by Charles McGuigan
It’s the yang, to Original Gravity’s yin, Final Gravity being the finished product, which is beer in its infinite varieties. OG and FG are housed under a single roof at Peter Francisco’s Lakeside Towne Center, one of Northside’s booming commercial strips located just a healthy stone’s throw away from Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
Richmond loves its craft beers. Nationally, per capita, the Richmond area has more micro-breweries than any other city in the country—about eighteen of them, at last count, in the greater metro area. And they all seem to be doing pretty well.
Tony Ammendolia, a careful businessman, saw that trend, and back in July of 2014 rented a space large enough to contain both a micro-brewery, and his established beer-brewing and wine-making shop. What’s more, the storefront was three buildings down from his first shop, Original Gravity. After extensive renovations (really more like a complete facelift, which included deep tissue surgery), on August 27, 2015, Tony poured his first beer for the public.
For Tony this is realizing a long-time dream. In his twenties he was bitten by the home-brewing bug. “Just about anyone who starts home brewing very quickly thinks this would be really cool to open a brewery,” Tony says. But starting a brewery is an expensive proposition, so Tony pursued other things.
“I was in the natural foods business for years,” he says. “I was at Ellwood Thompson’s for eleven years, and I worked my way up from a part-time, entry-level position cooking in the deli to when I left there as the director of operations for the company.” After that he moved out to Whole Foods where he was an “associate store team leader”, which means he was the assistant store manager.
“I’ve always been a foodie, even before I ever heard the word foodie,” says Tony. “When I was ten years old I told my parents I wanted to be a chef and thought I was going to be a chef until my early twenties when I thought I wanted to be a rock star.”
Tony and his wife Jessica Harris live in Woodland Heights and for years he kept a fairly extensive vegetable garden where he grew crops year-round. “For a little while I entertained the thought of becoming an organic farmer, doing market gardening” he says. “Over the last seventeen years it ranged anywhere from 100 square feet to 1200 square feet. You name it, I was growing it. This year is the first year I don’t have a garden. Now, I’m always brewing, so I don’t have time for that anymore.”
Almost from the moment that first keg was tapped, business boomed.
“There’s a little bit of a lunch crowd, and then usually around four o’clock people start coming in, and we get a much busier tasting room crowd at that point,” Tony says. “Fridays and Saturdays are our busiest days, and we do a decent business on Sunday. We’re already selling the beer as fast as we can make it, and sometimes faster than we can make it. ”
There are always twelve taps available, something to appeal to any palate, and a number of Tony’s creations have won awards.
“So, if you come in with a group of friends, we want everyone in the group to be able to find at least one beer that they can drink and enjoy,” he says, then begins talking about some of their more popular beers. “Let’s start off with our blond ale called Stepping Stone, it’s got a light crisp taste,” he says. “We have Fire Station 5, which is our gold-medal winning amber ale in the Virginia Craft Brewers cup. I’m very proud of that, and I’m also very proud that we won a total of four medals, and you could submit only five beers. We got another gold medal for Venus Rising, which is our double IPA, and we got a silver medal for our stout, which is called Irish Goodbye, and a bronze medal for The Message, which is another double IPA.” The Doppler Effect, another original recipe, won first place in the local RVA Blind IPA Challenge. ”We won not only first place by the judges, but also people’s choice,” says Tony. “I’m just going to brag here.”
There are many other beers to choose from, including a hoppy American red ale called Ruby Falls; a rotating hop IPA named Love TKO, after the Teddy Pendergrass song; a Belgian dark/strong called the Big Pay Back, coming in with a whopping nine percent alcohol content; and Pablo’s Goodbye, a variation of Irish Goodbye, flavored with chocolate, chili peppers and cinnamon.
Currently, the two-pronged business occupies some 5,000 square feet. Of that total, 3,330 square feet is devoted to the sales floor, the brewery, the grain room and the tasting room. The remaining 1,700 square feet is committed to storage. The finished beer is kept in a walk-in cooler back there, as well as yeast and hops, lots of bags of grain, and assorted backup stock for Original Gravity.
In the not-too-distant future, Tony hopes to expand the front of the house. “I would like to get a bigger brew house which would enable us to brew larger batches,” he says. “And I would like to expand our tasting room so that we could seat more people there. I mean, we’re at the point where we need this. This weekend we were really busy, and were running out of room.” Currently, the tasting room seats about fifty, and more on the patio when the weather cooperates. “Right now I’m working with Henrico County, figuring out how we can expand,” says Tony.
“We’re brewing sixty gallons at a time, two barrels in one brew,” says Tony. “Sometimes I brew two of those batches a day. We sell a lot growlers, and now crowlers. More of them than growlers because you don’t have to remember to bring a growler with you everywhere you go, or keep it clean. Crowlers are a dollar fifty for the can and then nine or ten bucks for the fill, and it’s a 32-ounce can.”
As business has increased, so, too, has staff. There’s Tony’s right-hand man, Sean Florin, who’s been with him since the beginning. And now Timmy Miller, Cezar, and a recent hire to tend to social media and event planning, Cheyenne Burnham.
Of course, Tony is always there, and on Friday and Saturday nights, his wife Jessica joins him behind the bar. ”We get to meet our customers face to face, get some feedback on the beer, which is helpful, that sort of thing,” Tony says. ”Lakeside is great. It’s nice and convenient, and we’re very close to 64 and 95. We definitely have our neighborhood, local regulars that come in several times a week, and we’re seeing a lot of new faces, particularly on the weekends.”
He makes his way over to the brewing room on this Monday afternoon, the one day each week Final Gravity is closed. “I look at what we started with five years ago and where we are now and I’m pretty happy about the progress we’ve made in that amount of time,” says Tony Ammendolia. “Wow, look how much has changed.”
11-7, Tues & Wed; Thurs, 11-9; Fri &Sat 10-9; Sun, 11-6
6118 Lakeside Avenue
Richmond, VA 23228