W.Va. Farmers and Bottlers Come Together at Summit

Apr 11, 2019

West Virginia is home to numerous beverage companies that brew beer, distill spirits and syrups and press cider. The state also boasts farmers who produce fruits and grains those bottlers could use.

The problem is the two groups are often disconnected.

The “Craft: Farm to Bottle Summit” in South Charleston earlier week this aimed to address that gap, bringing the two groups together and helping each understand the other’s needs. The Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI) in Huntington organized the summit. More than 100 people attended.

Changes to state laws in recent years have made it easier for bottlers and manufacturers to open new businesses, according to Bill Woodrum, the Director of Entrepreneurship for RCBI.

“The next step we see for that is helping those local bottlers whether it's anything from kombucha to soft drinks to beer, wine, spirits, to be able to identify local sources for their product,” Woodrum explained.

Alex Duran, assistant operations manager from Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company was excited about the possibilities coming out of the summit.

“For us it's very important that you use West Virginia first. Not to outcast anybody from the other states, but from our perspective this way it highlights some of the smaller communities in our area,” he said.

Both groups are small and face unique economic restrictions and challenges. They need to simultaneously grow product demand and produce production. It’s tricky and takes coordination. An example from the conference was a farmer just can’t just show up with a ton of strawberries. Brewers need to know weeks in advance when the fruit will be ready so they can plan their production schedule.

Charles Bockway, a reporter who covers the West Virginia beverage industry, said the economic landscape is shifting and becoming more hospitable to small manufacturers and local farmers. The agricultural sector has never thought of bottlers as a potential market, but they are coming to realize the possibilities.

Many at the conference looked to keynote speaker Todd Boera from the Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton, North Carolina for guidance. His brewery has more than doubled in size in the last six years and obtains 97 percent of its supplies from the Appalachian region. 

“It’s the hard road, but every time we do something that we just put a whole lot of work into, whether it's sourcing the ingredient to begin with and then processing that, or maybe it's some brewing technique -- whenever we have, whenever we taste the final product it's 100 percent worth it because this isn’t a gimmick , it truly creates a better product and it just happens to tell a really cool story at the same time,” Boera explained.