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West Virginia's breweries are banding together to raise their industry profile

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Charleston Brewing Company Bartender Joshua Jenkins pours a Westward Gaze Red Ale, one of eight craft beers on tap. Charleston Brewing Company Bartender Joshua Jenkins pours a Westward Gaze Red Ale, one of eight craft beers on tap.
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The man who made craft beer possible in West Virginia has a bit of a secret about his drinking.

It's not what you might think.

Former Delegate John Doyle, a Democrat in Jefferson County, doesn't even like the stuff.

"The beer I keep in my fridge at home is Natty Light, and that's on the record," Doyle laughed.

Doyle, who spent 22 years in the West Virginia Legislature, said one of the handful of bills he routinely receives compliments about is the craft beer bill that passed in 2009.

He said once he got the support of Delegate Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, chairman of the House Government Organization Committee, which is one of the four major committees, the bill finally got some legs. The bill allowed beer that contained more than 6 percent alcohol by volume to be sold in West Virginia.

"I sponsored it for about a half-dozen years before we finally passed it by myself for a while," he said. "I got into it because of the tourism industry.

"I kept running into people in restaurants and bars in Shepherdstown who were constantly complaining about not being able to get the fancy, yuppie-type beers they had in Maryland and Virginia."

West Virginia had breweries and brew pubs before that, but the new law went a long way in helping to pave the way for the fledgling industry.

And it's a path the breweries themselves are continuing to pave together, through the West Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, a group still in the planning stages.

Legislating Letting Loose

The West Virginia Division of Tourism counts seven breweries and brew pubs in the state. An eighth is on the way, and two men in Wheeling recently started a brewery called Basement Brewery that is supplying craft beer to local restaurants as well.

The state seems to be a little more spirited about its spirits in recent years. 

Doyle said West Virginia is one of the most rural states in the country, and new economic ventures usually take a while to penetrate rural areas.

While attitudes toward the state wineries have relaxed, Doyle said he thinks the next step in relaxing regulations on alcohol will be to bump Sunday alcohol sales up earlier in the day for the brunch crowd.

"Many of our liquor laws work to defeat our tourist industry, but that was never the intention," Doyle said.

He said when younger lawmakers are elected, the attitude of the full Legislature starts to shift.

"There are different attitudes, just like it is about gay rights," he said. "These rules we have are old-fashioned."

But Doyle said the state has seen plenty of progress worth toasting.

Business of Brewing

When Ann Saville decided to open a brewery in Charleston, she had an idea of what to expect on the business end, thanks to 18 years owning and operating Taylor Books on Capitol Street.

"It seemed pretty straightforward to me," she said. "It's quite a complicated process, but I'm used to the general kind of licensing and applications and certificates.

"I do it every year, and it drives you nuts … but I've found when I deal with anybody here in local or state government offices here, they're incredibly helpful and nice, even if there are too many pieces of paper."

Saville's Charleston Brewing Company has been open for several months. Even with her business background and some history in the home-brewing business, Saville said the process is one she said she couldn't do alone, and it cost a little more than she expected to get it off the ground.

She said she's been tracking what works and what doesn't through a point-of-sale system, because setting the menu has been a struggle.

"We did listen, and we realized ourselves that it wasn't working, so we redesigned the menu," she said. "Since we changed it, people say they love it."

For Adam Myers of Lost River Brewing Co. in Wardensville, navigating the legal hurdles has been hard. 

Before he came to own it, Lost River was a small nano-brewery that closed and stayed that way for a while. He purchased it and expanded, starting as just a restaurant first, enjoying the warm reception the community gave him.

But the state's tax structure and licensing make it tough.

A West Virginia brewer's license costs $1,200 each year with a $5,000 bond. A brew pub in West Virginia requires a second license for $1,500 each year and another $5,000 bond. The federal government requires one license with no charge and a $1,000 bond.

"Had we known what we were up against when we purchased it, we probably would not have purchased it," Myers said. "Now that we're here, we're kind of committed, and we have no plans of going anywhere, but the state is not exactly what I would call a business-friendly climate."

Power in Numbers

Wil Laska is putting the finishing touches on Greenbrier Valley Brewing Co., and along the way, he's helped to create the West Virginia Craft Brewers Guild for the brewers to work together for the good of their industry.

