Local brewers, distilleries offer untapped market

February 28, 2019
The annual Rails and Ales Craft Beer Festival draws thousands of people to downtown Huntington each summer. A study funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission seeks ways to help emerging businesses in brewing and distilling in four West Virginia counties, including Cabell.

Over the past couple of decades, some industries, such as retail and banking, have gone through a period of consolidation. Smaller operations are bought out or forced out as national or regional chains take over the market.

Beer, however, may be moving in the opposite direction, and that could be good for West Virginia.

As reported last week by The Herald-Dispatch reporter Fred Pace, a proposed craft beer and spirit trail running through central and western West Virginia is in the works after an Appalachian Regional Commission grant to the Marshall University Research Corp. was announced as part of ARC’s Power Awards for February 2019.

The $79,270 grant will allow the project to conduct an economic impact study of the emerging craft beer and spirits industry in the West Virginia counties of Cabell, Kanawha, Putnam and Roane. The study will identify emerging strengths, existing leakages, and new business and employment opportunities to guide local economic development leaders.

“West Virginia now has 26 microbreweries and growing,” said Matthew Ballard, president and CEO of the Charleston Area Alliance. “The industry is providing new jobs, capital investment and diverse contributions to our tax base. The opportunity to grow the efforts of these private businesses into a collective impact through gastro-tourism is the primary focus of this technical assistance grant from the ARC.”

Ballard said gastro-tourists are “foodies” who want to go behind the scenes to taste and discuss the nuances of local region-specific foods and to learn about unique ingredients and cooking techniques from cultural experts.

Dave Lieving, president and CEO of the Huntington Area Development Council, said craft breweries and small batch distilleries have grown in popularity for many years now.

“They can be a significant force in economic development when you consider how connected it is with agriculture, tourism and downtown revitalization,” Lieving said. “It’s no secret that the Huntington area is already a popular destination for beer connoisseurs. HADCO recognizes the grassroots, community-based appeal breweries have toward talent attraction and overall livability. It’s good to see we are starting to realize the connection between tourism expenditures and the economic impact it can have on our local, regional and state economy.”

The appeal of craft beers can be found in the number of festivals throughout West Virginia each year that highlight or include them. Putnam County had its first craft beer festival last fall, and it drew more than 600 people.

Locally, the big one is the annual Rails and Ales Festival each year in Huntington. Last year, people who attended the festival could try to sample more than 250 ales, lagers and ciders from 64 breweries of all sizes from around the world — 17 of which hailed from West Virginia. Brewers offered 2-ounce samples, so a person wanting to try each would have to drink nearly a gallon of beer per hour. For most of us, that’s an impossible task.

As has happened elsewhere, Huntington has had its ups and downs with craft brewing. That’s to be expected in any emerging industry.

And West Virginia is not alone in the craft beer industry. It will have to sell itself to people willing to travel to sample new beers or new products at new distilleries. It’s one thing to examine a market. It’s another to sell it.

West Virginia successfully sold whitewater rafting for a while. As trends go, it may be time to put more money and effort into advertising its craft beer and distillery industries to targeted out-of-state markets.

It’s worth a shot. Or a mug.