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W.Va. handcrafted beer business growing

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lauren Sandberg isn't a brewmaster at Morgantown Brewing Co., but she has helped carry bags of grain, stirred the mashed grains in barrels and still physically felt her hard work three days later.

The marketing director at the Morgantown-based brewpub said handcrafted beers found at craft breweries are exactly that -- crafted by hand.

"Big breweries like Budweiser, all they have to do is flip a switch and everything happens," Sandberg said. "Our brewmasters add the grain themselves and stir it by hand. It's actually physical labor done by hand and it's difficult."

The craft brewing industry is becoming "more and more popular" because of this attention to detail, Sandberg said.

There were more than 2,300 American craft breweries that operated for some or all of last year, nearly 400 breweries more than in 2011, according to the Brewers Association, a national organization that represents small and independent craft breweries.

There are five breweries in West Virginia.

More than 108,000 craft brewers work in an industry that grew its volume by 15 percent and sales by 17 percent last year from 2011.

Two brewers, a master and an assistant, make the batches at Morgantown Brewing Co., the state's oldest operating brewery.

One Onion, the state's first brewpub -- a restaurant and brewery that sells 25 percent or more of its beer on site -- opened in 1992, one year after a law passed in West Virginia that allowed beer to be brewed and sold in the same place.

The brewery has gone through a few owners and name changes, but its current brewers still use the same mash tuns, fermenters and tanks as the original owners.

Morgantown Brewing president and co-owner Art Gallagher has expanded the brewery since he purchased the business in 2009.

While the former owners had only four beers on tap, Morgantown Brewing has 10 beers to taste at a time, Sandberg said.

The beers can be found in bars across the state, but they are most known for their presence in West Virginia University's football stadium.

When InBev bought Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion in 2008 to become the world's largest brewer, Sandberg said the majority of craft brewers probably weren't concerned. While the leading global brewer sells brands such as Budweiser, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and LandShark, drinkers want more diversity, Sandberg said.

People are tired of the "same old, same old" big-market beers because "they are all light in color and taste the same," she said.

"You don't want to go to a brewery and drink a Bud Light," Sandberg said. "Our Alpha Blonde is the gateway to craft beers. It's cool opening doors for people and having a little blonde college student who typically wants a cranberry and vodka drinking the Alpha Blonde because she thinks it's awesome."

Bridge Brew Works co-owner Nathan Herrold said he and business partner Ken Linch don't brew anything that they wouldn't drink themselves.

Brewing the best beer is all about knowing the system, from how the grain is milled to temperatures and barrel volumes, Herrold said.

The Fayetteville-based microbrewery is the only one of its kind in the state, he said. A microbrewery is a brewery that produces less than 15,000 barrels of beer per year with 75 percent or more of its beer sold off site, according to the Brewers Association.

Bridge Brew Works distributes to bars and restaurants throughout one-third of the state.

Herrold and Linch are the only employees who work at the brewery they opened in 2010, which has seen steady growth since.

"Being small, you can get as basic or as scientific as you want about it and that's the neat thing," Herrold said. "You can cater more to your consumer. We're constantly trying to forecast what the consumer wants."

The duo has tried 30 different styles in the past year, he said.

To honor Herrold's mother, whose maiden name was Angie Rye, the pair is working on a commemorative beer called Momma Rye IPA. Proceeds from sales of the hop-filled brew will go toward awareness of ovarian cancer, which his mother died of three years ago. The batch should be ready close to Mother's Day, he said.

"West Virginia is a state that's Anheuser-Busch and Miller [drinkers], but the craft beer scene here in the state is slowly gaining steam and momentum," Herrold said.

Taylor Books owner Ann Saville said she has been following the craft brewing industry for a while. It has steadily gone up over the last few years and she wants to be a part of that growth, she said.

Saville is opening Charleston's first brewpub this month. The grand opening for Charleston Brewing Co. was scheduled for the first week of April, but she now expects to open the doors for the first time by April 15.

"I've got a lien on my building ... it's a big risk but I've minimized the risk by timing and research into what works and what doesn't," Saville said. "There is growth, it's a matter of the public becoming aware and the word spreading. I think we're going to have a hard time keeping up with consumption."

Saville said what sets smaller breweries apart from the big market breweries is the quality.

"The big boys use a lot of adjuncts, a lot of rice, in their beer. If we make a wheat beer, it's made out of wheat," Saville said.

The proof is in the product for craft brews, Herrold said.

"The only brewers that are going to survive are the ones that are unique, making good product, and that have low debt loans," he said.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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