Laska has been working with Charles Johnson, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd Attorneys in Charleston, to get his brewery open. 

Johnson unexpectedly found himself advocating for all the breweries during the most recent legislative session when new rules were being discussed that Laska said would have been "devastating to the craft brewing industry."

"That sort of energized the people," Laska explained. "It's not that we want to be dictators, but the problem we found out was the people on the hill up here don't understand the craft beer industry, and they only react to the information they're given."

Laska said that move helped to call the breweries to action. The guild is currently working on its articles and bylaws, and he said he hopes to see it grow to host more events together, to educate lawmakers about things that could benefit their industry and even create group purchasing opportunities.

Johnson said West Virginia has plenty of room for more craft brewers, and he didn't think providing more local choices would hurt the big breweries.

"There is money for the state from this industry," Laska said. "There's taxes for each barrel of beer produced.

"The state gets $5.50 of tax, so drink heavily. The feds get $7, so that's $12.50 each barrel, and a barrel is 31 gallons."

Laska said one of his top goals is to let West Virginians know there's more to drink than "the yellow, fizzy stuff."

"One of the jobs we have to do is sort of introduce people to the other beers — the craft beers," he said. "One way of doing that is to get the word out that yes, we have this more robust beer with better body, a full body, better taste and better aroma, and it may cost a little bit more than the yellow, fizzy stuff, but it's worth it.

"If you build it, they will come, but you have to educate them."

And West Virginia is home to some educated brewers. Two of them have doctorate degrees.

The art form of manipulating four ingredients (water, hops, yeast and barley) isn't compromised by collaboration, Laska said, because of myriad variables.

Myers agreed. He said the business has been around for a few thousand years, so there isn't much out there that has never been done.

"Almost everybody that's a home brewer will tell you they want to be a professional brewer, and probably 50-60 percent of professionals will tell you they want to go back to home brewing," Myers said. "It's fun, and I'm sure everybody out there brewing beer will tell you they love what they do when they're doing it, but the hurdles and everything you've got to go through to be able to do it are a little daunting. 

"It's hot, heavy, nasty work, and I'm constantly fighting the stereotype that I'm out in the brewery leaning against the equipment enjoying a nice cold beer I just made." 

Brewing Benefits

A 2011 analysis of overnight visitors to the state prepared by Longwood Travel USA and presented to the West Virginia Division of Tourism last year showed that brewery visits in West Virginia were ranked in frequency with skiing and snowboarding, hunting and spa visits in the state, and the number of visits also aligned with the country's average. 

The state's inaugural craft beer festival, the Rails and Ales Festival, slated for Aug. 17 in Huntington, sold out of tickets this month.

The Division of Tourism launched a website this month just for "spirits."

"Spirits are a growing part of the agri-tourism market here in West Virginia," Tourism Commissioner Betty Carver said. "We want to encourage people who are interested in this particular subject to visit the makers of these hand-crafted spirits and learn more about what they have to offer." 

And the Associated Press reported this month the number of breweries in the United States has gone from 92 in 1980 to 2,514 as of May 2013, according to Brewers Association, a craft beer trade group.

Morgantown is home to both Morgantown Brewing Company and Mountain State Brewing Company. Cookie Coombs, visitors representative with the Greater Morgantown Convention and Visitors Bureau, said her staff members send a lot of visitors to the two businesses.

Barbara Watkins, assistant director for Main Street Morgantown, said people enjoy the two businesses, and they're both good community neighbors.

"Nobody had anything against them coming in, and it's been a great relationship," Watkins said. "They've both been very supportive of our organization."

For Pies and Pints Pizzeria owner Kimberly Shingledecker, craft beers pair well with her craft pizzas made from scratch. Pies and Pints has locations in Fayetteville, Charleston, Morgantown and Worthington, Ohio, with a Dayton, Ohio location on the way.

Shingledecker said she's happy to support the local craftsmen making the brews.

"You can go anywhere and get a Bud Light or Miller Light, but in my opinion, a lot of those beers have the same flavor profile and it's not that interesting," she said. "We have really interesting pizza, so we want to pair with interesting beer that has a story behind it the same way our pizzas do. It makes for a good team."