Hunter S. Thompson once claimed that an old Celtic adage, “Good people drink good beer, “ is just as true today as it ever was. “Just look around you,” he said, “in any public barroom, and you will quickly see: Bad people drink bad beer. Think about it.”
Admittedly, what constitutes “good beer” is certainly up for debate, but for Carolyn and Kevin Ayers — owners of one of Wheeling’s newest businesses, Brew Keepers — and their partner Josh Fulton, the definition of “good beer” is not that complicated: “Simple. Craft. Beer.”
For the record, like many men and women my age, I have tried to brew craft beer at home. I stress the word “tried” because I cannot say with much confidence that I would willingly spend good money on anything I’ve produced so far. My bourbon barrel porter was at least “drinkable,” but that batch may have simply been saved by my last-minute decision to add a “wee” bit more bourbon than what the recipe called for. Still, as relatively unsuccessful as my home brews have been, it’s not something I’ll be giving up entirely any time soon. For one, brewing beer is simply a lot of fun, but also, as a self- professed beer snob, I enjoy learning as much about the craft as possible. As an English professor, I am inclined to compare it to poetry: One cannot truly appreciate the beauty and complexities of a Shakespearean sonnet, for example, without experiencing the difficulties of trying to write fourteen intelligible lines of verse on your own.
Luckily for us, just as there are naturally gifted poets, there are also naturally gifted brewers. For Kevin Ayers the desire to start crafting beer began in earnest about 20 years ago, when he and his father started brewing beer together at the Buckeye Brewing Co., in Bedford Heights, Ohio. Unlike most breweries, the Buckeye Brewing Co. offered its customers a “Brew on the Premises” option that offers would-be brewers a chance to make and bottle their own beer under the watchful eyes of the “head brewer.” The two enjoyed their experience so much that they went back to the Buckeye Brewing Co.on a regular basis, making more and more beer for what quickly became, in Kevin’s words, “something like a semi-religious experience.” The tradition lasted for several years until Kevin moved back to the Ohio Valley, but before he left, he bought his father a homebrew kit, hoping he would continue brewing on his own. A few years later, however, Kevin discovered that his father had never given it a go, so Kevin asked if he could take his gift back to try it out for himself. Luckily, after years of being supervised at Buckeye Brewing Co., he had a pretty good idea about what he was doing, and the result was, as he recalls it, “a pleasantly surprising Oktoberfest…and I just kept going from there.”
When I asked Kevin about when he first started to seriously think about brewing professionally, he laughed. “It all started,” he said, “as sort of a joke,” but then he paused, and I could tell that he wasn’t sure if that was true. “No,” he conceded, “not really a joke…no, it was never really a joke.” This was clearly a dream that had been lurking in the back of his mind for quite some time, maybe not as early as those first few batches at the Buckeye Brewing Co., but by the time he started brewing on his own, without coaching, Kevin knew he was, at the very least, pretty good at doing something he absolutely loved to do.
In the fall of 2012, Kevin joined the Wheeling Alers, a local organization that promotes itself as “a club for those who love craft beer and love to craft beer.” Although the club is composed mostly of home brewers, membership is open to anyone with a desire to learn more about craft beer, talk about craft beer, and, of course, take part in the occasional craft beer tasting. Just a few months after joining the Wheeling Alers, Kevin participated in a club-sponsored fundraiser at the Children’s Museum in downtown Wheeling. Part of the event was a “Beers Around the World” competition in which Kevin surprised the group by taking home second place with his dry Irish stout, impressing even the more seasoned veterans in the club. Not too long after the competition, Kevin was talking about his prize-winning beer at the Ye Olde Alpha, when the restaurant’s senior bartender, Josh Fulton, said he wanted the sample the goods and see what all the fuss was about. He was, one can only assume, simply looking to offer his “expert” opinion, but—to hear Kevin describe the subsequent tasting—after just one sip of his Irish stout, Josh was hooked, and he wanted to join in on the brewing process.
