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Building West Virginia Craft Beer Into The Outdoors Itinerary

Jeff Edwards is head brewer and a founder of Freefolk Brewery in Fayetteville, West Virginia. The brewery is just a few miles away from the New River Gorge, which was named a national park last year. The gorge–and by extension Fayetteville–are known for outdoor recreational sports such as mountain biking, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

I’m originally from southern West Virginia. My wife and I raised our son, Seth, in Morgantown, because we both went to WVU, and when he graduated high school, we decided to move back home to southern West Virginia and open up a brewery here in Fayetteville. It’s a really beautiful area surrounded by a national park. So we came here in 2000, and we bought a building in 2017 in the city limits of Fayetteville. We renovated the space and started a small brewpub with the kitchen, and we catered to people that are coming here to enjoy the area. We opened up in April 2019 and had our first year—we had a little bit of success, not as much as we’d like—then the pandemic happened.

We pivoted and did some packaging and went that route to try to stay open, and we were able to survive. And now we’re starting to have some success. This is our first season that’s out of the pandemic, and we’ve already started to see numbers that supersede what we’ve seen in the past. In fact, this past week was our most successful week that we’ve had to date.

I’m a mountain biker and a boater. The mountain biking here is world class. I’ve biked in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and all over the East Coast. And by far, this is some of the best biking I’ve ever done. I grew up mountain biking in this area. There’s a lot of new trail development going on here, too. That’s one of the big things that drew me to this area. Family, first and foremost, certainly. And then second, it was definitely the outdoor activities.

It’s even gotten bigger since I moved here. I probably know two dozen people, maybe three dozen people, that moved here just to rock climb. They bought houses and are working remotely.

This was a long time coming. It was definitely a little hidden secret on the climbing front. I think people are like, “Okay, I can live in either the Red River Gorge in Kentucky or the New River Gorge and be able to hit both spots and climb 365 days a year.” And you can still get to Charlotte or DC in a half a day’s drive. Up until about a year ago, housing was pretty affordable, and, comparatively speaking to the rest of the country, it’s still very affordable. Now with the demand for housing, because you have a lot of remote workers moving here, the housing prices have climbed.

As a kid, I grew up in the gorge, and back then you weren’t allowed to mountain bike. We rode mountain bikes in the park, and the rangers were like, “I’m going to take your bike if I see you here again.” I knew people were going to recognize it for the world-class adventure it offers—whitewater rafting, climbing, mountain biking, and trail running. I thought it was going to happen like maybe 15 years ago, but it’s just started.

We definitely consider the fact that this is such an outdoor-focused town when we make our beer. We do a series called Wild and Free, and we highlight an endangered species that’s indigenous to West Virginia. We have a beer called the Flying Squirrel, which is another species that was almost in danger because of the loss of spruce forest trees. But the spruce forests are starting to come back. We actually use spruce tips in the Flying Squirrel. That’s one of my favorite beers of all time because you get the pine flavor of the spruce tips. I love highlighting the flying squirrel. It’s a beautiful animal, and the fact that it and the spruce forests are coming back strong is a win for West Virginia.

In our Green Salamander beer, we use local lavender and rosemary. So we use local ingredients in order to highlight that stuff, too. It makes a little funky beer that maybe people have never tried before—they’ve never had a beer brewed with brut Champagne yeast that has lavender and rosemary. We have that flexibility because we are a small brewery.

Craft brewing has a weird dynamic being a manufacturing facility that has to have a septic tank. The stainless steel has to be bacteria free, and the whole process has to be very cognizant of bacteria. It’s an industrial process, and it’s pumps and tanks and measurements and science. I haven’t practiced as a professional engineer, but everything from an engineering standpoint is being put to work in every facet of what we do. There is zero doubt that it’s an engineering process on a daily basis.

During the pandemic, we bought a property across the street, turned it into parking, and then turned our parking lot into outdoor space. We built a pavilion and put a stage up. We definitely had to pivot if we were going to survive because people did not want to be indoors. And the fact is when you’re coming to Fayetteville, it’s an outdoor town, and that’s what people want. They want to have an outdoor experience, pandemic or not. I knew that over the short term an outdoor space was necessary, and over the long term it was going to work out because it’s what people want anyway.

