This feature on Old Ox Brewery is part the #LoudounPossible Success Story series compiled in celebration of Loudoun Small Business Week 2022. For more information on the week’s festivities, plus other engaging stories of sustainable business growth, please visit LoudounSmallBiz.org.
A David and Goliath Lesson
While located a short drive away, Old Ox Brewery takes its name from Old Ox Road, which was once a humble cart path in Loudoun County, named in the early 1700s.
Three hundred years of history did not stop a globally-recognized energy drink from objecting to the name “Old Ox” when the brewery filed for trademarks in 2014. Their objection: “An ‘ox’ and a ‘bull’ both fall within the same class of ‘bovine’ animals and are virtually indistinguishable to most consumers.”
At a time when Old Ox was trying to launch as a craft beer startup, this Goliath brand served the brewery with a list of demands, months of delays and a threat of chilling litigation.
Chris and Graham Burns, owners of Old Ox, finally had enough and posted their response letter on social media. It was picked up by the Washington Post and the Associated Press, making bovine bullying a national story.
More importantly, it became a sensation with Loudoun County craft beer drinkers.
“The community has been incredibly supportive of our small business,” Chris said, looking back. “Our social media post went viral and on a cold February night in 2015, the business community and many residents of Loudoun County turned out to show their support. Customers waited in the cold when the line to get in extended around the corner.”
The beer was worth the wait, and what followed was a grassroots pressure campaign, getting Goliath to back off.
An Origin Story Years in the Making
At the time, craft breweries were still a novel concept in Northern Virginia, and there was a vacuum in the market after Old Dominion Brewing was purchased by Anheuser-Busch and decamped to Delaware.
Graham was a graphic artist in those days and his son, Chris, was a project manager for a government contractor, who liked to brew beer in his garage. Together, they have a few critical skills for starting a brewery. So, on Memorial Day 2012, they jumped in the car and drove to Flying Fish Brewery in New Jersey to buy their old equipment on the spot.
“The acquisition of a 30-barrel brewhouse and the 60-barrel fermenters determined our future. We weren’t going to be a microbrewery—we were going to immediately be able to distribute,” Chris explained. “It took us almost two years from the time we bought the equipment until we found the right space.”
The right space was about more than just four walls, a floor and roof. It was about the business environment they were entering and the community they served.
“We selected Loudoun County because the local government had a deep understanding of the alcoholic beverage business, because of its experience with wineries,” Chris explained. “On the eastern side, a thriving community of businesses, especially data centers. Yet just a 30-minute drive away is the Middleburg Viticultural Area—bucolic space with wineries, horse farms and agricultural producers.
“It’s also important to understand and appreciate the diversity that is Loudoun County. This county is made up of interesting people and offers a wide range of opportunities.”
In June 2014, the doors to Old Ox Brewery opened near the junction of the W&OD Trail and Data Center Alley, and with it, came a promise.
“The Burns family set out to build a business that does more than produce an excellent product,” Chris explained. “We strive to strengthen our community, give back to meaningful local causes, foster the success of fellow local businesses, and create space where friends and family can gather and connect with one another.
“Beer is our product. Building community is our business. Together with our customers, we can make a difference.”
For the last eight years, they’ve done just that, and even expanded into wine country in 2019, opening a taproom in downtown Middleburg.
Looking toward the future, Old Ox recently announced a merger with Silver Branch Brewing Company of Silver Spring, Md. While both breweries will retain their brand identities under the new company, they bring certain complementary skills to the table.
“Old Ox Brewery is a production-focused brewery, a distribution-focused brewery, and Silver Branch is a tasting room-focused brewery. And while Old Ox is known for more American-style beers, Silver Branch is known for more continental European-style beers,” Chris said. “We think it’s really important that while we have similar philosophies on the brewing world, we execute kind of distinctly.”
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