Every year for the past five years or so, I’ve made an annual trek down to Richmond, Virginia. It’s a relatively easy trip from New York City on Amtrak, and the city is laid back, artsy in a punky DIY way, not too crowded and boasts plenty of great food and drink. Every trip, I come back with a new favorite bakery, restaurant or brewery; this year it’s a nanobrewery called Final Gravity Brewing tucked inside a homebrew shop in a suburban strip mall.
I first heard whispers about this under-the-radar operation late last year from a couple of friends who live in Richmond. Last winter, while visiting my parents in rural Virginia, my friend Dave brought a Crowler of Final Gravity’s flagship Venus Rising double IPA to our annual Christmas party. Floral and fruity with a fuzzy orange hue, it was as good, if not better, than the other uber-hyped IPAs on the table that night. A few months later, I read PUNCH contributor Aaron Goldfarb’s story about New England IPAs and was pleasantly surprised to see Final Gravity near the top of list, again besting many of the country’s most hyped IPAs.
Tucked amid an antique dealer and baseball card shop in Richmond’s Lakeside neighborhood, the brewery is run by Tony Ammendolia, an affable, lean 47-year-old with tight curls of salt-and-pepper hair. Ammendolia had been a homebrewer since the early 1990s with an extensive background in food and beverage retail—first at Richmond’s local Ellwood Thompson’s natural foods market and then as a store manager for Whole Foods—who, in 2011, decided to branch out on his own and open one of Richmond’s only homebrew shops, Original Gravity.
“I would’ve opened a brewery when I first started out,” says Ammendolia, “but I didn’t want to get into massive debt. So a homebrew shop was something I could do realistically and utilize my retail skills.”
A year after opening the shop, the State of Virginia passed Senate Bill 604 which allowed breweries to sell their own beer on premise without having to run a full-service restaurant or brewpub—meaning, it would allow Original Gravity to open a brewery. So, in 2015, Ammendolia moved the shop from its original, 1,000-square-foot space, to a 5,000-square-foot shop a block north, and opened Final Gravity Brewing.
Near the back of the shop, behind several refrigerators housing hops and a selection of yeast cultures from the local RVA Yeast Labs, among others, is a small sectioned-off drywall room where Ammendolia brews four times a week.
His focus unquestionably is on hoppy styles. In addition to Venus Rising, Final Gravity typically has a rotating selection of other IPAs and double IPAs on offer, releasing a new one nearly every week, most with space-themed names like Sunspots, Apollo and Doppler Effect. Each is brewed to showcase a particular hop or combination of hops that Ammendolia finds pleasing. He says it’s a simple process: “I’ll pretty much just open bags of hops and smell ‘em, and if I think they smell good I’ll brew with them.”
With renowned breweries like The Veil, The Answer and Triple Crossing attracting national attention for their juicy, hazy IPAs, the Richmond beer scene has become nearly synonymous with the New England-style IPA. And despite its nanoscale production and under-the-radar status, Final Gravity ranks among the best the city has to offer.
“I think we all kind of evolved toward the New England style around the same time,” Ammendolia says. “I’m friends with Brandon [Tolbert] from The Answer and Jeremy [Wirtes] from Triple Crossing, and I’ve noticed their beers and our beers evolving that way over the last few years.”
Despite this overall trend, Ammendolia doesn’t necessarily want Final Gravity to be known solely as a NEIPA brewery, even if that outcome sometimes seems inevitable. After he collaborated with Triple Crossing on a hazy IPA last year, Ammendolia noticed a lot of new faces at the brewery, many of whom were checking in his beers on the social media beer app, Untappd. After ordering a pint of Final Gravity’s Doppler Effect—a lush, juicy double IPA that pours crystal clear, not hazy like most NEIPAs—one Untappd user commented, “Tastes OK but pours like a Bud Light.”
