By John Yevuta
At the turn of the 20th century, Wheeling, West Virginia was a brewing giant producing over 9 million gallons of beer annually. At one point there were over 20 breweries in The Friendly City serving nearly 150 taverns. Over in Huntington, the Fesenmeier Brewery survived fires and floods to lead the local industry brewing 9,000 gallons daily in post-prohibition Huntington. Prohibition had hit the national beer industry hard in 1912, pushing many brewers out of business, yet some of the strong survived. It may have taken a century, but a talented group of brewers and entrepreneurs have emerged to bring quality craft beer back to our state.
Craft Brewing in West Virginia is on a sharp upward trend with nearly a dozen brewers already up and running or in the process of setting up their facility today. These brewers show a real reverence for the cultural and regional history of the state, creating a variety of brews that take their cues from West Virginia’s favorite landmarks, pastimes and icons.
As brew culture continues to grow exponentially throughout the state, with new tap houses opening at a rapid pace, it can be a little daunting ogling the lineup at your favorite watering hole. We decided to feature the finest brewing companies operating in the state today and a few that are on the cusp of opening in the coming months. Also, make sure to check out our tasting notes on some of our favorite beers from our friends—everything from porters and ales to dubbels and bitters. Happy drinking friends!
Mountain State Brewing
Thomas and Morgantown, WV
While tramping around Europe in 2001, Brian Arnett found himself in Belgium where he stumbled upon a university curriculum titled Malting and Brewing Sciences. He was amazed that there was so much science in beer until he realized, “Science exists because of beer!” He called his father from the airport and told him he was pretty sure he wanted to make beer professionally.
Brian and his step-brother, Willie Lehmann, who just happened to be a master stone mason, started Mountain State Brewing in Thomas in 2005 with 20-year old brewing equipment and a lot of help from their friends.
One year into operation, Brian called his father and told him they’d sold their 50,000th pint. “Imagine the happiness,” was his dad’s reply. Today, Mountain State Brewing hosts and finances the Brew Skies Festival held midsummer in the Canaan Valley. One of the finest music events in the state had its beginning when co-brewer Mike Supak and Brian were working another music festival and Mike turned to Brian and said, ”Why don’t we have one of these?” Today, their brewery is the largest brewing facility in West Virginia and has expanded into Morgantown and Deep Creek, Maryland. Their popular draft beers, such as the Seneca IPA and Miner’s Daughter Oatmeal Stout can be found throughout the region and bottles are now available.
The North End Tavern
The North End Tavern first opened its doors in 1899 as a small neighborhood pub in Parkersburg’s historic North End. In 1997, owner Joe Roedersheimer had the vision to purchase brewing equipment from Charleston’s now defunct Cardinal Brewing and turned his business into a restaurant and brewery. Joe’s foresight continued when he hired Chris Hopkins to be the North End’s brewer. Chris was trained at the prestigious Seibel Institute and honed his craft working in California before he returned to his hometown. In addition to maintaining six house beers on tap, Chris has teamed with local businesses like Holl’s Chocolates to create a Chocolate Stout, collaborated with Dave Hawkins at Mother Earth Food to make a Health Nut Brown Ale and used honey from Thistledew Farm in Proctor for a Honey Brown Ale. He’s also maintained a hop garden outside the brewery, which ends up in his late autumn Harvest Ale. Joe’s son, Chip, handles sales, helps out in the kitchen, delivers beer to 25 accounts throughout the state and is the chief keg washer of the brewery. According to Chip, “Beer is best fresh and it doesn’t sit around here for long.”
Morgantown Brewing Company
At Morgantown Brewing Company, brewer Brian Anderson keeps ten beers on tap all the time and still finds time to offer a small batch brew every Friday to appreciative customers. Like a jazz musician riffing off a favorite tune, on occasion Brian has taken his standard Alpha Blonde and turned it into a Strawberry Blonde or a Nutty Blonde. With the help of assistant brewers Jesse Sedlock and Mike Vance, Morgantown Brewing is brewing around the clock. In their first year of new operations, the brewery won “ Best-of-Show” and took home two more golds at the Bramwell Beer Festival. Brian is ready and willing to take on the big boys as he’s taken his beers to the Rockies to participate in the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver.
Chestnut Brew Works
Bill Rittenour earned a Master’s Degree at WVU, followed his wife to Nebraska where they both earned Ph.D.’s—his in fungal biology—and, not content to spend his days at a desk job, elected to brew beer. “Brewing is the one place where you can meld art and science,” claims the Chestnut Brewing founder. To that end, he is constantly refining his beers and has developed his own version of a hopback, which allows him to extract more of the flavors and aromas from one of beer’s key ingredients, hops. All three of the company’s flagship brews— Halleck Pale Ale, Class II Wheatwater, and Nate’s Nut Brown Ale—took home medals at the 2013 Bramwell Oktoberfest.
Bridge Brew Works
At Bridge Brew Works near Fayetteville, co-brewer and fishing guide Nathan Herrold states, “We brew the kind of beers we like to drink”. He and co-owner Ken Linch must have as good taste as they have brewing skills because authoritative Beer Advocate magazine rated their Dubbel a world class beer. As Fayetteville is an extreme sports and nature mecca they have appropriately named some of their beers Derailleur Pale Ale, Black Diamond Lager and Peregrine Porter. The brewing duo has teamed with Moxxee Coffee in Charleston to make the wildly popular Moxxee Coffee Stout. This year’s version will feature beans from an award winning Bolivian farm that Moxxee will roast specifically for the stout. One of the most popular bottled beers of 2013 was Momma Rye IPA which is named in homage to Nate’s mom whose maiden name was Rye, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2010. Proceeds from this bottled beer help fight and bring awareness to ovarian cancer.
