Berkeley Springs Brewing Company celebrates its first anniversary on June 11. In this centuries-old, historic town long celebrated for its excellent mineral water, this is the first time its water has been utilized as a base ingredient for a commercial brewery.
After being a bit tentative initially, folks in the small community of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, are definitely beginning to embrace their local brewery. You feel it from speaking with people around town. And it feels good.
Brewery proprietor Karl Wagenbrenner says that, initially, some of the town’s residents were not quite sure what to make of them.
“But that has started to come around a lot,” he says. “We’ve won over a lot of the big three drinkers, and now we’re seeing a lot of people who want the locally produced beers.”
Overall, the experience of the past year has been a great one for head brewer Karl and his wife Denise, who is also his business partner.
“It’s been eye-opening and a whole lot of fun,” he says.
“It started out as the homebrew supply shop, and we got the opportunity to step up our game. We moved into a new location. We started a brewery, and from there we started the Bath Water Brewpub and tavern.”
To succeed as a brewery in a small town takes more than brewing talent alone.
“You have to have the passion,” he says.” You have to have the ability to look beyond just being a brewery and look at all aspects of brewing. You have to be a jack of all trades and master of a few as well.
“You have to roll with the punches a little bit. It’s kinda tough, especially when you put your whole life on the line.”
Expansion plans for steady, controlled growth
The Wagenbrenners must have what it takes because at one year in they already have big expansion plans underway.
They have an order in for a beautiful new 3.5-barrel brewing system from Stout Tanks that should arrive in August. Also included in the expansion are two 3-barrel jacketed stainless steel fermenters and a 3-barrel bright tank. These will be added to the four 3-barrel fermenters they currently have.
Speaking of the new brewing system, Karl says it won’t be just a show piece.
“I’m going to try to run that thing as much as possible,” he says.
He wants to make enough beer to not only fill his own brewpub’s needs but also to distribute more beer to other accounts. Today, he only has two local accounts selling his beer due to the limited availability. Once he gets the new brewhouse dialed in, he will be looking at adding additional stainless steel fermentation tanks as the next step in his growth plan.
He wants growth that is slow, sure, and sustainable. He is careful not to go too far too fast.
“We want to make this thing last for quite a while,” he says.
Brewery expansion as economic development
In some important aspects of his growth planning, he received assistance from local economic development organizations. His experience there has been good.
“The SBDC put us in touch with Kevin O’Connor of NCIF, who was very instrumental in helping us get funding for our new brewhouse.
“We have six employees now. What we want to do is grow and become a bigger employer for the region. We’re trying to start a new industry for the area.”
While their current location has been a good place to start, they will need more space if they are to continue growing. Wagenbrenner says that within the next year or so they will need to start looking for a new brewery location.
“We’ll need a lot more room,” he says. “For the plans that we have in place, we want to grow yearly. We want to take our time and grow as controlled as possible. Within a five-year span, we want to be up to a 10- to 15-barrel brewhouse.”
He also wants to get into bottling some of his beer once his current equipment expansion project is completed. He would like to build a small bottling system of his own design.
“I’m already looking at bottling,” he said. “I’m a tinkerer by heart.”
Always brewing new beer styles
“I get bored brewing the same stuff all the time,” Wagenbrenner says. “I’ve constantly got to have something new on the horizon.”
The pub’s three top beers over the past month have been the caCapon Kolsch, Vienna Calling Lager, and George’s Bitter English. They are the lighter styles—from 4.3 to 5.3% ABV—whose popularity may reflect the warming weather. Back a couple of months ago it was more the IPAs, and Stout. Styles vary by season.
“It ebbs and flows quite a bit,” he says. “We’re not necessarily seeing any one style that people are preferring all the time.”
Some upcoming beers of note are his new Stonewall IPA (named for the West Virginia native and Civil War General Stonewall Jackson) and a Berliner Weisse. The Stonewall IPA will likely be the biggest hopped beer he’s ever offered in the pub. His Berliner Weisse he describes as a bit of an experiment. Both sound good.
Expanding the envelope locally
Something quite out of the ordinary he is experimenting with is beer made without hops. He is trying lighter malted beers steeped with tea instead of hops.
“We did one with a green tea that came out nicely,” he says. “We’re getting some really good reviews from that.”
When it comes to flavored beers, Wagenbrenner is not a fan of flavoring extracts from the big industrial sources. He prefers locally-sourced flavors.
“I want the flavor in my beer to be as authentic as possible,” he says.
His Stout Girl Scout, a milk stout with added chocolate and mint, is a good example. Starting with a healthy portion of chocolate malt in the grain bill, he adds cacao nibs and locally-harvested mint.
“I put a notice out on Facebook that I need mint and people will bring me bags full of mint,” he says.
He dries the mint, then adds the entire plant to the brew.
Later this summer, when the locally-grown hop cones mature, he hopes to again make a fresh-hopped beer. He sources local hops when he can from Organarchy Farm in nearby Old Town, Maryland. He especially likes the Magnum and Cascade hops he gets there.
He will also be bringing back his Apple Butter beer this fall, in which he includes fresh-pressed apples from a local orchard.
Growler sales stand out
One thing that has been a tremendous success for the brewery is its growler sales program. Karl loves growler sales.
“On June 12th last year, we were allowed to start selling growlers, and we had a monster day,” he explains. “I sold out of beer. It’s been a giant boost for us.”
From that point on, he was sold on the growler business. But it is not just the sales he gets from growlers that has him excited. It’s also the positive affirmation he receives from the repeat business.
“The most wonderful thing to see looking out the front window is people getting out of their car with a couple of our growlers in hand, and they’re bringing them in to be refilled,” he says, while breaking into a broad smile. “That’s an incredible feeling. It makes me feel fantastic. I love that part of the business.”
Seeing the passion Wagenbrenner has for brewing and the love he has for his customers tells me that he has what it takes to succeed in a challenging small business environment. Karl and Denise Wagenbrenner embody the best characteristics of West Virginia’s beer-trepreneurs.
What a great asset they are for Berkeley Springs, Morgan County, and the state of West Virginia.
Berkeley Springs Brewing Company. Featuring microbrewed craft beer made from the award-winning mineral water of Berkeley Springs, WV. Also offering pub fare, WV wines and select WV distilled spirits in the brewpub.