West Virginia's Craft Brewing Industry Hopeful for Boost from Legislature


During the Governor’s State of the State Address earlier this month, Tomblin detailed some of his main priorities for this legislative session. The governor detailed the measures he would ask lawmakers to take to balance this year’s budget, bills he would introduce to improve the state’s business climate and juvenile justice system. But he also touched on a bill he hopes will incite the growth of an already burgeoning industry in West Virginia, craft brewing.

For Brian Arnett of Mountain State Brewing Co. located in Thomas and Morgantown, craft brewing–especially here in West Virginia–is something way more than just yeast, barley and hops.

“It’s a full on revolution. It’s people that want to know a story behind what they’re consuming and they like they story and they like the different flavors and the provided variety and flavors and things they would not get otherwise,” said Arnett.

The Growth of West Virginia’s Craft Beer Industry

If you find yourself in a bar or restaurant in West Virginia, it’s nearly impossible not to notice the influx of the state’s craft beer offerings on taps and in bottles–and now, even cans.

Breweries have been springing up all over, in virtually every corner of the state.


Credit Brian Pickens / Made in WV
Made in WV

Morgantown Brewing Company assistant brewmaster Jesse Sedlock says his operation has grown tremendously since opening in 2009.

“When I started here they were producing maybe 300 barrels a year. This year we’re close to 1,500 barrels a year. So, we’ve actually grown exponentially over the past few years,” said Sedlock.

According to the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control Administration (ABCA), 11 resident brewers currently are licensed to operate in West Virginia.

With such growth and what some see as even more opportunity, brewers began to realize their industry could benefit by banding together. They see competition as a good thing, so much so that Lincoln Wilkins of Blackwater Brewing Co. and others formed the West Virginia Craft Brewers Guild to support the industry as a whole.
“We formed a craft brewer’s guild for a couple reasons,” explained Wilkins. “To promote the craft brewing industry in the state of West Virginia. To make people aware of craft beer and what we’re doing. And to work legislatively. To promote, hopefully, a modernization of some of the craft brewing–or some of the alcohol laws that are relevant to the craft brewing industry in this state.”
Brewers Outline Their Challenges

In September, Wilkins and his fellow guild members took to the state capitol for an interim meeting of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development. During that meeting, the group presented a list of desired changes to state law.

Lincoln Wilkins

Credit Dave Mistich / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Bill Rittenour of Chestnut Brew Works in Morgantown is relatively new to the state’s craft brew scene and says the licensure process to become a resident brewer was arduous.

“As I was going through it, I found it to be very lengthy. But the, after it was all said and done, I look back on it and can say it wasn’t too bad. I don’t know I’ve never opened a business before so it was tough to really gauge it. But, it did feel long. I’d say all and all it took about four months from when I submitted all my paperwork to when I was approved.”

Aside from the lengthy process of submitting applications and receiving licenses, West Virginia craft brewers say the fees are too steep for those operating on a small scale and discourage others from starting their own operations. They also say limitations on growler sales and the ability to offer tastings or samplings is keeping them from becoming a bigger economic force.


Credit Larry Dowling / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Rittenour said the labeling and alcohol analysis for new varieties could be streamlined as well.

“Right now, if I want to make an experimental beer I need to make a test batch and then send out the samples for alcohol analysis. Which, is something I can measure and calculate pretty easily and pretty accurately with some of my equipment. But, we need third party verification of the alcohol analysis,” he explained.

There’s also the issue of distribution. Currently, brewers are allowed to self-distribute up to 10,000 barrels a year. But, getting their beer to the masses and out to a wider radius almost necessitates a distributor–regardless of the size of the operation. The problem is, they say, once they’ve signed a contract with a distributor, there’s no way out of it.
Arnett says some changes could be made to help brewers without hurting distributors in the process.

“There’s a natural relationship between a brewer and a distributor. Brewers will always use distributors. We self-distributed ourselves and to get into every nook and cranny in West Virginia–and brew beer–it’s way too much,” Arnett said.

“So, brewers will always find a natural relationship with a distributor. It doesn’t need to be forced. Brewers will always want to take care of their distributors. That’s their customers. So, there’s a natural wanting to take care of a distributor from a brewer’s standpoint. So, it doesn’t need to be enforced.”

Governor, Legislators Propose Changes to State Law

With a bill backed by Gov. Tomblin, brewers are likely to get some of the things they’ve been hoping for, including:

  • A sliding scale for the resident brewer’s license fees based on volume of production.
  • A provision to allow the sale of four growlers at a time for off-site consumption, instead of their current limit of two.
  • Brewers would be allowed to offer samplings and tastings on tours, putting their industry on par with wineries and distillers who already have that privilege.
  • A removal of the bond for the brewpub license.

Sen. Bob Williams of Taylor County and Chris Walters of Putnam County have proposed their own legislation on the industry. Walters’ bill would allow retailers with an Alcohol Beverage Control Administration Class A, Class B or private club license to sell growlers for off-site consumption.
Ecotourism: Craft Beer Ties in with West Virginia’s Recreational Opportunities

Lincoln Wilkins said tastings can offer a huge boost to the industry as they try to market themselves as a force in the boom of eco-tourism. With recreational tourism like rafting, hiking, and rock climbing available in the state, he says the craft beer industry could complement and augment the things West Virginia already offers.

“I really do think that ecotourism interface with craft beer is one of the most crucial aspects of what we’re doing. And people do want that. They want to experience that when they come in and experience the locale. They want that local flavor.”

And local flavor is what Wilkins and his fellow craft brewers say they can sell more easily, with the help of West Virginia lawmakers.