“The whole thing just snowballed from there,” Kevin says.
He and Josh (along with Kevin’s wife, Carolyn) started brewing on a weekly basis, often twice a week, all three becoming active members of the Wheeling Alers, honing their skills, trying out new recipes and seeing just how well their beer stacked up against so many other experienced brewers. Then, on March 18,, 2013, Kevin and Carolyn were sitting in an airport in Baton Rouge, La., when their discussion turned to the possibility of opening a brewery in Wheeling. That’s when Carolyn decided to take matters into her own hands and make things “official.” She grabbed a napkin and a pen, and the two of them started brainstorming a bullet list of what would ultimately become the genesis of Brew Keepers.
Kevin and Carolyn both majored in business at West Liberty University, and they met while working at the same financial institution years later, so they were already confident in their ability to handle the economic issues of opening a new business. Money-wise, they knew the struggles that almost every new business must face, but despite their similar education and work experience, the bullet points on that initial “business plan” had surprisingly very little do with finances:
- Small batch beer
- Traditional styles
- Honesty & truthfulness
- Environment w/ casual, friendly convo.
- Great tasting
- Easy drinking
- Variety for all palates
- Prost [German for “Cheers”]
The brewery’s motto quickly followed suit: “Simple. Craft. Beer,” and the unassuming logo that Carolyn scrawled on a piece of notebook paper six months later quickly became a symbol of their vision of bringing their own high-quality craft beer into the Ohio Valley.
To make it work, however, they knew that they couldn’t go at it alone, but luckily for them, they already had a partner in the wings. By that time, Kevin and Josh had been brewing together for quite some time, continuously experimenting with recipes and learning the logistics of brewing larger amounts of beer. And while Kevin and Carolyn had the financial experience to make the paperwork as relatively painless as possible, Josh provided years of experience working as one of Wheeling’s favorite bartenders. He knew what local beer drinkers like to drink, and—more importantly from a business perspective—he knew what they were willing to buy. Kevin is also quick to point out that Josh comes from a family of farmers and biologists (both his mother & brother teach at local colleges), making him uniquely invaluable when it comes to understanding the ingredients and the chemical processes necessary to produce their own distinctive craft beers. In 2014 and 2015, their Czech dark lager scored high enough in regional contests to earn entries into the National Homebrew Competition (NHC), the largest international competition of its kind in the world. Sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association and the Beer Judge Certification Program, the NHC is largely considered to be one of the premier venues for amateur brewers to earn international recognition, and for those hoping to brew professionally, such competitions can go a long way in establishing a brewer’s reputation in an increasingly crowded industry.
Of course, the recent surge in microbreweries across the United States is both a blessing and curse for would-be brewers, but the team behind Brew Keepers has always been confident that they could benefit from the one of America’s most booming industries. In 2011, craft breweries accounted for less than 6 percent of the total beer sales in the United States; today that number has risen to over 12 percent. In the past few years alone, most reports suggest that craft beer production has risen by at least 40 percent and that sales are not too far behind. And while some might be worried that the craft-brew bubble is ready to burst, Kevin is convinced that opening a new brewery in Wheeling has its own advantages:
“Although we are sort of coming in on the back-end of that bubble, I think what benefits Brew Keepers is our location in the Northern Panhandle. Wheeling is about five to seven years behind the other bigger cities in the state, and you’re starting to see a really big growth in our younger community that’s getting more involved with local government and local events.”
Specifically, Kevin credits changes made to the craft-beer laws last year in the West Virginia legislature for helping businesses like Brew Keepers operate. Those bills, signed by Governor Tomblin in May of 2015, lowered the overall cost for licenses and allowed the sell of growlers for off-site consumption. Growlers are refillable, take-home containers that typically hold about 64 ounces of beer. Allowing the sale of such containers meant that nano-breweries like Brew Keepers can sell larger quantities of beer with out the expensive supplies needed for bottling.
