Do you know your West Virginia craft beer history? I’ve updated a brief paper I wrote about the history of craft beer brewing in West Virginia.
A Brief West Virginia Craft Brewery History
As West Virginia enters a period of rapidly increasing commercial beer brewing activity, it is worth taking a few minutes to review the state’s contemporary brewing history.
When in 1971, Little Switzerland Brewing Company, the state’s last traditional brewery, ceased operation in Huntington, it ended a brewing era that had its roots in the 19th century and then had restarted at the end of Prohibition.
When it closed, we saw the total ascendency of the big, national mega-brands, such as Budweiser, Miller, Pabst, and Stroh. West Virginia was not alone in experiencing this loss of local beer. By 1978, only 89 breweries remained in business in the nation. As the 1980s took shape, so did a resurgence of small breweries in many parts of the country. It started as a trickle, then picked up steam in the 1990s.
Brewpub legislation spurs new breweries
West Virginia’s local brewing culture stayed dormant until 1991 when state legislation was adopted allowing the establishment of a new class of brewery, the brewpub. Prior to that, a brewery was allowed to brew and package beer but could only sell its production to wholesale distributors.
The brewpub was a new class of license that allowed a small brewery to make beer and sell it by the glass to customers in its own brewery pub. That was a much more potentially profitable business model for a small, start-up brewery. Other states had been having success with this model, and in West Virginia, it was the legislation that kicked off the current wave of small breweries we have today.
In 1992, Morgantown saw the establishment of the state’s first brewpub when the short-lived One Onion Brewery opened downtown.
In the mid-1990s, we began seeing more brewpubs open around the state, falling in line with the hot microbrewery climate found around the country at the time. Wheeling attracted a major investment from the owners of Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing, who established the beautiful Nail City Brewing in a redeveloped downtown building. Huntington saw a group of local investors put a ton of money into remodeling a prime corner space downtown and turning it into the showcase Brew Bakers brewery, bakery, and restaurant. It appeared for a short time as if West Virginia might be beginning to catch up with the national enthusiasm for microbreweries, but we soon learned otherwise. Good enabling legislation and willing investors alone are not enough to make a business profitable.
WV breweries hit a rough patch
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, a major shakeout in brewpubs took place across the nation, as the market weeded out weaker businesses from the overheated microbrewery scene. A sufficient number of consumers just weren’t yet there to drink all the beer being made. Investors had misread the market potential and had over invested for the amount of sales they could generate.
During that period in West Virginia, the major brewpub investments in Huntington (Brew Bakers) and Wheeling (Nail City) went out of business after only a brief run. Both were reorganized into other brewery operators, but both of those failed as well. In Charleston, the state’s only non-brewpub microbrewery (Cardinal) went under. The closings shook the state brewery industry. Investors and operators found the going tough. For many years that hangover kept significant new investment out of the sector.
Fortunately, several of the 1990s-heritage brewpubs navigated through the tough times to today. The state’s original brewpub licensee, One Onion in Morgantown, was one. Though the business suffered through multiple name changes, reorganizations, ownership changes, and bankruptcy, today’s Morgantown Brewing Company can trace its heritage to that original brewpub.
Northend Brewing, which opened in Parkersburg in 1997, bought the brewing equipment of the failed Cardinal Brewing in Charleston. It is located in the state’s oldest tavern: North End Tavern. It celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2017 and is the state’s longest continuously operating brewery location under the original ownership. Blackwater Brewing, founded in 1998 in Davis, is still brewing there, though it changed owners a few years back.
Long hangover ends in 2009
Things remained slow for state brewers through the mid-2000s, but by the late 2000s, the current craft beer revolution began to take shape. When in 2009, new state legislation raised the alcohol cap on beer from 6% to 12%, the state became instantly more attractive to craft brewery investors. While West Virginia was slower than most states to begin seeing widespread investment, our craft brewery explosion is now under way.
