NC brewer talks shop at summit focusing on WV craft beer opportunities
By PHIL KABLER
SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Bill Woodrum, director of entrepreneurship at the Robert C. Byrd Institute, said he hopes Monday’s craft beer summit will function like speed dating, linking breweries and would-be brewers with local farmers who can provide ingredients for their products.
“We think it’s a great and emerging economic opportunity,” he said. “We want to see brewers that are not only producing great products, but great beverages that are sourced from our state.”
As keynote speaker for the “Craft: A Farm to Bottle Summit” in South Charleston on Monday, Todd Boera of Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton, North Carolina, typified the theme of the summit.
The craft brewery, which recently opened a second location in a former dairy farm in nearby Nebo, is nationally known for its use of locally and regionally sourced grains, malts, fruits and plants.
Boera said Monday that was the mission of the brewery from its inception less than six years ago.
“Our ultimate goal is to create products with a sense of place, and agricultural purpose,” he said.
Boera said the emphasis on using locally grown products was critical for the brewery to stand out in the face of competition from dozens of craft breweries in nearby Charlotte and Asheville.
“I can’t tell you how many breweries there are in Asheville,” he said. “They seem to be popping up everywhere.”
Boera said Fonta Flora had the good fortune of opening as the farm-to-table movement was gaining momentum nationally.
Starting with himself and one full-time employee and a $125,000 initial investment, the brewery now has 13 full-time employees, as well as 12 part-time servers (primarily moonlighting teachers) working in its two tasting rooms, Boera said.
“We played it safe the entire time,” he said. “We started super-small, and we expanded into a reasonable size brewery.”
Besides the direct sales and tourism benefits, he said the brewery’s use of local farm products - including more than 100 tons of grains and malt and 20 tons of fruit this year - provides a more than $250,000 infusion into the local economy.
He said the brewery has also contributed to the revitalization of downtown Morganton, which he said has gone from practically deserted to experiencing an explosion of new shops and restaurants, as well as construction of the city’s first downtown hotel.
That growth recently landed Boera on the cover of Beer Advocate magazine, with the cover story on “How Beer is Rebuilding Main Street.”
Terrell Ellis, Advantage Valley executive director, told the nearly 100 summit attendees there is the opportunity for similar success stories in the Charleston-Huntington metro area.
She cited a study showing that in 2017, consumers in the Advantage Valley market area spent a total of $118 million on beverages, but only about 3 percent of those sales were on products produced within the area.
“There’s a lot of demand for goods and services, and a lot of the time, we’re going outside the region to meet that demand,” she said.
Woodrum said it is disappointing that the two largest cities in West Virginia - Charleston and Huntington - each have only one craft brewery, but said he is hopeful that new legislation relaxing state beer regulations, including increasing the maximum allowable alcohol level for beer, will encourage new investment in both cities.
Meanwhile, while Fonta Flora is known for its eclectic brews using various fruits from peaches to paw paw, and even beets and kudzu as ingredients, Boera said he has not forgotten that the brewery is located in rural Appalachia.
To that end, he said the brewery produces lagers that resemble Budweiser and Miller, but using top-quality, locally grown barley, corn and rice.
“For us, it’s super important, because it represents cultural icons in this country,” he said.