valley over to Tazewell, VA to check out Painted Peak Brewing Co. From here to there it is a roughly two hour drive that takes you through a National Forest, into a mountain tunnel, on a road literally named ‘Scenic Highway,’ and then through gorgeous rural land until, suddenly, historic Tazewell is before you. When you enter 386 Main Street, Tazewell into your GPS it might ask you if you mean East or West. We hit ‘East’ and GPS told us we’d arrived when really we were passing by a little spot called Donut Diva ...which was almost a tasty enough sounding error, and cute enough spot, to make us stop but we were on a mission for beer, so we proceeded on down Main Street and quickly spotted the brewery.
Opened in December 2017, Painted Peak is led by longtime friends David Blankenship and Aaron Hale. “I’ve known Dave for years and years,” said Hale, “we’re actually related - cousins - he started the whole idea and we talked about this on the back porch for two years before I actually became a part of it.” It is that small town life and the love of their small town that brought the brewery to life.
“I’m born and raised here” explained Blankenship, “my parents started a local business here, an insurance agency, and ironically they’re both teetotalers, I’ve never seen them consume a drop of alcohol. So when I went to my parents, we had been having a lot of discussions about what can we do to try and stimulate the local economy, what do we need? We need to make things, we need manufacturing, we need tourism and we need some connection to agriculture because we have so much farmland and such high quality farmland - the soil here is incredible - so we were trying to find a way to use all of these things, and at the same time, this was about 5 or 6 years ago, the craft beer movement was really taking off and accelerating at a rapid pace, so that’s where I took my conversation. What can we do to help our local economy, make products here, ship them out to local markets, and then when those products are received, have those people come visit Tazewell. So it became a sales pitch of outbound products, inbound tourism and that symbiotic relationship trying to bring people to the mountains and show them the natural beauty.
We don’t have a lot of things in small town western Virginia, but we do have a tremendous amount of natural beauty.”
With a strong Native American heritage, Dave felt the resonance between his roots and what he and his family were trying to do for the town of Tazewell, “how do we take care of our community, how do we protect and fight for our tribe.” That approach then quickly went from being a metaphorical one to a literal one when it came to branding and marketing. Talking about their logo Blankenship explained “that it is an artistic representation of the warrior spirit that we’re trying to portray for our community, our tribe, our kids.” Even the name, Painted Peak, is a specific reference to the local mountain ranges in the area. “There’s Paint Lick Mountain Range that has pictographs and is fairly well documented; the Peak and the local legend about the Peak, which is often literally painted, is that it’s drunken level high school graffiti. It’s kinda a nod to history and if you’re from here, you know where the “Painted Peak” is also,” he added with a laugh. “The tie-in of the Native American heritage of my family and the basic approach of ‘this is our tribe and we’re trying to fight for our tribe, as well as protect and take care of, and nurture our future’ and then the literal representation of the pictographs, the paintings - the other part of that was the craft beer boom.”
As with the story of the “Painted Peak” it would seem that, like most small towns in America, Tazewell isn’t short of local lore. That local lore comes full circle with their Yacht Club Kolsch. “The Yacht Club Kolsch which is named after the world-famous Frog Level Yacht Club” said Blankenship. He then asked me if I’d heard the story of the Frog Level Yacht Club and, when I admitted that I hadn’t, a gleam came over his eye and he leaned in to regale me with the following story: “So at the start of the Back of the Dragon on our side is a T intersection, and at one corner of that T intersection sat a convenience store called Frog Level Service Station. The Yacht Club is obviously in jest and sarcasm: there is neither water nor yachts at the Frog Level Yacht Club” (*he laughed a full blown laugh here, the sound of a true local getting the joke*). But the gentleman, T.E. “June” Bowling, who owned it had the last On & Off license that you could carry in the state of Virginia, it literally died with him several years ago. So, what would happen is, after work, everybody would go in there and buy their 6 packs and sit down and drink it around the bar. The story goes, maybe it’s real but probably a metaphor, the joke was that they’d be embroiled on a case at the courthouse, be it a civil or criminal case, and they’d be having a tough time navigating to an acceptable resolution. And, after work the two attorneys working on the case and the judge would all go down to the Frog Level Yacht Club and they’d have a few beers and they’d talk it out and hash everything out and then the next morning? They’d have resolution, everything would be fine! So when the gentleman passed away and the license went with him and they shut everything down, the local museum took possession of the store and they literally moved it from the T intersection to a couple of miles down the road to where their museum location is. So the Yacht Club Kolsch is our nod, our homage, our tip of the cap to the Frog Level Yacht Club that was there for so many years. It’s got a folklore following from way back, and it is even alleged that a Frog Level Yacht Club tee has been on all seven continents.”