The PPP and the other government assistance literally kept us afloat and allowed us to pivot. We had good numbers last summer, but this summer, we’re going to be even better. Because of the new national park designation, we’re seeing a lot of families. On top of that, we’re seeing a demographic of older people who are park-bound. They might not be climbers, but they love the fact that they can get that stamp that says it’s a national park.

We get a report every day on returning customers versus new customers. As of late, it’s been about a 50-50 split between tourists and locals. There are the people that are from West Virginia, like myself, and then there are people that have moved here to climb and to bike or to be river guides. But both populations are very reluctant to frequent new places. We’re just starting to get regulars now because they’re like, “They’ve been open for three years, they made it through the pandemic. We can trust them now.” That’s just the way it is. It’s the mentality of outdoor people and West Virginia folks that are maybe reluctant to open up to new ideas or just a new concept, I should say.

It’s kind of weird, because there’s a lot of people that think, “I moved here so I could climb and not be around a bunch of people.” Some climbers are like, “Aw, man. My spot’s been found.” And housing has been a big issue because a lot of people are turning their places into Airbnbs. People can’t afford a house anymore. But I would say the majority are grateful to have the opportunity to show off West Virginia. Let’s face it, West Virginia has had a stigma of being uneducated, uncultured, or maybe having an undesirable culture. The opposite is true. For me and my family, this is an opportunity to show off what we’ve known all along, that West Virginia has culture, food, and beautiful places to visit. We have great traditions, and on top of that we’re forming new traditions, like beer traditions.

A mix of native West Virginians and new folks have made this their home. It’s a total embrace. Now the ramps are coming up, and there are restaurants that are integrating ramps into their recipes. We have an old-time jam on the third Sunday of every month. It’s traditional Appalachian music, and people come and play guitars, banjos, mandolins, and fiddles. Appalachian culture is strong here in Fayetteville. Most folks honor the traditions that have been here for hundreds of years.

I want to give people a great experience here in Fayetteville and southern West Virginia. Our staff lets people know what’s going on in the area. For people who maybe aren’t craft beer drinkers, we educate them that this is a bridge between domestic beer and craft beer, and we make them feel at home and welcome. Sometimes tourist towns tend to be too cool or give off the air of “We don’t care. There’s a whole other group coming in next week.” I want to be the opposite. I want to be very hospitable and welcoming so people can go back and tell others that they had a great experience.

We just bought a brand new canning line, and we’re able to package a lot more efficiently than we were. Our goal is to grow as a brewery. I love the brewpub model, and I love what we’ve done with the taproom because I really do think it’s the foundation for what Freefolk is. But I think we’re achieving those goals through packaging and distribution.

We self-distribute up the I-79 corridor, up to Morgantown, to Charleston, Huntington, Lewisburg, and Beckley. That’s our route right now. In the future, as we grow, we will probably take on distributors in the eastern panhandle and in the northern panhandle, which is Willie and Martinsburg. There is a population density issue for us, because there’s not a lot of people in West Virginia. The largest city has 70,000 people. You have to distribute over a lot of land area, which is logistically tough. But it is very helpful that we can self-distribute.

Finding personnel is a problem, too. Obviously, wintertime is really tough here. We are constantly trying to incentivize our kitchen staff, saying, “Hey, it’s a really long summer. We get it. It’s really tough. And the winters are slow.” We stay open 365 days a year because of that same reason. One thing I think will happen eventually is that more people will start coming here during the winter months because there’s great hiking, biking, and climbing, but it’s just going to take time. I think part of that is people like us need to stay open and provide. In the past, you’d have a couple of dozen businesses straight-up close in November and then open back up in April. That hurts tourism when people come here and nobody’s open. But I think that’s going to turn for us in the future.

One piece of advice I’d give to visitors is to stay a little bit longer, because a lot of folks are here for Friday and Saturday, and they’re trying to fit in all this stuff. But there’s so much to do outdoors and local places to hit. I would spend maybe three or four or five days here rather than just two.