A close look around the gigantic expansion at Mountain State Brewing Company provides some fascinating insights on the future of brewing in Tucker County, and hopefully in all of West Virginia. It’s a bold new mark on the trend line stretching way out to the West Virginia beer stratosphere.
For the past year and a half, Brian Arnett and Wille Lehmann, the hard-working co-founders/owners of Mountain State Brewing in Thomas, WV, have suffered the pains of an under-sized brewhouse. Even brewing as much as three batches a day on the old 7-barrel system, Mountain State beer was selling faster than it could be replenished.
The capacity crunch had its origin in early 2015 when Mountain State stopped having some of their beer made under contract at a Maryland brewery and brought all production in-house to Thomas.
They added tank after tank to their original 1,600 sq. ft. brewery space until it was a cramped labyrinth of stainless steel and hoses. The work space became so crowded that it made brewing more difficult than it should be. With the repetitive, non-stop brewing schedule, month after month, brewery staff began suffering mental burnout.
Even with the maxed-out production schedule, out-of-stock conditions for their six-packs and kegs were commonplace around the state.
“We could be selling twice as much beer as we are,” says Arnett discussing the problems their limited production capacity has had on sales.
On the bright side, in spite of those capacity limitations, Mountain State has remained the state’s largest selling brewery for several years, though a couple of others are fast catching up. Operating three brewery pub outlets (Thomas, Morgantown, and Deep Creek Lake) gives Mountain State a strong sales base. Their canned six-packs are probably the most widely distributed WV-made beer, and their kegs are commonplace in bars that feature local beer. They just couldn’t make enough of it.
A problem no more
As of this month, beer production capacity should be a problem no more. Mountain State’s new 30-barrel brewhouse, four 120-barrel fermenters and four equal-sized bright tanks will more than quadruple their capacity. The spacious new brewery building gives them some much-needed elbow room. And, should they need to expand brewing capacity again, they have space to add as many as eight more 120-barrel tanks.
Arnett admits it’s been a bit of a struggle over the past year, and he is so happy to have the new brewery now up and running.
Like any project of this magnitude, it took a couple of years to make it happen. Plans had to be drawn up, finances secured, a new building constructed, equipment ordered — all while continuing to brew in the original brewery. While the guys have not announced a total investment amount, the looks of the new building and equipment puts its total investment value somewhere above $2 million. During the construction and equipment installation, they saved a lot by doing much of the work themselves whenever they could with their own employees.
Through the years, by plowing most of their profits back into the business, the owners were able to self-finance the expansion project without government program assistance. It is a great example of West Virginia entrepreneurship.
Not just more quantity but also better quality
On the first brew day with the new system Arnett says they experienced some start-up issues, but nothing that couldn’t be quickly overcome. After an adjustment here and a minor repair there, brewing commenced in earnest. And even with the couple of initial glitches, the new system quickly proved itself.
“We nailed the beer,” said Arnett with a proud smile. “Our gravities were dead on.”
Arnett says the upgraded brewing system is not just about increasing the volume of beer, but it was also designed to improve quality and consistency of the finished product.
The addition of a laboratory in the new brewery is another testament to the goal of maintaining the higher quality control standards he desires.
“We’re excited for consistency,” he says. “We’re measuring things we never measured before. And we’re taking it to a level we’ve never taken it before as far as being consistent and keeping flavors that we don’t want in our beer out of our beer.”
Another benefit of the new lab could be cost savings. Rather than buying fresh yeast regularly from outside sources, which tends to be quite expensive, Arnett hopes to buy a batch once a year and then propagate his own yeast from it as needed. He will analyze the yeast going into each batch of beer, watching it closely over time to verify it is healthy and hasn’t mutated. In the new lab, he will inoculate and culture yeasts, take cell counts, and even experiment a bit with different yeast strains.
“It’s all about consistency and better product,” he says of the investment in the laboratory equipment, adding that he just wants the beer to be consistently good.
