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West Virginia's New Craft Beer Laws Aim to Boost Sales, Tourism

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Larry Dowling
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Step into any of West Virginia’s 11 craft breweries Friday and you’re bound to feel a bit of a celebratory vibe. That’s because a new law goes into effect that brewers hope will drive more business their way and expand the state’s growing craft beer industry even further.

 

There are big hopes for Governor Tomblin’s Senate Bill 273, but the main one is allowing for more breweries and the sale of specialty bottles known as growlers in more locations, which many say will translate to an overall boost in tourism.

 

There’s little question that West Virginia’s craft beer industry has taken off in recent years. The number of breweries has more than doubled from 5 to 11 since 2011 and a bill passed this legislative session brings hope that there’s even more to come.  

“West Virginia is one of the smallest states for craft brewing--right around 8,000 barrels a year is what West Virginia is doing, which is up from about 5,000 the year before,” said Paul Gatza of the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association, a trade organization that promotes the craft brewing industry across the country.

“By percentage, it’s growing rapidly, but that’s off a pretty small base. But, we’re certainly seeing that beer drinkers in the country, including West Virginia, are turning more to craft brewed beers and they’re enjoying all the flavors and the beer styles that they’re finding out right now.”

According to the Brewers Association, West Virginia’s craft brewing industry raked in $118.2 million last year.  That figure puts the state 46th in the nation in revenues and 49th as far as production.

Mike Vance of Morgantown Brewing Company
Credit Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Mike Vance of Morgantown Brewing Company pours a beer at the Brew Skies Festival in August 2014.

Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company is one of the newest breweries in the state. That company’s growth shows there’s plenty of potential to be tapped.

“We started selling beer in last September of 2014. We started off in kegs and, of course, things were slow. We have 12 distributors in the state and we cover about 50 out of the 55 counties,” said Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company co-owner Wil Laska.  

“Are we saturated? No, we’re far from being saturated. But we’re working getting in more places and getting the name and the brand out there more and more. It just takes time. It just takes getting out there and doing the marketing, getting the word out there, talking to people and also having the laws beneficial to small businesses and small breweries.”

And the statewide growth in recent years has come despite laws that brewers say haven’t been exactly friendly to them. Aside from a run-of-the-mill business license, there was a $2,500 fee for a resident brewers license, a separate $1,000 fee to operate a brewpub.

But in addition to all of the licensing fees, there were some limitations on distribution.

“Prior to this new law coming into effect, someone could not come to the brewery itself for a tasting,” Laska explained.

“The only thing a brewery could do--was allowed to do--is, you know, you could self-distribute, you could sell through a distributor, or you could sell kegs for off-premise consumption.”

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Credit Larry Dowling / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Bill Ritenour of Chestnut Brew Works in Morgantown looks over his operation.

But now, tastings and samplings are allowed. The brewpub license fee gets cut in half and the resident brewers license fee will become a sliding scale based on volume of production.

While these changes will certainly help those looking to start their own business and increase the ability of the state’s current brewers to grow, there’s a few provisions in the craft beer law that will benefit both the brewer and the consumer.

Beginning today, craft beer drinkers will be able to purchase and fill more growlers at brewpubs. And they’ll also be able to get growlers at bars and some other retailers.

All of the changes mean more access for those interested in starting a brewery, which translates to more competition--something current brewers see as a way to attract tourists.

“I think it’s a great beginning to something that’s only going to get better” said state tourism commissioner Amy Goodwin.

“I joked with a reporter the day that we signed the craft beer legislation in the Capitol. He was counting all of the dots across the state of the craft breweries and I said ‘I bet you this time next year it will be double.’ That’s what I said and I really do believe that. Because, the momentum is there.”

And that momentum has motivated  Governor Tomblin to proclaim a statewide craft beer week slated from August 15 through the 22. Several craft beer festivals will coincide with the week, including, the sold out Rails and Ales in Huntington, the Mountaineer Brewfest in Wheeling and the Brew Skies Festival at Timberline.   


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