Mountain Valley Brewing in Axton is celebrating its fifth anniversary on Saturday with a party that includes music, a food truck, a cigar tent and even Vikings wandering the grounds.
The celebration is quite the feat for Herb Atwell and Peggy Donivan, the husband and wife team who own the brewery, which is situated on a picturesque 10-acre property on Mountain Valley Road. The pair never dreamed of opening their own brewery. In fact, Atwell said he wasn’t much of a beer drinker until he met Donivan, who enjoyed home brewing.
“She got me into it,” Atwell said, sitting on the deck of Mountain Valley’s brew barn. Behind him, a hops field was visible across the yard, towering poles holding up strings to allow the plants to climb upward toward the sunlight. To his right, the rolling fields of a 400+-acre farm dip into the brewery’s namesake valley, eventually giving way to the mountains in the distance.
The couple’s journey to becoming brewery owners was indirect, but a series of fortuitous events pushed them farther and farther down the path until, finally, the dream that never was became a reality.
Atwell, an electrician by trade, and Donivan purchased the Axton property when they moved to the area from Richmond after accepting a job at Eastman. They soon began growing hops on their property but even that wasn’t something they every thought they’d do.
“When we moved down here,” Atwell explained, “Hardywood (a Richmond-based brewery) had been open about a year and was doing a promotion for home brewers, giving out hop rhizomes (a plant stem capable of producing new roots and, ultimately, an entire new plant.) All of our friends that we’d moved away from thought, ‘oh, Herb and Peggy bought 10 acres. Let’s take them hops!’”
“The first year, we just stuck them in the back of the barn” just to see if they would grow, Donivan recalled. They did.
“We had this great idea that we were going to raise hops and sell them to the breweries,” Atwell said. They planted a quarter acre, bringing in telephone poles from North Carolina to help string up the growing plants. And thus, Mountain Valley Hops was born.
“Two Witches (a brewery in Danville) bought our hops for the first two years,” Atwell recalled, “but it’s a hard sell for dried hops. Most breweries want them processed and pelletized.”
Mountain Valley Red IPA was the first beer Two Witches brewed with Mountain Valley’s hops, Donivan said. Seeing their name on the beer gave them a feeling the two couldn’t shake.
“When we started growing hops here,” Donivan said, “people were interested in seeing the hop farm.” On their tours, visitors often asked if the pair had any beers on draft or something they could buy. For several years, the answer was always, “no.”
Finally, after two years of growing hops for other breweries, Atwell and Donivan decided, “we can do this,” Donivan said.
“Let’s just see if it works,” Atwell added. “If it works, well, look where we are today. But if it hadn’t worked, we would have just had a little room up there,” he gestured toward the space now known as the tasting room, which served as the brewery’s original bar and seating area. “We would have had birthday parties, we would have had friends over for darts and food.”
To further convince them, Donivan said Ethan Brown, co-owner of Two Witches, showed the two a map to illustrate the broad area that, at the time, had no craft brewery nearby. “The whole southern region was pretty empty,” she said.
“We thought we would just give it a try,” Atwell said. “We got a kegerator and three taps. That’s how we started.”
“But that’s not how we opened,” Donivan said.
On Mountain Valley Brewing’s first day, more than 60 people visited the 15×15-foot tasting room space, sipping beer from five different taps, getting their first samples of beers that have become menu staples, with names that reflect the idyllic property on which the brewery is situated including Vulture Roost and Fireflies in the Valley.
Just as a well-tended hop plant grows steadily, organically, so too did Mountain Valley Brewing grow.
“The first year, we were packed in that first little building, so we added a porch,” Atwell said.
Eventually, they tore down the old white barn that helped house those initial hops and put up a pole barn in its place to help protect patrons from rain and sun. Eventually, the pole barn was enclosed to create the brew barn, which is now the main hub of activity for the brewery.
A deck was added later and, not long after, a tin roof covered the deck. Then came new picnic tables and landscaping, followed by an improved deck railing complete with a bar upon which patrons could sit their mugs (for members of the Mug Club) or pint glasses. The latest improvement is a custom-built plastic wall, which encloses the deck without obscuring the iconic viewshed that is central to the brewery’s identity.
Most of the work was done by Atwell and Mountain Valley’s brew master, Karl Herzberg, with some regular patrons, friends, and volunteers pitching in along the way.
Just as the community supported them, Donivan and Atwell want to support the community as well. That desire led to one of the brewery’s most recent additions, the Giving Tap. Each month, a different nonprofit will be selected to receive a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of the brew poured from the giving tap for the month.
This month, the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) is the nonprofit of choice, and Donivan said there are enough requests to fill the slate through October.
“We feel like we’re part of this community, and without the people around here, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Donivan said. “It’s just being a good local business.”
Atwell added that the tap also helps increase awareness of the nonprofit being supported for the month.
“Any time you share with the community and the community shares back, it’s a win/win for everybody,” he said.
Cheers to five years!
To celebrate their brewery’s five-year anniversary, Donivan and Atwell have planned a day full of music, food, and—you guessed it—beer on Saturday, May 21.
Clay Page kicks off the musical lineup at 1 p.m., traveling from Georgia specifically for the event, while local favorites Anna LaPrad and Jake Earles take the stage at 4 p.m. The Jesse Ray Carter Band will close out the night, going on at 7 p.m.
Donivan said there will be door prize drawings throughout the day and night, as well as a 50/50 raffle for DRBA.
Sticky Rice, a food truck, will be on hand serving up sushi and Thai food, and Rocko’s Cigars will also be on hand beginning at 6 p.m. The Vikings of the Valley will also be on the grounds, adding their particular brand of entertainment to the day’s festivities.
A number of special beers and hard seltzers will be released specially for the event, including Cherry Smash (a cherry wheat beer), a raspberry gose, Hammock Daze (a double IPA with fresh mango and pineapple) and Fireflies in the Valley will be making its return to the taps. Donivan said there will also be wine, hard ciders, and champagne while supplies last.
There is an $8 cover for the celebration, but those who are willing to pay $12 receive a special anniversary glass.
Mountain Valley comes to Martinsville
With the Axton operation going strong, Donivan and Atwell have set their sights on other endeavors – namely, opening up an entirely new operation in Uptown Martinsville.
The couple purchased a building on Franklin Street, just across from the former Henry County Courthouse, where they plan to open up a brew pub in early 2023.
Donivan cautioned that the new operation will not be Mountain Valley 2, though “we will share resources” between the two, including the talents of the brew master.
“It’s time for Martinsville to have a brewery,” Donivan said. “And not just a brewery, but a brew pub,” complete with a kitchen.
“It will be a social place to gather,” Atwell added. “A place that people want to come.”
The plan is to grow the new brew pub just as with Mountain Valley Brewing—incrementally, but steadily.
“We’re going to try to follow the same model we started here,” he said, “starting small, growing on your reputation and your product and your customers. As the base grows and your needs grow, we’ll try to fulfill those needs.”
Just because a new uptown operation is in the works doesn’t mean the couple are done building Mountain Valley. Though they never dreamed of owning the brewery, now that it’s here, it seems they can’t stop dreaming about what comes next. They are already contemplating ideas for the next brewery expansion.
“Who knows where it’ll go,” Atwell said with a smile.