Tables, an expansive bar, and wooden wall adornments, all handmade, recycled, and made of wood from the Shore of Virginia. Tap handles depicting the Cape Charles lighthouse. Aerial photography of some of the Virginia Shore’s most picturesque locations (taken at golden hour by local photographer Gordon Campbell, no less). Mainstay beers named after Virginia’s barrier islands: Cobb Island IPA, Assateague Island New England IPA, Smith Island Stout.
The inside of Cape Charles Brewing is a tribute to its namesake and the small seaside town on which it resides, Cape Charles, Virginia. Born out of a homebrewer’s dream, its owners aren’t native to Cape Charles, but they do now call the Cape their home after vacationing on it for decades.
Mark Marshall owns the brewery with brother, Chris Marshall, and their mother, Deborah Marshall. In their past lives, Chris and Deborah owned a cookie dough business on Cape Charles’ Mason Street; Mark recently retired after 32 years in law enforcement, serving as the Police Chief in Smithfield and then the Sheriff in Isle of Wight County.
With two years between the brewery’s inception and its opening day, Cape Charles Brewing opened last June to much fanfare and enthusiasm within the town. The family had scouted other locations on the Shore, but really wanted to operate their business in Cape Charles. Said Mark, despite his family’s successful venture in the cookie dough business, “There’s nothing cookie-cutter about Cape Charles.”
“With the community itself, there’s a tipping point,” he said. “There’s a reason that so many new businesses are coming here over the last year, year and a half. You can just feel it. You can feel the vibe.”
The Eastern Shore of Virginia was one of the first regions to be colonized in North America. From its early 17th century discovery to today, it has been a rural sliver of land scattered with small towns surviving off of agriculture and seafood-based economies.
In the late 19th century, when the Shore’s railroad was extended from its former end in Pocomoke, Maryland, and introduced to the southernmost end of the Delmarva peninsula, the town of Cape Charles was planned to further railroad interests. That was in 1884. Ferries, steamships, and freighters bridged the gap between Cape Charles and Norfolk. The town’s peak period of development was in the early 1900s, and its growth continued well into the 1950s.
In 1958, the last passenger train left Cape Charles, and in 1963, the last ferry. The railroad industry saw a sharp decline everywhere after World War II. Truck shipping replaced other means of transporting goods, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened to connect Cape Charles to Virginia Beach and the rest of Virginia’s mainland in 1964.
Somewhere between the departing of the last passenger train and the construction of the Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Cape Charles experienced a swift economic downturn followed by a steady decline that lasted decades. Agriculture and commercial fishing and clamming have remained major industries on the Shore, but alone could not replace the economic bolster of the railroad.
Tourism, however, could.
“The Eastern Shore is kind of like this undiscovered jewel here in Virginia and Maryland. It’s just a beautiful, pristine, eco-tourism friendly place,” Mark said. “It’s kind of like the last unspoiled wilderness.”
Virginia’s Shore remains an undiscovered jewel to many, but its beaches, historic downtowns, and certainly its unspoiled wilderness have attracted more and more visitors from the other side of the bay in recent years. After enduring decades of economic slump, Cape Charles businesses have seen growth and even prosperity in the last few years (population, household income, and employment are similarly on the up and up).
Cape Charles Brewing sits right in front of the old Bay Railroad (which is still in operation, though not anywhere near the scale of its peak), and the property itself was once a store called the “Reliable Hardware and Lumber Yard.” The business served the town for years but was all but abandoned before the Marshalls resurrected it, “like a phoenix rising again,” which is how Mark described the town’s current position in history.
When the brewery first opened its doors in June, it wasn’t the only new business in town. The following month, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam cut the ribbon for Cape Charles Brewing and 13 additional businesses that had recently opened in Cape Charles. Northam commended Cape Charles Mayor Smitty Dize during the ceremony, remarked on how great it was to see the Shore of Virginia thriving, and said that the effort “drives our economy in Virginia; it drives tourism in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
“You’ve got to remember the history of Cape Charles, that this was a thriving, amazing community that was built around the railroad,” Mark said. “When the Chesapeake Bay Bridge [Tunnel] came in, the economy went down. But obviously, it’s coming back. There’s a renaissance going on here in Cape Charles.”
Although they’d originally planned to open in June of 2017, it took the team an extra year to fully realize the project — a big one, with a taproom, a 15-barrel production system, and a kitchen — and get it off the ground. But business has been booming since summer, and they intend to stay open seven days a week, all season long.
More beer is produced for distribution than for taproom sales, but that only speaks to how much beer is distributed, since there are at least 15 beers on tap at any given time. Some of the regionally-named brews, aside from the mainstays, include Capetoberfest (the seasonal beer, naturally), Seaside Sour, and Fisherman’s Island DIPA (a favorite among the staff). Then there’s the Heffin’ Fairytale Hefeweizen.
It was Father’s Day weekend of 2016 when Mark and his daughter first toyed with the idea of opening a brewery. She’d just had a baby and was wondering what the next chapter of her life would hold, while he was coming up on the tail end of his career in law enforcement.
“We had a couple of beers and the idea, hey, why don’t we start a brewery in Cape Charles?” Mark recalled. “So she calls my son-in-law, who actually built most of what you see here, and he was doing construction down in Nags Head. He’d been working that weekend. She calls him and tells him, “Mom and dad are going to open a brewery,” and his reply was, “Yeah, that’s nice, but I don’t have time for an [effin’] fairytale.”
Heffin’ Fairytale was named in the son-in-law’s honor, and as a reminder that fairytales aren’t always so far from reality.