by Karl H. Kazaks
TROUTVILLE, VA — The location is a steel-framed building set in a clearing in a thicket of woods in rural Botetourt County, just outside of Roanoke — the perfect habitat for a brewery with a name like Flying Mouse.
“I grew up a big fan of comic books,” said Frank Moeller, Flying Mouse’s owner and brewmaster. When Moeller decided to take the plunge and turn a decades-long home-brewing hobby into a commercial business, he was determined to create a brewery that had at the center of its brand its very own comic book character, with unique story lines and imagery.
So Moeller huddled with his brother Chris, a graphic designer and the brewery’s Creative Director, and the two created the brewery’s mascot.
Bartleby Hopsworth (the name is a play off of barley and hops) is an inventive and adventuresome mouse. Driven by the experience of seeing a bat fly, and wanting to fly himself, Bartleby, with the help of some time travel, designs a device which allows him to take wing.
The comic is drawn with a steampunk style — an artistic school that fuses Victorian-era fashion and engineering with inventiveness and modern-day technological advances.
For example, the comic’s imagery includes details such as brass buckles, goggles and top hats. But also important — to steampunk and to Bartleby — is the emphasis on a forward-thinking mindset.
That ethic is found in one of the brewery’s mottos, “Celebrate the spirit of invention.”
After all, Bartleby was able to design and build his own wings.
The adventures of Bartleby are not yet fully written, but the Moeller brothers plan to write a graphic novel about the mouse and his adventures.
The history of Flying Mouse, too, is still being written, but this much is known so far: Moeller did take a home-brewing dream and turn it into a business complete with a 20-barrel brewhouse.
The brewery is located in a steel-frame building that formerly served as a precast concrete plant. The front part of the space is the taproom, with the brewery itself located further back.
“It has a nice open skeleton,” Moeller said. “It’s probably the only brewery with a 10-ton bridge crane.” Moeller used the crane, which can move up and down the central space of the building, to set the brewery’s tanks.
The space came with good infrastructure — connection to utilities and two wells. It also came with years of accumulated concrete dust.
“We went through several times blowing the whole thing clean with compressed air,” Moeller said. “Then we did the same thing with a power washer.”
Today the brewhouse has three 20-barrel fermenters and a 40-barrel fermenter (for double batches) from Specific Mechanical Systems.
“They’ve got a good reputation,” Moeller said. “They make good quality equipment at a good price.”
The day of Flying Mouse’s grand opening, in September of 2013, Moeller felt, he recalled, “terror, stress. Then again my wife could tell you that’s pretty much every day.”
Kidding aside, Moeller added, “It’s like anyone else trying to get ready for a big party.”
Customers must like the parties Moeller and his wife Debbie put on because the place has become a popular gathering spot.
There is live music most Saturdays, plus food from a food truck or caterers. They host regular special events like paint night, where patrons taste beer while working on a painting, as well as four main events each year: St. Patrick’s Day, a summer shrimp fest, Oktoberfest and a holiday sweets party (a dessert potluck).
Over time, Moeller has improved the location’s amenities, adding, for example, a fire pit outside, and creating an indoor party space in the back of the brewery. He has plans to turn an unused bay of the building into a dedicated party space, thanks to the demand the brewery has for private events.
“We’ve hosted class reunions, a retirement party, wedding receptions — even a wedding,” Moeller said.
For his regular customers, Moeller keeps things fresh coming up with new activities and by making new beers.
“We make pretty much session beers,” Moeller said, in describing Flying Mouse’s house style. “Beers that people drink by the gallon, not by the glass.”
In addition to selling retail from the taproom, the brewery beers are distributed in Virginia and West Virginia.
Moeller sees the future of craft beer wholesaling becoming like wine wholesaling, with sales people adept at talking about the distinct qualities of each craft beer.
Even though the brewery has a quiet country setting, it’s also located near a major thoroughfare.
“We get lots of out-of-town, out-of-state traffic,” Moeller said. “From Tennessee and Arkansas to Florida, Connecticut, New Jersey.”
He was describing traffic that comes off of nearby Interstate 81, but he could very well have described the foot traffic that comes to the brewery from the Appalachian Trail, which passes by just a half-mile from the brewery.
In choosing his packaging, Moeller says he has consciously “aligned with the outdoor lifestyle,” which works for the hikers on the AT. The packaged beer comes in cans, not bottles, and even the growlers are stainless steel or polymer, not glass.
Soon, this part of southwest Virginia will see two big additions to the brewing scene. Ballast Point and Deschutes are both building East Coast breweries just a few miles from Flying Mouse.
“We’ll be in the brewing epicenter,” Moeller said.
Prior to opening the brewery, Moeller was a mechanical engineer, working in building design for two decades. Being a full-time brewer still allows him to satisfy the engineer inside of him.
“The gadgets and moving parts have a lot of appeal to me,” he said.
But the new career has also allowed him to embrace the creativity inherent with brewing, catching inspiration for a new brew — or a new adventure for Bartleby Hopsworth.
It’s that spirit of adventure which binds the brewery to its customers. Even though the brewery is near a lot of things, it’s still a destination and something you have to decide to go to.
Once they get there, customers get to share the adventure of Frank Moeller’s life — expressed both through his beers and the still-evolving saga of Bartleby Hopsworth.
A flying mouse comes to life, in the glass and on the page
by Karl H. Kazaks