Blackwater Brewing Company
“My goal is to make world class beers with the kind of balance I found in my European travels,” says Lincoln Wilkins. After earning a Ph.D. in neuropharmacology and honing his brewing skills with Abita’s Kevin McMahon during a ten-year stint in New Orleans, he and his wife, Amanda, returned to Canaan Valley, where he has family roots going back to the 19th century. They purchased the Blackwater Brewing Company and have worked tirelessly to put their own stamp on the business. Sticking close to his goals Lincoln will usually have European styles such as his 3200’ Alt, Dunkel Weizen and an English Bitter for customers to enjoy. Sticking just as closely to his roots beer lovers can look forward to an Angus Macker Hardy County Stout and a Laurel Run IPA.
Lost River Brewing Company
“Take something and make it as difficult as possible,” is one of Adam Myers mottoes. To show he practices what he preaches, the owner/brewer at Lost River Brewing Company in Wardensville (population 256), Hardy County, contracts with a hop farmer in nearby Staunton, Virginia and, when they are ready, rushes them to his brewery so that his White IPA will have the freshness lost in processed hops. Or, consider his developmental Purple Nerple, a Belgian-style Dubbel in which Adam plans to add beets to the mash instead of the traditional beet sugar. Inventiveness continues in the kitchen where he has struck an agreement with a Rappahannock oyster man to provide fresh bivalves to his customers. He also goes the extra miles to procure fresh Chesapeake Bay seafood for his menu.
Charleston Brewing Company
Anne Saville is well known as the owner of Taylor Books in downtown Charleston and now she has put her energy into the Charleston Brewing Company. “I feel fantastic when I smell beer brewing downtown,” Saville told Paul Fallon of the Charleston Daily Mail. She didn’t scrimp when it came to purchasing equipment and the whole structure says state-of-the-art. Brewer Ryan Heastings has taken advantage of the top-notch facility and, in less than year, has provided Charlestonians with over 30 different beers. At the Quarrier Street establishment, if a beer lover can’t find their favorite style, there’s a good chance Ryan will soon have it on tap.
“You’re making beer for a living-any day I can do that is a pretty perfect day for me!” says Josh Clarke. Clarke will soon be the new brewer at Basement Brewery in Wheeling. CEO Chad Hill hired Clarke for his brewing skills and enthusiasm. Clarke’ motto: “Have a good time all the time and never have an empty glass.”
Big Timber Brewing
Our tenth commercial brewing establishment, Big Timber Brewing, will open in early 2014. Located at 1210 S. Davis Avenue in Elkins there will be an on-site taproom and distribution in Randolph and surrounding counties will follow. Head brewer/President Matt Kwasniewski will have a 15 bbl system with a 30 bbl cellar with which to operate.
Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company
America’s coolest small town, Lewisburg, will soon have another star added to its crown when the Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company opens in 2014. Owners Wil Laska and David Kucera have signed on Brian Reymiller to be head brewer; inked a lease for the brewing warehouse; selected a contractor; ordered equipment; and are working with West Virginia University in hopes of using West Virginia grown barley and hops for their beers.
“The Greenbrier Valley is a great location for a new brewery,” says Kucera. “The county has a very cool vibe and the valley in general is very cool, very down home. It’s a place with strong local feel, where people support local businesses. In these little communities we know each other by name and we trust in each other and often we help others succeed. It’s a lot like the craft brewing industry— friendly, artistic and always supportive of one another.”
ucera notes that while each brewery may employ just a handful of personnel, there is a huge effect further down the chain. Distributors, liquor stores, and restaurants have all jumped on board and many new festivals have popped up. While domestic beer sales continue to decline year after year, the craft industry grows double digits every year, 13 percent this year alone. West Virginia is a bit behind the curve in comparison with the rest of the country. The state passed a law in April 2009 increasing the legal alcohol percentage in West Virginia beer from 6 to 12 percent.
“That’s a few points lower than it should be in my opinion,” says Kucera. “However in doing so it has opened the door for craft beer, as most craft beer is above six percent. The state took a few years to respond but you could watch the growth in the stores and in the bars, and this year you see it in number of breweries. Almost a one hundred percent increase in breweries since the new law was passed. I’d say that makes it the largest growing industry in the state.”
Recently, the brewers came together to form the West Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, a move that Jen Runyon, of American Beer Company in Meadow Bluff, says is indicative of the industry’s rapid growth over the past few years.
“Craft brewers in West Virginia are a small group, but increasing in numbers,” says Runyon. “Our partners, Bridge Brew Works and Morgantown Brewing Company, are focused on brewing more beer to keep up with growing demand in the state. It’s an exciting time. Especially with more West Virginia beers becoming available in package and not just in draught. It really helps make the beer more accessible.”
All of the breweries mentioned here, and their partners, are all people who have devoted a good part of their lives to bring tasty, locally made beer to the masses. The day is certainly coming when, just like in Wheeling circa 1900, a fresh glass of beer is just around the corner.