“You know what?” says a woman at the back of the brewery. “The bathrooms are the best thing here!”
She doesn’t mean this as an insult. She’s just really excited about the bathrooms. And at Thin Brew Line, Hampton Roads’ only police-themed brewery, she is not alone in her enthusiasm.
“What’s funny is the number of times we see five big guys coming out of that bathroom,” the bartender says, gesturing to the silver-painted door on the left.
Behind that door, a set painter who works in movies has painted the entire wall facing the mirror as the backdrop to a criminal line-up. A movie poster from the Usual Suspects cues you in to the precise photo you’re expected to take in there: Five dudes, one selfie.
Most who drink at the brewery — which opened in February at the Oceana Crossing mini-mall in Virginia Beach — are a bit more accustomed to being on the other side of that line-up.
The brewer, Bobby Winn, is a retired Virginia beach police officer. And Thin Brew Line’s owner, Jay Gates, has a brother on the Virginia Beach force — Sergeant Michael Gates — who also retains a small minority stake in the brewery. And first responders have come out in force to ring in the new brewery.
Even on a dreary and rainy Sunday in March, the tasting room was almost full an hour after its noon opening.
For whatever reason, the police were mostly perched at the bar while the Navy sat at the tables. This isn’t a rule or anything; it’s just how it happened on a particular Sunday. But whatever the reputation of cop or Navy bars, the mood was pretty calm at 1 p.m. It was, in fact, too calm, according to one of the bar’s more gregarious regulars, who comes from a police family.
“I’m probably the most fun person here,” she says.
The sole screen was set to Chive TV — home to a never-ending viral stream of bikinis and bloopers — and underneath a flag for the Emergency Medical Services, four large men can’t stop laughing as a car crashes into a lake.
Flags are almost as numerous in the brewery as beer taps. There’s the flag for the EMS, another for the police, and another for fire rescue. The flags of the United States and Virginia hang opposite a massive, wood-hewn, blue-lives and red-lives matter flag devoted to fallen police and firefighters.
From the Virginia Beach helicopter patrol to the Newport News Pipes and Drum Corps — who pulled out their bagpipes for the pleasure of the assembled — seemingly every version of first responder has stopped by. Stainless steel cups hanging on a rack behind the bar proudly display the laser-etched badge numbers of officers and firefighters who’ve bought into the mug club, or the names of neighborhood beer fans who’ve done the same.
One mug, which the brewery keeps front and center, simply says “Chief.” A lieutenant in the force bought that one on behalf of retired Virginia Beach chief Jake Jacocks. And so whenever he wants, Chief Jacocks can come in for a pint of Hops-N-Robbers IPA or Badge Hunny blonde at $3 on Mug Club Mondays, or at a dollar discount any other day of the week.
The beer is pretty old-school so far, with no trendy New England hazies or puckerworthy sours in the opening line-up. Among them, the most solidly built were the Scottish red ale and the Hops-N-Robbers IPA. The former is built on a sturdy malt backbone, while the latter sports the pine-grapefruit aromatics of Centennial hops.
A portion of the beers’ proceeds go to charities signaled by the beers’ names. The Fire Engine Red benefits charities supported by local fire stations, while the K-9 goes to help retired police dogs — a canine focus that will continue in the warm months, when the brewery adds a gated dog park to its patio.
Visitors to the brewery tend to leave evidence behind of their visits. Gates has installed a corkboard on one wall to house the department patches of officers and firefighters who make their way into the bar.
It’s already almost full.
“If that’s from our first month,” Gates says, “in a year this whole wall is going to be just patches. We’ll just let them spread out on the wall and wrap around the flag.”
Police and fire patches have already filtered into the brewery from as far away as Vegas, Tampa, San Francisco and Boston.
“One guy came in and his daughter just graduated from the academy in Detroit,” Gates remembers. “I said, ‘She’s just like Robocop! Detroit Metropolitan Police!’”
Gates is an actor by trade — he played a mall reporter on “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon,” and a CIA aide on Showtime series “Homeland” — and so maybe a lot of things remind him of movies.
Judging from the decor, he also has actor’s sense of showmanship. This would account for the century-old jail-cell door from the former Sing Sing prison that leans against one wall. A sign entreats visitors not to touch the door, because “the rust is real.”
And then, of course, there’s the bathroom on the right.
That one is a replica of the prison cell inhabited by wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
The cell has been faithfully recreated down to its prison cot, the racy posters of Raquel Welch and Rita Hayworth, and a bible opened to Dufresne’s favorite verse: “Watch therefore, for ye know now when the master of the house cometh.”
Gates says the Bible didn’t used to be open to the right page, but a customer came back and corrected him.
And while the pristine white of the Usual Suspects room is carefully maintained, Gates doesn’t mind as much if a stray paper towel is left on the floor of the Shawshank room.
“Nobody will get mad,” says Gates. “It’s a jail cell. It adds to the authenticity.”
Matthew Korfhage, 757-446-2318, email@example.com
Contact: thinbrewline.com, 757-937-8613
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