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Breweries Abound

The number of craft breweries in West Virginia has doubled in the last five years and more than a half dozen are in the planning stages, which means the state will be closing in on nearly three dozen beer makers.

Currently, there are 28 breweries in the state, up from 11 in 2014. For a state of 1.8 million people, that sounds like a lot, but it’s not, said Charles Bockway, the publisher of Brilliant Stream, a Charleston-based web site that covers craft beer and other beverages from a West Virginia perspective.

“West Virginia adults drink a lot of beer annually per capita — more than adults in any of our surrounding states,” Bockway said in an email. “But West Virginia breweries produce less beer per capita adult than any state in the nation. Those numbers show that West Virginia breweries have a huge upside just to get up to anywhere near the national average.”

 Statistics from the Brewers Association, a Colorado trade association for small and independent craft breweries, said the state ranks 39th in the number of breweries — based on last year’s numbers — and produced 18,951 barrels for an economic impact of $286 million.  It also has 1.9 breweries per capita, or 100,000 people.

Perhaps the most telling statistic that shows there is room for more breweries is 0.4 gallons of beer is produced at West Virginia breweries, ranking the state dead last.

“The hottest category of beer in the past few years is (what) small breweries sold through their own taprooms,” Bockway said. “That would include both their draft and packaged beer. The small brewery with a taproom model is exactly what we have in West Virginia. We don’t have any bigger breweries. These smaller breweries as a category are still growing rapidly.”

The country’s most-populated state, California, has 841 breweries. Colorado was second with 396 and Washington was third with 394, the Brewers Association said. The states with the least breweries were North Dakota, 49th with 16; Mississippi, 50th with 15, and The District of Columbia, 51st with 13.

Seventeen of West Virginia’s 55 counties have at least one brewery, with Jefferson County in the Eastern Panhandle leading the way with three. Monongalia County has two breweries, as does Preston and Marion counties. More breweries are planned for Monongalia (304 Brewing Co.), Kanawha, Cabell and Harrison counties to name a few, according to Brilliant Stream.

“West Virginia breweries are doing very well,” Bockway said. “Just look at the ones who have made major new investments over the past year or so. Places like Big Timber, Greenbrier Valley, Screech Owl, Berkeley Springs, Brew Keepers. We are seeing expanded distribution of West Virginia beers in both bars and retailers. And we still have a lot of room for growth there.”

Bartender Miki Wright pours a beer from the Screech Owl Tap at LakeHouse resturant, at the Sunset Beach Marina.

The Asheville, N.C. Beer Boom

This town of 90,000 in Western North Carolina has long been recognized as a craft beer mecca and as one of the country’s top beer cities drawing thousands of tourists each year to its 30-plus breweries. And if you count Asheville’s home county of Buncombe, the total jumps to nearly 70, which makes West Virginia look small by comparison.

With those numbers, you would think the Asheville area beer market has become too big. Wrong, said Anne Fitten Glenn, an Asheville-based beer writer and beer historian. She credits the city and county beer success to the location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Pisgah National Forest, a large community of 30-somethings and an abundance of water sources.

“Most of the breweries are small,” Glenn said. “It’s exciting to have downtown breweries.

“There are a lot of pharmacies and Mexican restaurants. Do we have too many of those?”

In downtown Asheville, there are nine  breweries in a five-to-six block area. Rather than compete with each other, they co-exist peacefully,  all offering a different beer experience.

“They get the spin off from each other,” she said.

Glenn said it is also easier to start a brewery than it was a decade ago. Less equipment is needed and brewing can be done in the back of a restaurant.

“Very few breweries here have gone out of business, but some have changed hands,” she said. “The biggest problem is under capitalization. Also, people don’t realize how much physical labor is involved.”

So what’s next?

Both Bockway and Glenn said craft breweries survive because people tend to drink locally and support local establishments. The fact Pittsburgh is just a little more than an hour from Morgantown  by car has no impact.

“People primarily drink beer in their local market, in their home towns,” Bockway said. “It doesn’t matter that much what breweries are doing in Pittsburgh or D.C. And since we get none of the beers from the best Pittsburgh- and D.C.-area breweries here in West Virginia, it really is a non-factor. Sure, folks may make an occasional trip to the bigger cities and drink beer while they are there, but most of the beer they drink will still be purchased in Morgantown.”

Bockway said the breweries in the state are doing well. Plus, a number of breweries  made large capital investments to upgrade and expand their facilities and beef up distribution such as Screech Owl Brewing in Bruceton Mills.

Roger Johnson, owner of Screech Owl, said the local beer business is extremely competitive, hence his investment in a new brewing system.

“We are very happy with our market share at this time,” said Johnson, who called the local beer market “self-governing.”

 “There are only so many tap handles and so much shelf space available,” he said. “The national brands will always command a larger portion of both leaving a very small area available to local breweries.”

Bockway said beer right now is more trend-driven than it has ever before with new beer styles rapidly becoming popular and old styles of beer dying out.

“You may have made a blonde ale that sold great five years ago, but today craft beer customers want IPAs and kettle sours. If you aren’t making these styles, or you aren’t good at making these styles, you could start losing business,” Bockway said. “You have to keep your beer styles up to date.”