A brewery rises in the mountains
The new brewery building was completed first. It contains 7,000 square feet of working space. In addition to the actual brewing equipment, it houses a large packaging space, boiler room, grain milling room, chiller room, and laboratory. The equipment arrived several months back and the guys spent the summer working on the installation.
The new brewing system and tanks are all stainless steel and were designed to Mountain State’s specifications. As a four-vessel brewhouse, it consists of a hot liquor tank, mash tun, boil kettle, and lauter tun. The brewhouse uses steam to heat the hot liquor tank, mash tun, and boil kettle.
Using steam provides more energy efficiency and control to the brewing system than they had in their old direct gas-fired system. Mountain State brewer Mike Supak and his brother used their welding skills help fabricate and install the steam lines connecting the boiler to the brewhouse.
Arnett describes it as a 1.5 million BTU/hr. boiler, which will heat 1,800 gallons of water in the hot liquor tank from room temperature to brewing temperature in an hour and a half.
Right outside the new building are Mountain State’s two large grain silos that are filled with malted barley. The malt is directed through a conveying system to the grain mill inside.
The roller-style grain mill can quickly crush grain to varying textures from rough to flour-like. In addition to barley, it can handle specialty grains such as wheat and oats. Having the mill in its own room helps with dust control.
From the mill, the crushed grain is pushed by a “chain disk” conveyor up to a hopper sitting above the mash tun. The grain then goes into the mash tun, where, with water added, it is steeped to produce the sweet brewing wort used to make beer.
Once the mashing process is complete, the liquid wort goes to the boil kettle, and the brewers remove the residual grain material from the mash tun, sending it through a large screw-auger pipe to a waiting trailer-bin outside. Not just the mash tun, but all vessels at the brewery use efficient clean-in-place technology.
A farmer regularly picks up the spent grain and uses it for livestock feed. Arnett says they give the grain to Harper farm in the Germany Valley section of Pendleton County.
When the boil is complete, the brewers pump the wort into one of the tall conical fermentation tanks, where is fermented into beer.
Mountain State’s fermenters and bright tanks are fully jacketed, employing a glycol chilling system to maintain the desired fermentation and conditioning temperatures. The glycol system also supplies the heat exchanger that cools the wort after the boil is finished, and it refrigerates the cellar room in which kegs of draft beer are stored while awaiting shipment.
At their brewery location, the power company couldn’t supply the 3-phase power needed to run the dual 15 hp compressors for the chiller, so they added their own phase converter. Willie Lehmann plumbed in all the 4-inch lines running from the chiller to the tanks. In rural West Virginia you often have to be resourceful.
When fermentation is complete, the beer is pumped to a nearby bright tank for conditioning, clarification, and carbonation. Finally, the finished beer goes directly from the bright tanks to the kegging and canning equipment, which is stationed close by.
To my eyes, the brewery layout seems very efficient and really looks good — nicely designed and plumbed — probably due in part to Arnett’s engineering background and the skills of the Mountain State brewery’s staff who completed most of the work.
Brand expansion now possible
At least initially, Mountain State will dedicate its new equipment to brewing its four flagship beers. Those flagships include Cold Trail Ale, Almost Heaven Amber, Seneca IPA, and Miner’s Daughter Oatmeal Stout.
In coming months, once things get settled in the new brewery and production schedules are coordinated with demand, additional Mountain State brands may begin to appear. The guys are talking about refurbishing their old original brewery and dedicating it to seasonal and small-batch specialty releases. In past years, they have brewed some seasonals, but had to drop them due to capacity limitations.
Lifestyle improvement too
Another benefit of the new brewery will be felt on the lifestyle of the brewery workers. Arnett says they were working themselves to death at the old brewery. Now, he looks forward to having more personal, quality time.
“What we brewed today would take us like four days brewing around the clock on the old system,” he says.
Beyond the two owners Brian and Willie, Mountain State employs five other beer production workers. For the time being, employment is expected to stay at current levels, but could increase if sales grow.