When Brilliant Stream’s West Virginia Beer Roads podcast team visited Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company (GVBC) recently, we got lots of news and updates. Brewery president and majority owner Bill Heckel and his crew are in the midst of taking West Virginia craft beer to places it has never been before.
Their aggressive distribution posture is fueling sales and taking GVBC to the top position among WV breweries. While finishing second in sales volume last year to Big Timber Brewing, their current pace is so strong that they could easily end this year in first place.
Their marketing push has really gained steam within the state. Heckel says when he came on board a year and a half ago, they were only in a handful of Kroger stores. “Now we’re in every single one in West Virginia,” he said. “We’re moving into more convenience stores, and we just sent [pricing/product information] out to Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas. That’s pretty nice to be invited by them.” GVBC’s strongest market is southern West Virginia, where they feel they have the highest market share among WV brands. Anyone who looks around the WV market can easily see that GVBC beer is on the move.
Entering new markets
The brewery’s current big marketing push, however, is out-of-state. Never before to this extent has a West Virginia brewery aggressively marketed in Virginia, District of Columbia, and Maryland. GVBC now has three full-time sales representatives out in the field. All have responsibilities for covering sections of Virginia and/or Maryland and D.C. Heckel also says they are making plans to enter more markets in Virginia and then on to Ohio, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Achieving this would make GVBC a true regional brewery — a first for West Virginia.
“Right now we still have over 50 percent capacity that we can do in our facility,” Heckel says. The brewery has a five-year plan to grow sales and use up that extra capacity. With their current sales track and momentum, they could actually meet those five-year goals in three or four years. If they stay ahead of schedule, that would mean moving up the date for an expanded production facility. Those expansion plans are in a very early stage right now, Heckel says.
As in the Virginia market, GVBC will take small steps when entering large markets like Ohio and North Carolina. They will enter each area section-by-section rather than trying to enter the whole state at once. Both Heckel and Sales Manager Alex Durand say that one of the keys to building out-of-state distribution is finding distributor and retailer personnel with West Virginia links. They say they’ve had a lot of luck with finding people in key wholesaler/retailer positions who are West Virginia transplants. They find those folks want to promote a West Virginia beer and GVBC benefits from that connection.
Change of management style
Heckel says one of the things they have changed is their management style. He says they have moved from a vertical-style line of command, run under a strong general manager, to a more horizontal style. While everyone still ultimately reports to Heckel, key unit directors now have more autonomy and authority for decision making in their areas. The current management team includes:
- Brian Reymiller, brewing
- Gary Vermillion, logistics/operations
- Alex Durand, sales and marketing
- James McLendon, information technology
Beer brand development
Greenbrier Valley Brewing has been much more focused in its beer production than many of the small WV breweries. They maintain a tight group of flagships and augment that with about six or so seasonal beers. Devil Anse IPA accounts for a solid half their overall sales. Their newest flagship, Ole Ran’l Pilsner has come on strong to challenge for the number two spot. Wild Trail Pale Ale, Zona’s Revenge Witbier and Mothman Black IPA follow. Bat Boy Black Lager has popularity in a few places. Among seasonal beers, their spring-release Irish Dave’s Maple Bourbon Porter is hot. It will hit the market again this year at the first of March.
Big news on the new beer front: GVBC will be coming out with a Double IPA this year. No word yet on just what it will be like, but Reymiller promises the use of some different hops that they haven’t used before. When the seasonal FestivAle Kölsch returns in early summer, look for it to be released in 19.2 oz. stovepipe cans that should also hit some convenience store cold boxes. Last year’s FestivAle was a super good brew, and brewer Brian Reymiller assures us that it will stay that way this year. Look for some brand new seasonal releases too, the specifics of which have not yet been decided. Reymiller said three of last year’s seasonals will be replaced with new brands this year.
The brewery will double or triple the production quantity of several seasonals this year over last, including FestivAle, Green Bank Gose, and Irish Dave’s Maple Bourbon Porter. Sales manager Alex Durand says some of their seasonals will also see distribution in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland this year.
Exploring new beer styles for GVBC
Reymiller says he used to follow the philosophy of “I’m going to brew beers that I like to drink. That worked in the nineties and early 2000s.” But today, he sees a different dynamic. Reymiller says he relies more on the much younger Alex Durand, GVBC’s sales manager, and their field sales reps to keep him up with what’s hot and what’s not in the world of beer styles.
“You really need to be flexible,” he said. “You need to pay attention to your consumer—what they like. And a lot of times, if you listen to your consumers, they are going to turn you on to new things.”
