It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that West Virginia’s oldest continuously-operated tavern would also house the state’s oldest continuously-operated brewery. Parkersburg’s 1899-vintage North End Tavern (popularly known as the NET) founded its brewery in 1997, making it 20 years old this year.
Turning 20 is quite an accomplishment for a craft brewery in West Virginia. Even looking back through history, not many breweries ever lasted that long here. According to state brewery license records, NET Brewery will officially hit the big “2–0” on October 30, 2017.
Brilliant Stream sat down with North End Tavern & Brewery owner Joe Roedersheimer to review the history and accomplishments of the brewery.
I first got to know Joe back in the early 1980s when I was a winery rep and he was a sales rep for Parkersburg Distributing Company. I remember him as a hard worker who had good rapport with his accounts. But by then, Roedersheimer already had a decade of experience with the NET.
From the 1970s to the 1990s
Joe bought the historic North End Tavern in 1978, a few years after working a summer job there tending bar at age 18.
“I found I enjoyed the beer business,” he said, “and I enjoyed the people.”
Through the 1980s, while he always worked at the NET on the side, he kept a regular day job, working for beer and wine distributors mostly selling Budweiser and other Anheuser-Busch products.
In the early 1990s, he took a management position with Runyon Distributing, which required him to work in Greenbrier County. He still had the NET and he kept his home in Parkersburg, but commuted to the job in southern West Virginia. On his way back and forth from work, he would sometimes stop in Charleston. In the Charleston beer circles he met some people who were talking about putting in a brewery. At the time, the only brewery in the state was in Morgantown.
As it turned out, those folks he got to know opened Cardinal Brewing Company in Charleston in 1994. Cardinal was a distribution-only brewery that made several ales that became locally popular in West Virginia.
“In the mid-1990s, when I decided to leave Runyon and come back home and just run my tavern, I would always go back and see the Cardinal guys. I was tasting their beers and got to reading how craft brewing was a growing business across the nation.”
“At that time, craft breweries were very hot, though a lot of people thought it was just going to be a fad.”
And he feels to some extent it was a fad in WV, as he saw Cardinal and a some of the WV brewpubs that had opened back then struggle to make a business out of it.
Cardinal’s loss is NET’s gain
It wasn’t long before the Cardinal folks changed their business strategy to contract brewing in North Carolina and needed to sell their brewing equipment in Charleston.
“So I thought, what a great idea it would be to put a brewery in one of the best little taverns in the state,” Joe recalled.
He got with his banker and decided to go to Cardinal and make them an offer. His offer was accepted. It was 1997 and he founded his brewery in Parkersburg.
“They gave us a pretty good deal on the equipment,” Joe said.
Following the sale, the Cardinal guys helped him move everything to Parkersburg and set it all up. Joe Spratt, who was Cardinal’s head brewer, worked at the NET Brewery for about the next year to get beer production going. Most of that brewing equipment is still in use today.
Looking back, Roedsheimer thinks he got in the brewing business the right way and at the right price. Although early on, he’s not sure he would have agreed with that. For the first few years, they sold very little beer.
“I fell back on the restaurant business. It was the thing that actually kept us going for a while.”
In 2001, he expanded the NET kitchen and that really helped the tavern business grow.
Into the 2000s
At the time, Parkersburg was not a big craft beer market. It took a long time for that to develop.
“We had your Budweiser and Miller Lite drinkers,” Joe said, “and that’s what we had to deal with. We had to transition through that.”
Well into the 2000s, most of the NET taps were still you standard big-beer labels.
“We had very few beers that we actually brewed here,” he said. “I think we had two or maybe three at the time. We really weren’t selling a lot of it. We struggled in the beer end of it from 1997 to probably 2006.
“Back then, one of the most popular drinks at the bar was our Roedy’s Red mixed with Budweiser. They called it a Joe Beer.”
Through the early and mid-2000s, they were still a neighborhood tavern. They weren’t trying to appeal to the craft beer geeks. Their bread and butter was the common beer drinker. And the NET brews they offered were brewed to appeal to that person.
“We didn’t even have an IPA then,” Joe said.
