When Capstan Bar Brewing Company arrived to Hampton in February, its grand opening not only furthered the growing popularity of Virginia beers, but marked the revival of Jonathan Connolly’s beer-making dreams. The Capstan co-founder and brewmaster has long awaited his return to the craft beer industry and has since encouraged his brother and fellow co-founder, Adam Connolly, to join him.
During the late 1990s, Jonathan studied brewing at the Sibel Institute of Technology in Chicago and interned at the windy city’s famed Goose Island Brewery. He then ventured to Northern Virginia to work in two Alexandria- and Arlington-based breweries before jetting off to Fresno, Calif.
It was on the west coast that Jonathan refined his beer-making skills while working at an up-and-coming brewpub. As the pub’s head brewer, he was responsible for crafting a variety of high-quality beers that rivaled the larger, more corporate-based breweries. His talents proved successful when he beat Sam Adams and won gold at the Great American Beer Festival of 2000 with the light beer he served at the Fresno brewpub.
Despite his enormous win, craft beer struggled to gain recognition. “Back then, the craft beer industry was dismal,” remembers Jonathan.
Refusing to sink with the industry, Jonathan went back to college and accepted a job as a federal archeologist, a position he would hold for nearly 20 years. The government job landed him in Hampton in 2009 at the Colonial National Historical Park.
As work slowed with the government shutdown in 2013, he began to take note of Coastal Virginia’s rising craft beer scene. He then began volunteering at local breweries to refresh his skills and determine whether he was capable of handling the physical and time-consuming tasks brewing demanded.
“We made great beer back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, but people didn’t want it,” explains Jonathan. “I thought, I can’t miss the next of enthusiasm for craft beer, so that’s when the seed for Capstan Bar Brewing was planted.”
Jonathan left the national park service in 2016 and began working full time on the brewery. He recruited Adam as the taproom manager and even hired his mother as company president.
Today, Capstan Bar Brewing Company pours select ales, IPAs and porters handcrafted by Jonathan, and has become an integral part of Hampton’s craft beverage scene. The brewery operates on a seven barrel system and drafts taproom staples along with rotating seasonal releases.
Coming soon to the Capstan tap list are a plethora of unique selections including an oatmeal stout and peach cinnamon wheat ale inspired by the Connollys' grandmother’s peach pie. He describes the spiced ale as having subtle hints of peach and cinnamon to mimic the pie’s filling while the wheat embodies the flavor of a flaky crust.
Jonathan also has plans to place the seasonal oatmeal stout on a randall, a device that infuses beer with flavor as it is poured through the draft system. Cinnamon sticks, coco nibs and other flavorful additions will infuse the porter to elicit the savors of Mexican hot chocolate.
As the brewery continues to expand, so do Jonathan’s beer-making methods. Capstan recently invested in firkins which he will use to produce cask-conditioned ales. These brews will be served at cellar temperature in Capstan’s signature 20-ounce imperial pint glass and will offer a smooth and silky mouthfeel. Among Jonathan's first batch of cask beers are the Vanilla Chocolate Oatmeal Stout and Coconut Oatmeal Stout brewed with organic, unsweetened coconut.
In addition to their exceptional beers, Capstan hosts a slew of weekly and monthly events including trivia, yoga, live music and open mic nights. The brewery has also partnered with Bubba-N-Franks Smokehouse BBQ to deliver savory appetizers and smoky plates to brewery patrons.
“It’s just a whole different world [now] and I’m glad to be back,” says Jonathan.
Capstan Bar Brewing Company is located at 2036 Exploration Way, Hampton, and is open select hours Wednesday through Sunday.