- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

THOMAS, W.Va. (AP) - Drive through one-stoplight Tucker County, and soon you can probably hit a quarter of West Virginia’s craft breweries before catching a steady cell phone signal.

Out in the state’s far-removed eastern Allegheny mountains, it’s become less of a secret that West Virginia’s second-least populated county is flush with some of its most notable brews. Sandwiched by state parks, it also hosts plenty of Washington, D.C. area folks looking to get away for skiing, hiking, biking, camping and kayaking.

Here, woodsy-themed Mountain State Brewing Co. - the biggest brewer in the state - and European-style Blackwater Brewing Co. - whose owner drives the delivery truck - are 2 miles apart.

Thanks in part to them, officials have made state law friendlier to the beer brewed in their backyard.

Down the street, a couple is sprucing up the soon-to-be home of a third brewing headquarters, Stumptown Ales. Only Monongalia County, a beer market home to West Virginia University, has as many breweries.

Last legislative session, owners of Mountain State and Blackwater lobbied to land more flexibility and lower fees to brew beer. They focused less on signing campaign checks, and more on cheaper alternatives. A summer barbecue with beers brought out most state lawmakers, for instance.

The new law they sought kicks in June 12: tiered licensing fees will be cheaper for smaller brewers; brewers who also feature pubs will no longer have to post thousands of dollars through an extra bond; bars, convenience stores and restaurants can fill up take-home growlers; and breweries can give out samples on tours.

“Certainly, the momentum is turning in our favor,” said Brian Arnett, co-owner of Mountain State, which also has pubs in Morgantown and Deep Creek Lake, Maryland.

Craft beer’s popularity has boomed enough that Anheuser-Busch mocked the trend in a Super Bowl ad. But in West Virginia, the folksy market of beers like Mountain State’s Miner’s Daughter and Greenbrier Valley Brewing’s mythical Mothman is hardly saturated.

The state only produced more barrels of craft beer than the Dakotas last year, according to the Brewers Association. It ranks 42nd in number of breweries, per capita of drinking age residents. The industry produced a $118.2 million economic impact in 2012, 46th among states.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration still saw potential. The Democrat promised a craft beer bill during his annual State of the State address in January, and the Republican-led Legislature cleared reforms in March that went even further to help the industry.

Wholesalers like the law because it could mean more business distributing craft beers, said Phil Reale, who lobbies for beer wholesalers.

At times, craft brewers haven’t been able to keep up. At Charleston’s first craft brew festival at Appalachian Power Park in April, the beer ran out well before the minor league baseball game ended on the field.

Going forward, state alcohol regulators say three new craft brewery and brewpub licenses are pending. There are six applications to serve growlers from a mix of bars, restaurants and convenience stores.

The Wine Shop in Charleston’s Capitol Market, for one, is about ready to start pouring beers.

After a huge year selling craft beer by the bottle, grocery-store style, the shop has six taps and will sell brews from West Virginia and elsewhere by the growler. Businesses can sell four 32-ounce or two 64-ounce growlers to take home per customer, per day under the new law.

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