Hop To It: Local Brewers Tap into Passion for Unique Beer

May/June 2015


Before installing a 20-tap system two years ago, Black Bear Burritos in downtown Morgantown could offer only four varieties of draft beer at any one time.
Now with 24 taps, beer flows freely at the restaurant, along with a desire to offer as many West Virginia brews as possible.
“When we had four taps, as least two of those were local,” said general manager Chris Lincoln in mid-March. “Now, we have at least 10, if not more.”
Luckily, enough West Virginia beers exist to accomplish that feat handily as the industry has mushroomed in the state, as has the interest by consumers to try locally-made brew.
“I get beer from Morgantown Brewing Co., Mountain State Brewing Co. and also Chestnut Brew Works,” said Lincoln, naming the three breweries that have a strong presence in Morgantown.
“I also get beer from Big Timber Brewing Co., Greenbrier Valley Brewing Co. and Charleston Brewing Co. And at the moment, I don’t have Bridge Brew Works, but I usually do.”
Established in 2009, Morgantown Brewing Co. is the Monongalia County granddaddy, existing in a space on University Avenue that has been occupied by breweries for nearly 25 years. It opened in the same year the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill that allowed the alcohol percentage to double by volume from 6 percent to 12 percent.
Then there is Mountain State Brewing Co., established by step-brothers Brian Arnett and Willie Lehmann in Thomas in Tucker County in 2005. They opened their popular, eponymous pizzeria in Morgantown’s Wharf District in 2011; then followed that up last spring with the Iron Horse Tavern on High Street, a concept restaurant that sells not only Mountain State Brewing Co.’s cold ones but also those of their competitors.
And sneaking up on everybody is Bill Rittenour, a bit of mad scientist or Renaissance man, depending on whom you ask. Rittenour draws on his undergraduate degree in forestry and his Ph.D. in microbiology to figure out different combinations of hops, malt, yeast and water to create recipes that please the palate. He also carves his own wooden tap handles from sticks he finds.
Rittenour might be the new guy on the block but he has concocted a beer beloved by many, Halleck Pale Ale, which beeradvocate.com ranked the No. 1 West Virginia brew.
When Rittenour, who started brewing beer in 2013 in the basement of his Halleck Road home, quit production for a month or so while he moved into his new South Park location in Morgantown, customers at area watering holes were clamoring for more.
“People would call and ask, ‘Do you have any Chestnut Brew Works?” said Andy Fields, buyer for Pies & Pints in Morgantown.
“When we got delivery from the new brewery, we went through 30 gallons of Halleck Pale Ale in a matter of days.”
Fields calls the Halleck Pale Ale, featuring citrus notes and a smooth finish, “the most amazing, fastest-selling beer. He literally can’t push out enough volume, there is such a big demand.”
Both Black Bear Burritos’ Lincoln and Michael DiMaria, the beverage manager at Kelly’s Irish Pub in Clarksburg, have witnessed the same response to Halleck Pale Ale.
“We get a very big request for it, and we have a hard time keeping it too. It’s just such a great beer and it’s so popular,” DiMaria said.
David Amiano, a fan of local craft beer, also calls Halleck Pale Ale his favorite, although the Fairmont resident, who works at West Virginia University as assistant director of dining services, likes to branch out and try other brands and flavors as well.
“What I like about local craft beers is that they are more flavorful than mass-produced beers,” Amiano said.
The stir created by the Halleck Pale Ale surprises and flatters Rittenour.
“I don’t know what I tapped into with that beer but it’s a favorite with a lot of people,” the brewer added. “I use probably seven different varieties of hops and I focus on ones that have citrus and floral characters.”
But the Halleck Pale Ale is just one story among several as West Virginia brewers race to snatch up Appalachian-themed names to make their beers sound as unique as they taste.
Such as Chestnut Brew Works’ Class II Wheatwater; Morgantown Brewing Co.’s dual India Pale Ales — Zack Morgan IPA and Jesco’s White IPA; Mountain State Brewing Co.’s Almost Heaven Amber Ale; and Greenbrier Valley Brewing Co.’s Mothman Black IPA and Wild & Wonderful IPA.
And if Mountain State Brewing Co.’s Arnett has his way, eventually his beers will have a taste even more individual to the region as he cultivates an acre of hops next to his other restaurant in Deep Creek, Maryland.
“Hops is where you make a big difference,” said Arnett, noting that the manufacturing of malt is a “formidable” process that not a lot of brewers take on.
As breweries pop up all over the state, Elkins native Arnett’s philosophy clearly has been to embrace the competition.
One way has been through hosting the Brew Skies Festival (brewskiesfestival.com) in Canaan Valley, which this year will take place at Timberline Four Seasons Resort on Aug. 21 and 22.
“It’s helpful to have more breweries,” Arnett said. “It gets consumers thinking they do have options that they can try and should try. It sways consumers to try something new, which benefits the entire craft industry.”
The industry in West Virginia is in its infancy but is definitely showing signs of growth, compared to 1991, when there was one brewery. According to Gig Robinson, spokesman for the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration, now 11 breweries have licenses to make beer in the state and eight — with one pending — have brewpub licenses which allow consumption on the premises.
The ways in which consumers can purchase beer also continue to expand. Although draft beer in a bar or restaurant reigns as the method of delivery, some local brews come in bottles and are available in convenience stores. Mountain State is in the process of switching to cans.
As of now, Chestnut Brew Works only has growlers that can be taken off-site, Rittenour said. That method might grow now that the state Legislature just passed a bill that will allow not only brewpubs but also restaurants to sell the refillable 32-ounce and 64-ounce containers.
And Morgantown Brewing Co., which also features a restaurant as well as seasonal beer specials — watch for the Bergsteiger, German for Mountaineer, this spring and summer — soon will be opening up a separate production facility in Morgantown, brewmaster Brian Anderson said.
“We will still produce it here, but that will give us a lot of variety,” Anderson added. “The new production facility is going to be tenfold what we can produce here in-house, where we will still do specialty one-off brews, seasonal and experimental stuff, while we will brew our flagship beers at the new facility.”
And then there is the continued effort to get the word out. Proprietors of the area’s various watering holes report a customer base eager to try new brews.
“We push a lot of local stuff,” said Black Bear Burritos’ Lincoln. “If someone says, ‘Hey, what do you have for an IPA?’ we always push something from West Virginia, always. Usually people need a hand. They look up on our board and see 20 beers.”
At Pies & Pints, Fields acknowledges that staff members try to bring around fans of national brands to West Virginia brews.
“We call it ‘converting’ people,” Fields added. “People come in and they are used to drinking Bud Lite, Coors Lite, Michelob Ultra, Yuengling. We’ll sample beers for free. And even if they go for a Bud Lite, it gives them the opportunity to try a couple other beers.
“Once you get them hooked on something, they are excited to come back and try something new.”