So Reymiller depends on the brewery’s sale staff and taproom workers to be his ears in the market.
“As brewers go, I’m kinda one of the older guys,” Reymiller says. “When I started back in the 90s, there was no Milkshake IPAs. There was nothing like that. So I kind of rely on Alex to keep me up with the trends.”
Reymiller says he finds success in putting a Greenbrier Valley spin on their products. By that he means he incorporates local ingredients to differentiate some of their brews. And you can look for more of that in the future. They get wheat from a Pocahontas farmer that they use in Zona’s Revenge Witbier. Irish Dave’s Maple Bourbon Porter uses maple syrup from Raleigh County and Bourbon barrels from the brewery’s neighbor, Smooth Ambler Spirits. They have also used local berries and local salt in some brews.
New Craft House opening soon
Greenbrier Valley’s new Lewisburg taproom is getting close to opening. Located in the heart of downtown, it should greatly increase the visibility of GVBC brews in the town. While the brewery’s current on-site taproom is only five miles out of town, many people don’t make the trip very often and thousands of Lewisburg tourists likely miss it. With a downtown taproom, however, business will benefit from the tremendous foot traffic that Lewisburg’s many restaurants, shops and bars draw to town. This should be a great move for the brewery.
Officially called the Greenbrier Valley Craft House, in addition to serving GVBC brews, it will feature a selection of other West Virginia-made beers. Durand says to think of it as a visitors center for WV beer for the many thousands of tourists that hit Lewisburg annually. They will also distribute tourist information and promote all the other things there is to do in the area.
GVBC worked with local artisans who produced some the the taproom’s furniture and fixtures. The brewery’s graphic artist painted a large wall mural in the front room. A large garage door makes up most of the building’s front and will be opened in good weather. An outdoor patio will expand table space in summer.
Durand says the new venture will be managed by their current taproom manager, Annie Smead. Smead will also continue to oversee the existing taproom at the brewery.
The look, smell, and taste of Maple Bourbon Porter
With Irish Dave’s Maple Bourbon Porter scheduled to hit the market March 1, the Brilliant Stream team held a preview tasting with the beer — and took the opportunity to sample a few other GVBC dark beers, as well. Tasters were Rob Absten, Erin McCoy and Charles Bockway.
Brian Reymiller had told us that this year’s Porter was tweaked a bit from last year’s version. Fewer hops were added to the boil to lessen the bitterness and a bit different mix of malts were used to give the beer a little malty flavor boost. The maple syrup came from a producer in Daniels, Raleigh County, WV. A portion of the beer was rested in bourbon barrels and then blended back in with the non-barrel aged beer.
Appearance: Nice foamy head. The brewery calls it an American style porter and says the color is dark brown. While at first glance, it might appear dark brown, our sample of Dave’s was a good bit lighter in color than that and had definite red highlights when held up to a light, Seems colored more like an English porter than the typical modern American style, which are nearly black these days.
Aroma: Maple, chocolate and caramel are all present. No fruity esters.
Taste: The brewery notes call it rich and full bodied with noticeable hops and a slightly sweet finish. We found it more medium bodied, with hops just slightly registering and the finish just barely sweet. Definite tasty notes of chocolate, granola, and caramel come through. Just a tiny hint of bourbon is there.
Overall: Very nicely balanced beer with great drinkability. Good carbonation. The flavors work well together. A unique beer. This porter would be a worthy alternative to drinking an Irish stout or Irish red ale during the St. Patrick’s holiday season. Give it a try. 5.2% ABV. 12 IBU.
Great Claw and a porter-stout blend
We also tried a can of Great Claw, the GVBC bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout that was released last December. The beer still shows quite boozy and the distilled spirit flavor overpowers about everything else. Hopefully, with some additional age the booziness will diminish and the sweet roasted malts can get a chance to shine.
Rob Absten, who has a knack for blending beer, grabbed some Great Claw and mixed it with the Maple Bourbon Porter. He took a sip. His reaction was immediate and very positive. We all tried a blend, maybe 50-50, and found the results most delicious. We also tried portions of one-third porter with two-thirds stout.
The porter definitely reduced the booziness of the stout and everything went together so well. The beer really opened up. Caramel and vanilla came though strongly. Even the maple seemed enhanced and added character. Bourbon was still there, but now it was in a supporting role to the malt. We think we found a great drink. If you can still find a can of Great Claw around the market, you can’t go wrong picking one up to blend with some Irish Dave’s Maple Bourbon Porter next month.