The man behind the perfect 100

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Eric McKay (left) and co-founder/brewmaster Patrick Murtaugh
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You don’t hear about a beer getting a 100 rating from Beer Advocate very often. As a matter of fact, you barely hear of it at all.

An acquaintance recently put me in touch with Eric McKay, whose Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, Virginia, earned the “world class” score in April 2012 with its Gingerbread Stout. Oh, and this acquaintance also slipped me a bomber of the precious liquid.

Surprisingly, Beer Advocate gave the review less than a year into the brewery’s founding.

“A year into brewing commercially, hundreds of people lined up on the morning of our Gingerbread Stout release to buy a couple bottles,” McKay wrote today in an email. “That really exceeded our wildest dreams.”

McKay went to college in North Carolina, but it was before the “Pop the Cap” initiative that pushed that state to allow there to be beers over 6 percent ABV. He didn’t really get that sensation of appreciating craft beers until 2001 while travelling to a sheep station called Hardywood Park in Australia.

After working for a craft beer wholesaler in New York City after college, he saw during that 2003-2009 period how beer culture transformed.

“During these years, I spent time visiting my brother, grandparents and in-laws in the southeast and witnessed a very early but explosive growth in demand for craft beer,” he wrote.

McKay’s employer purchased a craft beer wholesaler in Richmond, and once he moved there he knew it was the “perfect city” for starting his own brewery. He’d been planning the business for years with Patrick Murtaugh, the brewery’s co-founder and brewmaster, McKay said.

It was a magic combination of a forgiving cost of living, few breweries, high growth in craft beer sales, and an overall growing appreciation of homebrews and local food that gave him the push to build the business.

“What’s been most exciting for Patrick and me since starting the brewery has been the level to which our more unique, and perhaps risky offerings have been embraced locally,” he wrote. “Our greatest source of gratification is being able to create beers, from concept to recipe to brew day to a beer’s release, and have people enjoy them.”

The chances of being able to enjoy the Gingerbread Stout in Connecticut might not be as slim as one might fear, according to McKay, who is also a BJCP judge.

“We hope to keep introducing some fun and unique beers, and while we have our hands full distributing only in Richmond right now, it would be really exciting to have our beers available back home in Litchfield County one day,” the Connecticut native said. “That’s where we spent many years developing our brewing talent on our 5-gallon homebrew system, and where some of our best recipes originated.”

But back to this amazing imperial milk stout. Todd and Jason Allström’s review in Beer Advocate magazine was effusive to say the least. “Aroma and flavors are spot-on,” the piece said. “Tastes like freagin’ Christmas in a bottle, actually, with layer upon layer building on the palate with each sip. Hell, they even nailed the damn sugary frosting on the gingerbread man.”

I agree. The Gingerbread Stout has it all: it’s rich and sweet, with complexity that comes from its exotic ingredients. It’s got a punch at 9.2 percent ABV, but it doesn’t stall you out. We’re talking baby ginger, wildflower honey, Madagascar bourboon vanilla beans, and Vietnamese cinnamon. Oooh, doggie!

The team at Hardywood remain humbled. As Eric wrote on his blog just after the Beer Advocate rating, “Being part of the team at Hardywood that earned a perfect rating by BeerAdvocate is an experience I will forever cherish.”

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