Number of breweries continues to grow in Monongalia, Preston counties

MORGANTOWN — It started with a Christmas gift, said Roger Johnson, owner of Screech Owl Brewing in Bruceton Mills.
Crista, Roger’s wife, bought him a beer-making kit for Christmas and soon Roger was making beer and developing a following among his friends and family.
The timing was fortuitous. Roger, who made wine as a hobby was also looking for a way to retire from long-haul trucking so he could spend more time at home.
“For some reason, the beer-making process made immediate sense to me,” he said.
And soon, the Johnsons were spending the weekends he was home visiting breweries in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Indiana to learn all they could about the business.
“As if I did not get enough driving during the week,” he said.
Those weekend trips proved fruitful. Roger said he and Crista learned about the business and decided to take the plunge.
“After two years of research and study, we purchased a SABCO brewing system,” he said.
But, they had to liquidate nearly all of their assets to raise the financing to start Screech Owl.
“Because we were a startup, everyone wanted the prevailing interest rate or 50 to 75 percent down on the amount we wanted to borrow,” Roger said. “If we had that amount we would not be borrowing the money.”
That was in 2015, and since that time the Johnsons have expanded the brewery and opened an adjacent restaurant, the Spent Grain, using recipes tried in their kitchen at home.
Their formula of hard work and sweat equity paid off for the couple. In 2018, the U.S. Small Business Administration named Roger and Crista West Virginia’s Encore Entrepreneurs of Year, an annual award that recognizes people who have started businesses after the age of 55.
The Johnsons are not alone in north-central West Virginia when it comes to breweries. In fact, more breweries are popping up each day., which tracks business in the state and Appalachia, said there are around a dozen new breweries in the planning stages, including 304 Brewing Co. and The Nine One and Two Brewery, both in Morgantown, and the Clarksburg Brewing Co. in Clarksburg. Also, High Ground Brewing Co. in Terra Alta recently opened.
According to the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based national trade group for small and independent craft breweries, West Virginia had 26 craft breweries, ranking it 46th — tied with Rhode Island — in the country with an economic impact of $293 million, 44th highest. The association defines a craft brewer as an entity that makes 6 million — or less — barrels of beer a year. The brewery is considered independent if the business is owned by someone who is in the alcoholic beverage business, but is not a craft brewer.
Delaware is 45th with 27 craft breweries; Hawaii, 48th with 20; and California has 841 craft breweries, the most in the country. Nationwide, 1,049 craft breweries were open in the United States, while 219 closed. Craft beer as a whole accounts for 13% of the beer market.
Depending on the size of the brewery, or whether equipment is new or used, it can take anywhere from $100,000 to around $1 million to start a beer brewing business, the association said.
Brian Arnett, co-owner of Mountain State Brewing Co., has been in the beer business since 2005, making him and his business partner and stepbrother, Willie Lehmann the grizzled veterans of the West Virginia beer business.
Mountain State has persevered. The brewery is in Thomas, while tap rooms are now in Morgantown, Bridgeport and Deep Creek, Md. The brewery is putting out 4,000 barrels a year and has capacity for more. Its best seller is Almost Heaven Amber Ale.
“We didn’t quit,” he said in an email. “It’s a lot of work. We were ahead of the market a little bit — that helped.”
Arnett said he began home brewing while in junior high school. After coming back from a trip, Arnett talked to Lehmann, who drew up the plans for the brewery.
Like Johnson, money was tight.
“I got a job as assistant brewer at the old Sission’s in Baltimore and within a month took over all brewing operations,” he said. He also started buying and storing equipment for an eventual move back to West Virginia.
Jana and Dallas Wolfe, owners of Preston County-based High Ground Brewing, said they were able to secure a small business loan and are now making 10 different beers they hope to distribute across the state in the coming months.
“It started initially with home brewing,” Dallas said in an email. “A friend of mine had been asking me to try it out with him and once I did, I learned to love it. The first few batches turned out terrible, but that just drove me to find out what I was doing wrong and correct it. My mistakes fuel my desire to learn even more about the process.”
Aaron Rote, president of the West Virginia chapter of the Craft Brewers Guild, said while the beer business in the Mountain State is growing, it still lags behind its counterparts in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio.
“West Virginia craft beer business is strong as it ever was,” said Rote, who is also the co-owner of Short Store Brewing in Rivesville. “The state is very friendly to breweries.
“We’ve been catching up quickly.”
A bill allowing brewers to raise the alcohol by volume limit to 15 percent goes into effect in July, allowing local brewers to compete against their counterparts in the neighboring states.
“Definitely a fan of reducing any regulations on beer,” said Mountain State’s Arnett.
“I don’t think this will particularly help us. We brew and have always brewed session ales that are comfortable to drink,” Arnett said. “A beer should introduce someone to new flavors without being overwhelming, or being about a brewer with a big ego bragging about how many hops he or she can shove into a keg of beer.”
Rote said no one is going to get rich off making beer. After two years, he said he makes enough off Short Story to pay the bills. The biggest business cost for him is grain, which keeps going up in price as demand for craft beer climbs.
Roger Johnson said he has no regrets diving into the beer business. But, if he had to do it all over again, he would open the café first and get a brewing system larger than 10 barrels.

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