Following the dinner rush Tuesday at River City Restaurant in Wheeling, a customer stood in front of the bar’s 24 taps, searching for the perfect beer to try.
After deciding on a Great Lakes Brewing Company IPA at the suggestion of manager Josh Redman, the man sat at the bar and investigated all aspects of the contents of his pint glass: The color, the smell and – finally – the taste.
“That’s a great beer,” the man said with a satisfied smile.
The exchange, though brief, is becoming more common at River City and bars throughout the Wheeling area, as the craft beer movement pours into the area.
A Craft Brew Explosion
Craft breweries – small, independent operations that mainly distribute regionally – have exploded throughout the country, with hundreds of new operations popping up each year. In 2013, West Virginia had seven craft breweries that produced 19,542 barrels of beer, according to the Brewers Association organization. In total, craft beer was responsible for a $118 million economic impact in the state.
Already this year, at least three new breweries have started or been announced – including one coming to Wheeling this fall.
However, as recently as two years ago, finding a craft beer in the area required much searching. At River City, the six draft taps featured brewing giants such as Miller, Coors and Anheuser-Busch.
“It seems like in the past two years, it’s really picked up,” said Redman, who brought the idea of carrying craft brews on tap after a trip to Chicago four years ago.
“I came home and told (River City’s owners) this was something that was going to take off soon, and it did,” he said.
The owners told Redman he could carry whatever beers he wanted – as long as he installed the taps himself. Redman was up to the challenge, and the bar now has 24 taps, with plans for eight more. Redman said craft beer now makes up roughly 30 percent of beer sales at the restaurant. He said brands such as Great Lakes, Southern Tier Brewing Company from New York and Rivertowne Brewing Company in Pittsburgh bring in curious drinkers.
“It seems the hoppier the beer, the better,” he said, adding price does not seem to matter to customers as much anymore. “People don’t complain about the price. They can have a Bud Light or Yeungling on draft for $1.50, but they’re paying that $6 for a Southern Tier.”
Jeff Paolina, president of Muxie Distributing in Bellaire, said the region is finally seeing some of the windfall of the craft beer movement, which according to the Brewers Association grew by 17.2 percent in 2013. He said while craft brews still only account for about 2 percent of overall sales – compared to a 10 percent national average – the increase is noticeable.
“People seem to be using crafts for special occasions,” he said. “We see people buy 10 cases of a standard beer, but they’ll also get four cases of a craft.”
Paolina said the company’s distribution agreement with New Belgium Brewing Company of Colorado is indicative of how the craft beer movement is spreading.
“They wanted to come to Ohio for distribution, so we went through a very stringent interview and application process so they could decide who they wanted to work with,” he said. “These smaller, local craft breweries are trying to grow and sell and expand and be successful.”
For Josh Clarke, head brewmaster at Wheeling Brewing Company – opening this fall in the city’s Centre Market – the craft brew explosion has been a long time coming in his home state.
“The idea of craft brews and brewpubs is to offer something you can’t get anywhere else,” he said.
A Brewing Destination
Clarke, who grew up in Canaan Valley and Fairmont, attended the University of Vermont, where he was exposed to the intricacies of craft beer. At the time, the state had the most breweries per capita of any state in the union, and Clarke and his friends took full advantage.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” he said, adding his circle of friends started making their own home brews to learn more about the process.
After graduating, Clarke wanted to open his own brewery in Vermont, but a trip to his home state gave him a different idea.
“I realized it needed to happen here, and that I wanted my state to have something like this,” he said.
After setting up shop in Morgantown, Clarke began looking for a space and to find a way to finance a brewery of his own. Meanwhile, his father had taken a job in Wheeling, and met city resident Chad Hill, who had recently started concocting beers in his home under the aptly-named Basement Brewery. Hill shared his brews with Clarke’s father, and expressed some of the concerns and issues he had with the process.
Eventually, Clarke and Hill were introduced.
“Within a few weeks, he brought me in as head brewmaster,” Clarke said.
The group – which also includes Dave Cornett and James Schulte – rebranded itself as Wheeling Brewing Company, and went about securing the Centre Market space. Clarke said once it opens this fall, there will be six house brews on tap, in addition to one experimental brew. Additionally, there will be at least one craft beer from one of the state’s other breweries.
However, the brewpub will not just be a place to have a meal and try beer. In addition to live music and special events – such as charity fundraisers – the group hopes to offer a setting that becomes a destination for out-of-town visitors.
“We want to create a sense of community as a way to bring the Main Street mentality back into the spotlight,” he said. “We want this to be our town’s beer, something the people here can be proud of.”
“It’s Not About The Beer”
Clarke and the rest of his Wheeling Brewing cohorts take their beer seriously, but Clarke is also quick to point out the popularity of craft breweries is due to more than just what’s poured in a glass.
“My mission statement, of sorts, is ‘it’s not about the beer, it’s about the people,'” he said.
Craft beer has become an experience and, according to Paolina, often times an event in itself.
“People are more interested now in looking for a different flavor, pairing beer with different foods, finding ways to mix things and making an event of it,” he said.
For Clarke, the experience is a way to “lube the social gears” with friends, acquaintances and even complete strangers. He said craft beer and brewpubs offer a place for friends to get together and talk about their shared experience. From discussing the characteristics of a beer to comparing it to other beers, it’s an instant topic of conversation.
“It brings people together,” Clarke said. “Nobody would ever say no to having a beer and a good time with their friends.”