Of today’s 27 operating West Virginia breweries, 23 have a heritage no more than 10 years old. Of those twenty-two, 21 are less than five years old. Seven received their licenses in 2016 alone. Four more became licensed in 2017. In the past 10 years, we have had only one brewery go out of business permanently (Mountaineer Brewing in Martinsburg). Small independent breweries are by far the most exciting part of the beverage alcohol industry in West Virginia today.
Significant brewery business opportunities exist
One could think that with all the new breweries, the industry in West Virginia might be getting overcrowded. Industry statistics tell a different story. A report by the Brewers Association, which is the trade association for independent craft brewers, shows that at the end of 2015, West Virginia ranked 51st out of all states and D.C. in the number of barrels of beer produced per capita. It ranked 49th in the total amount of beer produced. Compare that to the state’s ranking well up in the 30s for total beer consumed per capita, and you will see that a solid upside exists for our local brewing industry.
Demographic analysis suggests that great opportunities for additional brewpub businesses exist in Martinsburg, Charleston, Teays Valley, Huntington, Bridgeport, Clarksburg, Fairmont, Weirton, Beckley, and Bluefield. Even small towns located in tourism areas have the possibilities of supporting nice brewpub operations. For an example, one has to look no further than Thomas & Davis, two adjoining towns in Tucker County that, together, have about 1,200 full-time residents and three successful breweries.
While brewery names like Brew Bakers, Nail City, River & Rails, River City Ale Works, Bent Willey’s, and Mountaineer have come and gone, new names have taken their place. There has never been a better time for local beer in West Virginia. Cheers to our brewers and to all who support their businesses.
West Virginia Breweries, May 2017
Name • Location • Year Location Was First Licensed
Morgantown Brewing (brewpub), Morgantown, 1992 ¹
Northend Brewing, Parkersburg, 1997 ²
Blackwater Brewing, Davis, 1998
Mountain State Brewing, Thomas, 2005
Lost River Brewing, Wardensville, 2009
Bridge Brew Works, Fayetteville, 2010
Chestnut Brew Works, Morgantown, 2013
Wheeling Brewing, Wheeling, 2013 ³
Bad Shepherd Beer Company, Charleston, 2013 ³³
Big Timber Brewing, Elkins, 2014
Greenbrier Valley Brewing, Maxwelton, 2014
Berkeley Springs Brewing, Berkeley Springs, 2015
Stumptown Ales, Davis, 2015
Dobra Zupas, Beckley, 2015
Screech Owl Brewing, Bruceton Mills, 2015
Morgantown Brewing (production brewery), Westover, 2015
Brew Keepers, Wheeling, 2016
Parkersburg Brewing, Parkersburg, 2016
Pubstomper Brewing, Westover, 2016
Sophisticated Hound Brewing, Princeton, 2016
Bannings Inc., Summersville, 2016
Brewstel, Elkins, 2016
Mash Brewing, Charles Town, 2016
Abolitionist Ale Works, Charles Town, 2017
Short Story Brewing, Rivesville, 2017
Weathered Ground Brewery, Cool Ridge, 2017
The Peddler Brewpub, Huntington, 2017
1. One Onion Brewing was founded in 1992, and became West Virginia Brewing in 1994, then became Morgantown Brewing in 2009. Technically, Morgantown Brewing did not come into being until 2009 but has a heritage that goes back to 1992.
2. Northend Brewing is the longest continuously operating brewery under the same ownership in the state.
3. Basement Brewing was founded in 2013, and became Wheeling Brewing in 2015.
33. Charleston Brewing was founded in 2013, and became Bad Shepherd Beer Company in 2016
About the Author
Charles Bockway is a former beer, wine and spirits marketing representative who now writes and publishes BrilliantStream.com, a West Virginia focused craft beer website.
Brilliant Stream Revision – September, 2017
An earlier version of this paper was published in Vandaleer.com in December, 2016.