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Small batches mean big bucks for craft beer brewers in West Virginia

Craft brewing is showing no signs of going flat

By CASEY JUNKINS

The Intelligencer of Wheeling

WHEELING, W.Va. — Kevin Ayers said he made “a lot of money” during his years as a project consultant for financial services giants Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, but never really enjoyed the work.

Kevin Ayers said, “We’ve invested a significant amount. We are constantly building the business and working to expand.”

Now, Ayers spends each day brewing about 62 gallons of ales, porters, stouts and IPAs with his Brew Keepers business at 2200 Main St. in Wheeling. He keeps 32 types of grains, 11 varieties of hops and four yeasts at the shop.

Currently, Ayers sells his beer at about 20 different locations throughout the Wheeling area, with hopes of continued expansion. He said he could double production with the space and equipment he now has, although this would place quite the strain on his time.

“We are basically running this whole machine on two people,” the 44-year-old Wheeling resident said, adding that he and wife, Carolyn Ayers, are the co-owners. Ayers said he and business partner Josh Fulton do the brewing.

“We’ll probably have to eventually hire some employees. But the main thing is, we have been profitable since the minute we opened our doors,” Ayers said, adding he sold his first growler of “Ye Olde Ale” in July 2016.

Craft Beer Craze

Ayers began his operation less than a city block from the already-successful Wheeling Brewing Co., which opened in 2014 at 2247 Market St. Unlike its predecessor, Brew Keepers does not currently offer on-premise consumption, although Ayers said he would like to eventually expand into this area.

“We are on the cusp of something huge in Wheeling,” Ayers said regarding ongoing urban renewal, with craft beer contributing to the growth.

According to the Brewers Association for Small and Independent Craft Brewers, Ayers’ operation is the second in the Friendly City and the 15th in West Virginia. The industry generated about $293 million worth of economic activity in the Mountain State during 2016, while it led to $2.67 billion in Ohio and $5.78 billion in Pennsylvania.

“With a strong presence across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, craft breweries are a vibrant and flourishing economic force at the local, state and national level. As consumers continue to demand a wide range of high quality, full-flavored beers, small and independent craft brewers are meeting this growing demand with innovative offerings, creating high levels of economic value in the process,” said Bart Watson, who serves as chief economist for the Brewers Association.

Ayers said the reasons for the popularity of craft beer are plenty, but he believes the main factor is quality.

“We use water, barley, hops and yeast. There are no chemicals,” Ayers said. “When you make beer, you are really on its time. We don’t rush the process.”

Ayers said getting some traditional beer drinkers to switch to craft beer can be challenging, particularly in a traditionally “blue-collar” area such as Wheeling. Therefore, he decided to create beers that would provide a familiar taste for these consumers.

“Our goal was to give people a chance to experiment a little bit. We knew we would have to bring in beers that the blue-collar beer drinker could enjoy,” he said. “We built easy beers that people want to drink.”

Examples of craft beers at Brew Keepers:

“Ye Olde Ale” — Ayers describes his original beer as a German/American ale;

“Deathwind” — an American pale ale;

“Topper Gold” — an American take on a British golden ale;

“Flip Flop” — a West Coast IPA that Ayers said is his top-seller;

“Heritage Porter” — a robust porter;

“Irish Pirate” — an Irish extra stout; and

“Highlander” — a coffee stout.

Just down the street at the Wheeling Brewing Co., one can find craft beverages such as these:

“McColloch’s Wheat” — a golden American wheat ale;

“Panhandle Pale Ale” — an American pale ale;

“Route 40 American Red” — an American red ale;

“Moon Dog IPA” — described as having a “powerfully bitter profile;” and

“Nail City Porter” — featuring chocolate and caramel malts with roasted barley.

Though many craft beer drinkers happen to be of the millennial generation, Ayers said the majority of his customers are over age 35. One of those is Smithfield resident Gary Kish, who said he makes the trip down every couple of weeks to take home some Topper Gold or Deathwind.

“I highly, highly recommend it to anyone who asks,” Kish said.

Finding a Home in Wheeling

An Akron, Ohio native, Ayers said he actually visited Wheeling for the first time while learning his skills in driver’s education class while in high school. He decided to attend West Liberty University, graduating with a business administration degree in 1995.

It was while living and working in Cleveland that Ayers said he picked up the art of beer brewing. Initially, it was just a hobby, as his job with Merrill Lynch was his career focus.

“I actually learned to brew on my birthday. I did it a few times per year. I never thought it would end up being a career,” he said.

Ayers said he developed the outline of a business plan for Brew Keepers on the back of a napkin while sitting in an airport in Baton Rouge, La. At the time, he still didn’t think it would actually happen.

Eventually, Bank of America acquired Merrill Lynch, while Ayers received a transfer from Cleveland to work in western Pennsylvania. Then, in 2014, he got laid off.

“I thought it would be a lot of fun if I could brew beer and work at the same time,”he said. Things are working out so far.”

Now, where cupcakes, pies and bread loaves had been the norm, suds are born. That is because Brew Keepers is located in the space which the Wonder Bread and Hostess Bakery outlet once occupied.

Ayers lives in Wheeling with his wife Carolyn, along with children, Beighley and Keegan. He believes the city’s future is bright.

“Wheeling is not there just yet, but we are getting there. Restaurants are coming and surviving. Artists are coming and surviving,” Ayers said. “It’s just something you can feel. The whole environment in Wheeling is changing.”

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