Late in the 2000s, Joe began to see the interest in craft beer come back around as more people started getting into it. More people began trying NET beers.
Hopkins moves beer menu ahead
In 2008, following the retirement of their long-term brewer, Roedersheimer brought in Chris Hopkins to lead the brewing program. Hopkins was a 2000 Siebel Institute of Technology grad and brought with him the interest in revamping the NET’s beer styles. With Chris’s help and beer knowledge, things began changing.
“We got a new filtration system that helped,” Joe said. “We cleared up the beer, and then all the old time drinkers started trying the house brewed beer.”
Since then, they’ve done some remodeling, built the new Tank Room taproom, purchased more equipment, built a new facade, and updated the food menu. Business has never been better.
“We’re a little different than many breweries,” Joe said. “We invite all the other WV breweries in and we have guest taps.”
In addition to beer from other West Virginia breweries, the NET also carries a a variety of regional and national craft beer brands. There are no non-craft taps now, but there are some standard non-craft labels still available in cans and bottles.
Now, on any given night, you’ll find a room full of patrons drinking pretty much only craft beer, and mostly NET beer. They are still a neighborhood tavern largely full of regular beer drinkers, not beer geeks. but most everyone is drinking house beers.
It’s been a remarkable transition.
“I never thought that I would walk into this place and look at my tap handles and there wouldn’t be a Budweiser product,” he said.
A new generation at the NET
Joe thinks the generational change over the past two decades has made a real difference.
“It’s the younger generation,” he said. “I see them willing to try new things, and they’re not loyal to brands like the older generations.”
A couple of those younger generationals are Joe’s two sons, Justin and Chip. Both have been involved in revamping the brewery’s business, especially the marketing and distribution. They developed the new coat of arms logo, web site, and Facebook page. Since graduating from WVU, Chip has been working in the business full-time. As Joe looks to cut back a bit on his workload, Chip is now taking on much more of the day-to-day operational responsibilites of running the business.
About Chip, Joe says: “I think he’s enjoying it. He’s a little more critical than I am about things. The younger people pay attention to things that I wouldn’t.”
It’s a good mix that is moving the NET ahead.
Gaining new distribution
A few years back, Chip successfully worked to get more NET beer out in other retail accounts by leading a self-distribution program. He gained distribution in a bunch of key craft beer accounts, mostly in Charleston, Huntington, and Morgantown, in addition to their home area. After doing that for a while, Joe decided that they needed him at the brewery more than they needed him to work distribution, so they pulled back on that. More recently, the distribution is being handled by distributors who cover those key markets.
Driven by what they’ve learned from distribution and in the taproom, the NET’s brewing program is changing. They’re keeping a few staple beers in the taproom, but are adding lots more rotating one-offs and seasonals. Many of these are small batch brews, such as ones aged in whiskey barrels. NET beer is on the move.
“We’ll put them out there and see what happens,” Joe said. “If something hits, we’ll run with it.”
As far as brewing capacity goes, they are looking at being a 1,000 to 1,200 barrel-per-year brewery, with majority of that being sold in the brewpub.
What’s on tap at North End Tavern
The current core brands are: Roedy’s Red Amber Ale, 5- Way IPA, WV Wheat Ale, Northern Light American Golden Ale, Dawk’s Porter, and Blackberry Wheat Ale. The seasonals are doing well too, beers like Chocolate Stout, Dunkel, Saison, and 1-Way Pale Ale (single malt, single hop pale ale). There’s also a Harvest Ale made with hops they grow next to the brewery.
Looking back, looking ahead
Joe has been a keen observer of the industry over the past 40 years he’s been in the tavern business and his 20 years as a brewery owner.
“It’s been great thing to be involved in,” he said, summing it all up. “I’ve learned a lot, there’s no doubt about it.
“With over 5,000 breweries nationally now, I don’t know how much farther it’s going to go. But we’ll see.”
Brilliant Stream congratulates the Roedersheimers, Chris Hopkins, and all the NET Brewery’s employees for reaching a milepost that no other has achieved. Happy 20th Anniversary. It’s going to be fun following the NET into it’s next 20 years.
North End Tavern & Brewery
3500 Emerson Avenue