“It’s frustrating because there might be a beer that has these flavors they want but it isn’t hazy, so they automatically don’t like it,” Ammendolia says. “Just because it doesn’t have the look.”
Having homebrewed for more than 20 years, Ammendolia has worked with a broad range of styles, and is personally fond of ones like his Fire Station 5 Red Ale and Irish Goodbye Foreign/Export Stouts, which aren’t particularly en vogue with modern beer drinkers. He says he looks up to brewers like Matt Brynildson of Firestone Walker and Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River, both of whom excel at hoppy styles but are also acclaimed, particularly within the industry, for technically perfect blonde ales, pilsners and English-style ales.
“[Being known for brewing New England-style IPAs] is a funny place for me because while I do like that style, I also just like beer in general,” he says. “We make an amber ale that’s my go-to beer, and most people find it boring.”
Tasting through nearly all of Final Gravity’s 13 draft beers one afternoon earlier this month, the descriptors I kept coming back to over and over again were “clean”, “crisp”, and “refreshing.” In fact, not only is the range of styles Ammendolia brews impressive, so is his grasp of making imminently drinkable beers, regardless of style.
Near the end of my trip, I stopped in to see my friend Tom Sullivan at Ardent Craft Ales in the burgeoning Scott’s Addition neighborhood. Prior to going pro, Sullivan and Ammendolia were part of the same homebrew group, James River Homebrewers Club, which also included Tolbert and Wirtes, among many others. I asked Sullivan how Final Gravity fits into the city’s swelling beerscape.
“We used to go to Tony for supplies,” he told me. “My brewers would say, ‘Need anything from Original Gravity?’, and I’d ask them to pick up some hops or grain or whatever.” Now, when he hears that one of his employees is at Final Gravity, Sullivan’s first response is, “Just bring us some of Tony’s beer.”
Five Final Gravity Beers to Try
Final Gravity recently inked a deal with Richmond’s Reverie Distribution for limited local distribution. For now, though, due to high demand and low production, the beer is only available at the brewery itself. Eventually, Ammendolia will expand nextdoor and upgrade to a five-barrel brewhouse (he is currently in a two-barrel space). Most beers are available in Crowlers and growlers to-go.
Venus Rising | Double IPA | 8.1 percent ABV
Final Gravity’s flagship is a double IPA brewed with late-addition Citra and Mosaic hops—added near the end of the boil or after for loads of flavor and aroma but little bitterness—for a lush, citrusy bouquet. Style-wise, it lands somewhere between a West Coast and New England-style IPA.
Fast Machine | Hoppy Pilsner | 5.5 percent ABV
Hopped exclusively with American varieties, Ammendolia says a random encounter with Founders PC Pils inspired this pilsner recipe. “I wasn’t trying to make a clone of it necessarily, but it has the citrusy American hop profile that I like so much in IPAs.” Crisp and refreshing, the clean pilsner base provides a blank slate backdrop for the American hops.
The Doppler Effect | IPA | 7 percent ABV
This Mosaic-hopped IPA has a big fruity nose of tangerine and papaya. It’s medium-bodied and just shy of sweet with a distinct pine note on the finish. Despites its clear appearance, the beer is as juicy and soft as nearly any NEIPA I’ve tried.
Fire Station 5 | Red Ale | 6 percent ABV
Ammendolia’s personal go-to beer is this hoppy Red Ale named after the firehouse across Lakeside Avenue from the brewery. It’s hoppier than most traditional red or amber ales but like nearly all Final Gravity beers, it’s crisp, clean, and refreshing.
Irish Goodbye | Foreign Export Stout | 8.3 percent ABV
Despite the name, this dry, smooth stout isn’t actually an Irish Stout but rather a boozier style called Export Stout made with Virginia-grown and -malted barley and a touch of flaked oats for body. It has big roasty whiffs of espresso, licorice and bittersweet chocolate without the use of any added ingredients, a testament to Ammendolia’s technical prowess.