While not every beer they brew has quite the story behind it, the 3 BBL brewhouse with 16 taps does boast eight flagship beers: Wig Splitter DIPA, Fog Stalker IPA, Copperhead Red (which Hale says is very close in style to a Red IPA), Cliff Tagger NEIPA, the infamous Yacht Club Kolsch, Windtalker Cream Ale, Warrior Stout, and their Spirit Horse Sour Ale which changes in variety and is currently a blackberry sour with a 5.5% ABV. They also rotate beers seasonally with their winter special beer being a Cocoa Curry Stout that is brewed with cocoa nibs, butternut squash, curry spices and more. They’ve also got a hard soda coming out in early November: “I’m Your Huckleberry” is a huckleberry soda with a Doc Holiday reference.
The duo has also been busy with Tap Takeovers, events, and festivals. Over the summer every First Friday of June, July, and August the town shut down main, live music, food, vendors and, of course, the breweries. “There’s also several Cruise-Ins on Main Street with gorgeous old muscle cars and old T models, 20’s & 30’s, it’ll blow your mind to walk down here on a cruise-in day” said Hale, a claim that seems likely given that Blankenship’s father even has a 1959 Chevrolet Panel Van that has been fully restored and is burnt orange with a Painted Peak logo on it. The Cruise-Ins draw a very diverse crowd with a mixture of all age groups - “there are young people, there are people in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s and everyone hangs out and has a good time and enjoys it all” said Blankenship with pride.
In addition to those events, the brewery and town just had their annual Tazewell OktoBrewFest, an event now in its 4th year and during which “they shut Main Street down and bring out beer tents.” The event, which draws a crowd of 3000 - 4000 people, is a fairly exceptional one for the in-the-bible-belt small town. “It is a date we set our calendar by” explained Blankeship noting that class reunions are held that weekend and people choose that weekend to come back to visit. “It is the crown jewel of our event season every year.” And, in case you missed OktoBrewFest, the brewery will be hosting its 2nd Anniversary Party in December. Official details haven’t been announced yet, but they hope to let people know everything soon.
The natural beauty of the area in general is truly worth the trip though too. Even as we spoke, Blankenship pointed out a couple of gentlemen who were sitting outside enjoying the day ... and the beer. “We have two gentlemen out front right now from Quebec. They’re French Canadians and this is the second year they’ve been here” he said. “They’re motorcycle enthusiasts riding country roads,” he explained when I asked what brought them here. “They’re looking for a way to get away from the rat race, find a place where the air smells clean, and the beer is cold. Back of the Dragon is a windy road between two small towns and it’s a great drive.” “Anybody that’s in to motorcycle riding or ATVs and side-by-sides,” chimed in Hale, “there’s Spirit trails and Hatfield & McCoy trails, they run through these mountain ranges all around us. For anyone who likes motorcycles - there’s gorgeous roads. I’ve ridden over a hundred thousand miles on two wheels and this is some of the prettiest riding I’ve ever seen from here to Northern California.”
The brewery also sits less than 10 miles from the Appalachian Trail which circles around the rim of a meteor strike from millions of years ago. The center of where the meteor struck is called Burke’s Garden and the area boasts a wonderful climate, beautiful scenery, is home to a glorious little farming community, and of course a little bit of lore. “The old wives tale is that it snowed 11 months out of the year in Burke’s Garden,” said Blankenship. “Then there are the Channels, which are part of the National Forest. The Channels are the top of a mountain range and when the ice cap melted over-how-many thousand of years ago, it carved out these tunnels on top of the mountain. So it is literally like tunnels that have had the tops cut out of them, and you can walk through these tunnels” he added.
With a true abundance of things to do surrounding them, whether it is for a hike on the AT, a motorcycle ride on windy mountain roads, or a Cruise-In on Main Street, Painted Peak Brewing, and even Tazewell as a whole, should be on your list of places to go.