At first glance, it’s just another warehouse in the industrial park in Max- welton, but in actuality, the Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company is a place where creativity and science combine to make one-of-a-kind beers.
As the brain child of Wil Laska and David Kucera, the brewery opened in 2014, in a historical event in which it was the first time in 44 years that beer had been canned in West Virginia.
Since its inception, the brewery has become known for its three flagship beers: Wild Trail Pale Ale, Mothman Black IPA and Devil Anse IPA, as well as its many small batch, limited edition beers.
The real heart of the brewery, though, is the brew crew, two of whom are brewer Will Gudmundsson and canning line manager Maggie Hower, who are given free rein to create new varieties of IPAs, pale ales, pilsners, stouts, porters and lagers on the small batch pilot system.
As someone with no knowledge of beer, it can be daunting to walk into a brewery and answer the question “what do you like?” Luckily, brewers have the necessary expertise.
“Most beers fall into two categories, those are ales and lagers,” Gudmundsson said. “Those are like the two kingdoms of beers. Lager is anything from your Michelob to Anheuser to German, Bavarian, Munich-style lagers. They’re all cold fermented. IPAs and pale ales – both are typically brewed with pale malts, not a lot of malt complexity and pale ale can be really simple, enough bitterness to balance it, but not really a prominent hop profile whereas IPA usually showcases the hops.”
While the brewers have their own tastes and ideas for flavors of beer, there is one thing they have in common – hops.
“We kind of go crazy because we’re hop heads around here,” Gudmundsson said. “We put a lot of hops into our pale ale, too.”
The brewery is big on educating the public about beer and the care taken when brewing a batch, so it offers tours to show the process of making beer.
From malt to can, making a beer takes up to two or two-and-a-half weeks.
Most beers are created using the same ingredients used when it was first discovered in Mesopotamia in the fertile crescent. Like a lot of great creations, beer was discovered by accident when stored grain began to sprout and malted.
“They discovered it by accident when they were storing the grains that they gathered,” Hower said. “The grains would sprout during the rainy season. It would rain and the grains would get all wet so they would start to sprout and then they would dry out. Then they added water and the grains got malted. Then more water collected in it and then it fermented.”
Once the grains are malted, they are put into a larger hammer mill which grinds it down to a powder. The powder is transferred to the mash ton where it is mixed with water.
“The water is hot water – it’s usually about one hundred, fifty-four degrees because that’s where the enzymes in the grain do most of their work, so that they can break down the sugars into the right sugars that the yeast eat,” Hower said. “It usually takes half an hour, forty minutes for the enzymes to do their jobs. Then it comes into this contraption which is called the mash press.”
The mash press is a unique piece of equipment which is rare in the country – only about 12 are utilized in the United States. It has air bags in it which squeeze all the water – or wort – out of the mash before running fresh water through the mix in a technique called sparging which removes all the excess sugars.
“It’s basically just fiber at this point,” Hower said. “It just stays in here until we dump it out. We dump it into bins and that goes to a local farmer. He feeds his bulls with it. It actually doesn’t have any alcohol in it until you put yeast into it in the fermenter.”
After being separated from the fiber, the mixture is boiled to remove unwanted compounds. Then the hops come into play. The hops have alpha acids which determine the bitterness of the beer.
“They’re like little granule pockets in the leaves and that’s actually what people measure, so a higher alpha acid means that it’s going to make your beer more bitter, quicker than a lower alpha acid hop,” Hower said. “A lower one might be a little more floral than one that has a higher alpha acid level. We had those in the kettle to make it bitter and to kind of balance out the malt flavor so that it’s not just a whole gulp of sweet when you take a drink of beer.”
The mixture is sent into a whirlpool from the boil kettle where the hop particles are sent to the bottom into a trub pile. Once the particles are separated, the final step begins. The mixture is moved to another kettle and mixed with yeast.
“These are the fermenters and they’ve got the conical shape on the bottom so that the yeast can have a place to flocculate when they make the beer,” Hower said. “They just settle at the bottom which is how we are able to harvest some of them instead of using new yeast every single time.”
As it’s fermenting, the mixture is at a temperature of around the high 60s, but it is taken down slowly throughout the process. After a week-and-a-half, the fermented mixture goes through a diacetyl rest to remove the compound diacetyl which would leave a buttery flavor in the beer.
A few days later, the beer is moved to bright tanks where it is carbonated. From there, it’s canned and shipped around the country.
While the brewery focuses on its three flagship beers, the brewers are encouraged to try new things and make their own recipes. Through the pilot system, the brewery makes small batch beers which are usually seasonal or limited time specialty beers.
Hower has made three of her own beers, so far.
“I usually start with an idea of what I want to do,” she said. “My first beer that I ever made was a sage saison and that just came out of nowhere. Then I did some research. There are home brewer websites where people have done all kinds of crazy stuff and they tell everybody about it. The black lager was my second beer, and the star anise is my third one.
“We do a bunch of research on those to see what they used, how much of each particular grain or if you’re doing a special ingredient like the sage – if they put this much in and it turned out to be way too much or if they used dried or fresh ingredients,” she continued. “It’s just a lot of research. I have Will and Gary [Vermillion, operations manager], look it over because they’ve been brewing for a lot longer than I have.”
Interestingly enough, Hower didn’t really have a taste for beer until she saw the artistic side of things.
“I didn’t really used to ever like beer at all,” she said. “Actually when I was sixteen, I went into the Irish pub with my sister and she had me try one that she was drinking. I actually spat it out, so I haven’t always liked beer regardless of what I tell people sometimes. I just really got into the artistic aspects of it when I was in college up in Morgantown. I kind of fell in love with all the cool stuff you can do with it and all the work that goes into it.”
All the seasonal brews have a potential to become a flagship and in May, one of those, the Lily Dipper Wit, will be unveiled as the fourth flagship with a new name and undisclosed “mascot.”
“All of our beers are named after legends in West Virginia,” marketing manager Lisa Stansell said. “We have Devil Anse Hatfield. The Wild Trail is the Sasquatch. Mothman is from the Mothman and Point Pleasant. So, our next one is a girl legend.”
Each beer has its own unique design, as well. The cans are adorned with their mascots, a tale of the legend behind the mascot and a newspaper-style headline about the legend.
Along with offering tours to visitors, the brewery hosts events throughout the year with live music and good food. Visitors are treated like family and parties are a lot like family reunions – corn hole to one side, picnic tables and live entertainment for dancing.
For more information on upcoming events, see the Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company ad on page 14, or visit the website, http://www.gvbeer.com
Revised April 27, 2017