Just went to a friends party at the Shenandoah Brewery in Alexandria, VA and I thought I would share my experience.
Shenandoah Brewery (SB) is located on Pickett road right across from Joe Ragan's office furniture (why did I notice this) and next to a pretty nice Latino cafe/bistro (get the empanadas but skip the coffee - apparently no one knows how to work the espresso machine).
Welcome to Shenandoah Brewing
The brewery is housed in a row of buildings that used to be either warehouses or some sort of distribution center, lots of loading ramps and bumper guards. The building is divided into to thirds with a bar near the entrance, the 10 or so brew kettles to the right, and a storage space/bottling area in the back.
The bar was nicely stocked with some of their brews to sample and normal bar food (AVOID the chili - tasty but I still feel like the Hindenburg 8 hours later). The actual brew system is VERY nice: steam kettles (enough for a 10 gallon batch -maybe more) with vacuum lines, plenty of work space (not that you really need it), and some large fermentation rooms in the back (frustrating to lager in VA during summer).
Shenandoah offers a pretty broad selection of beers to brew, including a number of belgians, some nice IPA's, and plenty of lagers. The selection process today was pretty easy since we were lucky enough to be brewing two recipes, so we went with a pilsner and a marzen (why not lager when you don't have to worry about it?). The staff, while VERY busy, were nice enough to explain each beer and give their own two-cents (again while pouring and serving the 30-40 people brewing today).
After selecting our brew the staff led us back to the bottling area to gather the ingredients for the pilsner and marzen. Understandably it is tough to get 10+ people engaged in a single brew, but the staff did a great job of explaining exactly how grain + extract + hops = good. Here is perhaps my one gripe with Shanendoah's on site brewing - they use extract.
I have brewed both AG and extract and, recently, I have saved the extract brewing for when I'm either A) pressed for time; B) lazy; or C) lazy and pressed for time. AG just tends to taste better, again this is just one man's opinion (and I have brewed some awesome extract beers), but it seems to be one shared by many. Understandably, the logistics of brewing 7-10 different AG batches is certainly daunting, if not impossible, but nothing is stopping them from using a common wort. Also, I wasn't too jazzed about using corn syrup in place of LME, I've never liked the taste too much when it is over 15% or so (it was 2.5lbs out of 10)
The great part about brewing at SB was that you don't have to clean, sanitize, lug, carry, finagle, toss, stir, or aerate ANYTHING -absofreakingloutely nothing -awesome. All you have to do is open the lid, add extract, add hops, wait, add more hops, get drunk - which, again, is awesome. Coming from 6-7 hour AG marathon sessions where it gets up to 90 degrees in my kitchen and my cat keeps threatening to take a dip in my freshly chilled wort, SB was a nice break.
When it came to pitching the yeast I was a little disheartened to see the Nottingham pack come out for both brews. Again, I have nothing against dry yeast and keep a bunch of Safale in my fridge for my APA's and IPA's, but for the amount of money you are paying for brewing at SB you should get a little more customization.
While we haven't bottled yet, the setup looks pretty straightforward. C02 lines to single bottle fillers, apparently they filter out the yeast at some point?
SB is a great introduction to home brewing, albeit somewhat stripped of its more refined qualities (AG, yeast, cats). I'm curious to hear what others think of brew on premises setups - they are pretty rare on the East Coast from what I can tell. While I won't be going back to SB ($), it is definitely worth a look for those thinking about getting into brewing or trying to convince others to!