“Once those laws passed,” Kevin says, “it was definitely a-go for us.”
After Kevin, Josh, and Carolyn made the decision to move forward with their dream of a brewery, one of the next major hurdles was finding a location. For months, they visited dozens of possible sites, but for a while it seemed like there was nothing that would fit their needs. Early on, one promising location near a church had to be taken off the list because of local zoning ordinances, and many more buildings simply did not have the space or the utilities needed to make and, more importantly, store such large quantities of beer. Ultimately, Brew Keepers found its home at 2200 Main St. in Wheeling, in the former Wonder Bread building near Centre Market, a favorable location because of it’s size and layout. In February, 2016, Brew Keepers LLC successfully acquired the permits needed to start to start construction of the brewery’s interior, and over the next few months, the heavy equipment and supplies needed to brew large quantities of beer finally started to arrive and the initial brewing began.
By early July, word of mouth started to get out that Brew Keepers would soon be ready to start selling growlers from their location, but before selling to the public, four kegs of ale were sent to the Ye Olde Alpha for what might be called a “test run,” to test the waters in a reliable location that Josh knew well from his years of bartending. The kegs were put on tap on July 11, and by the next morning the restaurant called to let Brew Keepers know that they should probably bring more ale as soon as possible; they were already sold out.
The following Monday, July 18, Brew Keepers finally opened its doors to the public, selling growlers and merchandise to a steady stream of costumers, many of whom were already familiar with the brewers’ reputations, having tasted their beer at events hosted by the Wheeling Alers. Opening-day costumers had four beers to choose from: Suspension (a pre-prohibition cream ale), Flip Flop (an IPA), Deathwind (a pale ale), and Ye Olde Ale (the light ale originally sold at the Ye Olde Alpha). While placing their orders, first-day costumers also had the opportunity to see (and smell) the brewing process for themselves, getting an early look at one of the brewery’s next offerings, a one-of-a-kind coffee stout made with Wheeling Coffee’s Highlander Grogg.
Jim Adams, a native of Wheeling who recently moved back to the Valley, was “ecstatic” to hear that Wheeling would be home to a new brewery, especially one founded by brewers with such a great reputation.
“Word of mouth about this place has been huge,” he said, as he bought a growler of Flip Flop, “The first day they had it at Ye Old Alpha, I raced over and got it on tap. I was there by 5 p.m., and they told me that they had already gone through most of their kegs before I even got there. That’s when someone told me that this would be the first day for growlers, and it’s why I’m here today.”
Throughout the first day, most costumers echoed Adams’ enthusiasm for more beer options in Wheeling. Charles Griffith, for example, was just one of many customers who appeared to be just as excited for the community as they were about the beer:
“I’m excited to try what they have because it looks like Wheeling is ready to expand into a true craft brew market.”
Another first-time customer, Mario Muscar, appreciated the fact that Brew Keepers was playing a major role in revitalizing one of the area’s historically important industries.
“Wheeling has a long history of making beer that went away over the past few decades,” he said. “I am happy to see a resurgence. I have not tasted their beer before, but after tasting my first growler, I will be tasting it often!”
Most costumers were eager to try something new, and many of the new patrons said that they were simply glad to see that things appeared to be going so well for the new business. Kevin and Josh won’t say exactly how many growlers they sold on that first day (I counted at least thirty in a few hours.), but they are at least willing to admit that they tripled their projected sales for the opening day.
The “napkin that started it all” hangs on the wall in the small office adjacent to the front room of Brew Keepers, a room that currently serves as both a brew room and a salesroom. Space is at a premium, but there is room to grow next door, and the mission remains the same, “Simple. Craft. Beer.”
“Craft beer doesn’t have to be complicated,” Kevin says, “We want to bring more good, Wheeling crafted beer back to this area. It doesn’t have to be overly hoppy or complicated. Just good beer.”