West Virginia’s Brewing Industry Confronts A Crossroads

Food & Drink

West Virginia isn’t exactly known as a craft beer state. With 28 operational breweries, Mountaineers rank dead last in the nation for per-capita production and economic impact, and other metrics don’t place them much higher. 

Yet West Virginia produces some impressive liquid put out by breweries like Morgantown Brewing, Chestnut Brew Works, and Greenbrier Valley Brewing, not to mention a few cideries and meaderies. A taproom called The Rambling Root in the teeny town of Fairmount is as solid as any beer bar in any location in the country and is currently devoting almost all of its two dozen taps to in-state producers.

So craft beer lovers in West Virginia are both excited and upset about two major yet opposing brewery initiatives crossing paths right now — one that strengthens the skillset of the brewing workforce and another that threatens to eviscerate the industry just as it’s figuring out a way out of the pandemic.  

First, the good news: The federal government is supporting an apprenticeship program for aspiring brewers in West Virginia, and the first apprentice is a bright 32-year-old woman named Samantha Fox. By all accounts, stakeholders involved in the program are universally and immeasurably excited about the prospects of a long-term, federally funded pipeline into a decent-paying career for residents of the state that suffers from the sixth highest poverty rate in the country.

At 30% annual growth in 2019, beverage manufacturing ranks as the fastest-growing manufacturing sector in the state. According to the 2019 West Virginia Industry Analysis, more than 90% of beer consumed was made out of state, meaning breweries have a lot more glasses to fill before reaching capacity and leading David Lavender, apprenticeship program coordinator for the West Virginia Development Office, to believe the industry is poised to grow exponentially. 

“Yes, West Virginia went from less than five breweries in 2010 to 28 by 2019, but the greatest growth should come in the years ahead because the in-state breweries are barely scratching the surface of filling overall demand,” he says. 

Now the bad news: billionaire Republican governor Jim Justice is backing a bill to eliminate the income tax on West Virginians in exchange for hikes that would raise the state’s excise tax on beer by 431%. 

“It is definitely something that has the potential to just totally devastate the craft beverage industry in West Virginia,” Greenbrier Valley’s owner Bill Heckel has said about the proposed $29.25-per-barrel state tax (1 bbl=31 gallons).

Greenbrier Valley has stepped up as the first brewery to host a Department of Labor (DOL) apprentice. A semester after enrolling in the two-year brewing tech program at nearby Bridge Valley Community and Technical College, homebrewer Samantha Fox (who already has a master’s degree in counseling) started her apprenticeship at Greenbrier Valley Brewing (GVBC). 

“Every day I come in and do something a little different,” says the West Virginia native, who decided to leave her college counseling career while quarantining last year. “Sometimes I do small-batch brewing, sometimes I help the packaging team on the canning line. Today I cleaned the bright tank.” 

Fox still takes academic brewing classes at Bridge Valley college while she works through her mandatory 2000 hours at the brewery, which she expects will take about a year and a half. Of six students in the associate’s degree program, she’s the only woman. Though a handful of female co-workers work alongside her in packaging, sales and taproom management at the brewery, she doesn’t know of any other female brewers in the state.

“I think the perception of working in a brewery is going to change in the next few years,” she says. “Typically you think the taproom is girls and everybody else is guys. But women bring a certain finesse to the job. We think differently, and you need that to have a more dynamic business.”

Fox hopes to launch a West Virginia chapter of the international Pink Boots Society dedicated to educating and empowering women in the alcoholic beverage industries. To do so, she needs 15 dues-paying members to join.

Karen Wade, who runs the state’s apprenticeship and training programs for the DOL, is beyond thrilled that the new apprenticeship program gives West Virginia women the opportunity to make more inroads into the male-dominated field of brewing. As one of many children from a very large, poor family, Wade herself took advantage of an apprenticeship program to enter another male-dominated field — construction. 

“Apprenticeship is one of the greatest tools in the world,” she says, after remarking on her amazement to learn at the beginning of the brewing partnership that West Virginians make beer. “There are a lot of laid off coal miners and individuals coming out of college not able to find work in their field of study. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

“I think the apprenticeship is an amazing opportunity to get hands-on instruction on the job from people in a very competitive industry,” adds Greenbrier Valley sales and marketing director Alex Durand. “You need some academic study, but a majority is learned by experience in this trade.”

But as one of the biggest breweries in the state, Greenbrier could end up paying $93,600 per year in state taxes on the 3,400 barrels it produces each year if the governor’s bill passes. That’s after initially losing 45% of its business to bar closures during the pandemic.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment before publication. Fox, however, is watching the legislation nervously as she learns the skills she’ll use in what she hopes will be her next job. 

“The more exposure this program gets the better it’s going to be,” she says. “There are enough breweries looking for good brewers. But if the bill goes through, a lot of breweries in West Virginia are going to struggle. My career in this industry could be over in the next few weeks.”

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