Of all 55 counties in West Virginia, why does Tucker County have more brewpubs than any other county? Three brewpubs on the eastern side of the county. All of them in two tiny towns with a total full-time population of about 1,200.
Coming from Charleston with our one brewpub, I’m jealous. But I’m also encouraged that a place in rural West Virginia can create an environment where three breweries can grow and thrive.
I spoke to several folks involved with the business community in Thomas and Davis to better understand the reasons for this unique West Virginia place.
Community embraces small business
Anne Jones spends her days working on business issues as executive director of the Tucker County Development Authority. She has a good feel for the local business environment.
“One of the reasons that this is such a good place to have a beer business is that the whole community wants to see you succeed,” Jones said. “If you do a good product, they will do everything they can make you successful.”
She feels Tucker County is quite different from a lot of other places today.
“There is a sense of opportunity here. There’s still room to make a difference in this community if you want to start a business or grow a new idea. It’s a community that attracts and nurtures curious people.”
“Tucker County sees that its success is in the small business,” Jones said. “And so we see our brewing community, not only as nice to have, but it is a key industry that is going to make this community thrive. ”
Beer in the coffee shop
Cade Archuleta arrived in Tucker ten years ago, then eight years back, he and his wife established Tip Top, a coffee shop which now also sells beer and wine. Archuleta sees an additional factor that helps brewing’s success there: the creative community.
He believes that Thomas-Davis puts an emphasis on art, crafts, music, and local food and beverage. He says a whole culture starts to grow up from that emphasis. As the creative culture began to permeate the Thomas-Davis region, it attracted even more creative people, including brewers. He feels this identity as a creative community also attracts visitors from all over who want the experience that scene, and this is a good environment for local beer.
He remembers when he first moved to the area he met Brian Arnett and Willie Lehmann, the owners of Mountain State Brewing, and they told him they were going to open a brewery in Thomas.
“I was like, really, in this little town you’re going to have a brewery?” Today, he credits Mountain State and Blackwater Brewing for being the pioneers that opened up other people’s eyes to craft beer.
“When that happened, we started to see a following for craft beer in this area.” He says that was the start of the growing local beer scene in Thomas.
Archuleta began selling beer along side his coffee about seven years ago. Originally, he had one beer on tap. This past summer he added a whole new beer tap system with eight beers on tap.
“We like to have as many as we can from West Virginia at all times,” he said, adding that he has seen beer-on-tap grow to become a major revenue generator in his business.
Outdoor recreation adds to bottom line
Yet another aspect of Tucker’s successful embrace of local beer was expressed by Lincoln Wilkins, owner and brewer at Blackwater Brewing Company.
“I think there’s one major thing, and I believe that’s the outdoor recreation and tourism aspect of this whole area,” he said. He credits the ski industry, state parks, and more recently, the mountain biking, kayaking, and ridge running with creating an outdoor recreation culture which attracts people who appreciate a good beer.
“I’ve actually had people tell me that they wanted to go to a West Virginia state park,” he explained, “and the final determinant factor was that there were three breweries near these state parks here.”
He thinks the area is on the verge of attracting even more beer tourists with the advancement of the new highway connecting Elkins to Northern Virginia. “We’re already seeing the impact of that. This has made it much easier for [northern Virginia residents] to come up here for the weekend.”
“We’re up here on the mountain top, the headwaters of rivers. We’ve got a really nice set of water sources up here in Davis and Thomas. The water is beautiful. It really is.
Do it yourself attitude
Jonathan and Cindy Robeson are relative newcomers to the local brewing scene, though they’ve been business owners in the area for a decade. They established Stumptown Ales a little over two years ago and have seen it’s popularity blossom. Jonathan credits the community’s sense of self-reliance that he feels is a magnet for tourists.
“I think the general spirit of the handmade, do-it-yourself attitude up here is very attractive to visitors,” he said. “Tourists come here to feel that vibe,”
Cindy Robeson also gives their brewery a bit of credit. She said that the addition of a third brewery to the area gives it a critical mass that makes the community more attractive to beer tourists.
Jonathon says Blackwater Brewing was an inspiration to him when he used to visit the area before moving there. And later, he was excited to see Mountain State Brewing open in Thomas. He remembers the positive feeling they had when they visited a small brewpub with its handmade beer.
“You see their success and it inspires more of it to happen. I don’t think I would have opened a brewery if there had been no other breweries up here doing it,”
He sees a lot of visiting craft beer fans who seek them out. He says beer drinkers today are looking for a beer experience beyond the major craft brands they find in the liquor stores and supermarkets.
“Drinking local, drinking smaller, seems to be the trend,” he said.
Tourism takes it to the next level
One group in touch with the local tourism market is the Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB). Jessica Waldo, executive director of the CVB says she is proud of Tucker’s leading position in craft brewing.
“The locals sustain the breweries year-round, but the visitors take it to the next level,” Waldo says. She feels what makes Tucker County attractive for brewing “is the mixture of everything that’s here.”
“We are a true four seasons destination. We’re an outdoor recreation area. That helps sustain not just the breweries, but also the small shops that are popping up.”
She thinks the typical type of tourist the area attracts is one who seeks out local beer and food, music and art, and that creates a synergy that opens up business opportunity.
Something old, something new
Jerilyn Phillips, owner of Riverfront Antiques in Thomas, sought to take advantage of those business synergies when she began selling packaged beer a few years ago. For her, the interest in local beer started a decade back at a meeting with Mountain State’s Willie and Brian, who showed her what they planned to do.
“Everybody wants something local,” Phillips said. “They want to try the beers that are made here.”
Phillips may be the only antique store in the state also selling beer, but she wants to be a part of the growing craft beer scene. She was excited to see the continued investment in local breweries in recent times when Stumptown opened and when Mountain State expanded.
“It has a great feel to it,” she said.” People love it. Tourists love it.” You could tell she took a lot of pride in what her local breweries were accomplishing.
So it’s really a lot of factors
I’ve come to realize that Tucker County’s positive environment for local beer is made up of a number of different aspects.
- It is a community attitude that supports and nurtures local small businesses.
- It is a community infrastructure attracts lots of outdoor-recreation oriented tourists who like to play hard and have a predisposition for seeking out local beer.
- It is a community image that has become noted for its artful, creative class, including brewers, and that notoriety brings in visitors who want to experience the cool scene, including its local brews.
- It is the community handmade, do-it-yourself spirit that is attractive to visitors from urban regions where that attitude is less prevalent.
- It is the community’s three brewpubs that create a real local-beer scene and that make each brewery stronger than if there was only one, or two.
- It is the community’s brewery pioneers — Blackwater and Mountain State — that had faith in an unproven industry, but went on to prove it could work.
Jerilyn Phillips summed it up well when she spoke about having all these attributes but keeping the small town feel of Thomas and Davis.
“That’s what makes us special,” she said. “That’s what brings people here. I don’t want to lose that feel.”
Here’s hoping they keep that feel going for many years to come… and maybe even a fourth brewery.
Tucker County Brewery Links