Jeff Edwards is head brewer and founder of Freefolk Brewery in Fayetteville, West Virginia. The brewery is a few miles from the New River Gorge, which was named a national park last year. The gorges – and by extension Fayetteville – are known for outdoor sports such as mountain biking, rock climbing and 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 from high school, we decided to come home to southern Virginia. -Occidentale and open a brewery here in Fayetteville. It is a very beautiful region surrounded by a national park. So we came here in 2000, and we bought a building in 2017 within the city limits of Fayetteville. We renovated the space and started a small brewery with the kitchen, and we catered to people who come here to enjoy the area. We opened in April 2019 and had our first year – we had a bit of success, not as much as we would have liked – then the pandemic hit.
We pivoted and did some packing and took this route to try to stay open, and we were able to survive. And now we’re starting to have some success. It’s our first season out of the pandemic, and we’ve already started to see numbers that supersede what we’ve seen in the past. In fact, last week was our most successful week to date.
I am a mountain biker and boater. The mountain biking here is world class. I have cycled in California, Colorado, New Mexico and all over the East Coast. And by far, it’s one of the best bikes I’ve ever ridden. I grew up mountain biking in this area. There are also a lot of new trail developments going on here. This is one of the big things that drew me to this field. Family first, of course. And then second, it was definitely outdoor activities.
It’s even gotten bigger since I moved here. I know probably two dozen people, maybe three dozen people, who moved here just to rock climb. They have bought houses and are working remotely.
It 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 reach both places and climb 365 days a year.” And you can still get to Charlotte or DC in half a day’s drive. Until about a year ago, housing was quite affordable, and compared to the rest of the country, it is still very affordable. Now with the demand for housing, because you have a lot of remote workers moving here, housing prices have gone up.
As a child, I grew up in the gorge, and at the time we were not allowed to ride mountain bikes. We rode mountain bikes in the park and the rangers told us, “I’ll take your bike if I see you here again. I knew people were going to recognize it for the world class adventure it offers – white water rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking and running. I thought it was going to happen maybe 15 years ago, but it’s only just begun.
We take the fact that this is an outdoors-oriented city into account when we make our beer. We’re doing a series called Wild and Free, and we’re spotlighting an endangered species that’s native to West Virginia. We have a beer called Flying Squirrel, which is another species that was almost endangered due to the disappearance of spruce trees. But the spruce forests are beginning to return. We actually use spruce tips in the Flying Squirrel. This is one of my all time favorite beers because you get the pine flavor from the spruce tips. I love showcasing the flying squirrel. He’s a beautiful animal, and having him and the spruce forests come back strong is a win for West Virginia.
In our Green Salamander beer, we use local lavender and rosemary. We therefore use local ingredients in order to also highlight these products. This makes for a funky little beer that people may never have tried before – they’ve never had a beer brewed with raw champagne yeast containing lavender and rosemary. We have this 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 should be bacteria-free, and the whole process should be very bacteria-aware. It’s an industrial process, and it’s pumps, tanks, measurements and science. I haven’t practiced as a professional engineer, but everything from an engineering perspective is implemented in every facet of what we do. There is no doubt that this is a day-to-day engineering process.
During the pandemic, we bought property across the street, turned it into a parking lot, and then turned our parking lot into an outdoor space. We built a pavilion and set up a stage. We definitely had to pivot if we wanted to survive because people didn’t want to be inside. And the thing is, when you come to Fayetteville, it’s an outdoor town, and that’s what people want. They want an outdoor experience, pandemic or not. I knew that in the short term an outdoor space was needed, and in the long term it was going to work because that’s what people want anyway.
The PPP and other government aid literally kept us afloat and allowed us to pivot. We had good numbers last summer, but this summer we are going to be even better. Due to the new National Park designation, we see a lot of families. On top of that, we see an older demographic that frequents the parks. They may not be rock climbers, but they love the fact that they can get that stamp that says it’s a national park.
We receive a report of returning customers versus new customers every day. Lately it’s been a 50-50 split between tourists and locals. There are people who come from West Virginia, like me, and then there are people who moved here to climb and 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 survived the pandemic. We can trust them now. It’s like that. It’s the mindset of the outdoorsy folks and folks in West Virginia who may be reluctant to open up to new ideas or just a new concept I should say.
It’s kind of weird, because there are a lot of people who think, “I moved here so I could climb and not be around a lot of people. Some climbers are like, “Aw, man. My spot was found. And housing has been a big deal because a lot of people are turning their homes into Airbnbs. People can’t afford a house anymore. But I would say the majority is grateful to have the opportunity to show West Virginia. Let’s face it, West Virginia has had the stigma of being uneducated, cultureless, or perhaps having an undesirable culture. The opposite is true. For me and my family, this is an opportunity to show what we’ve known all along, that West Virginia has culture, food, and beautiful places to visit. We have great traditions, and, in addition, we form new traditions, such as beer traditions.
A mix of West Virginia natives and newcomers have made it their home. It’s a total embrace. Now ramps are coming, and there are restaurants incorporating ramps into their recipes. We hold an old-fashioned jam on the third Sunday of each month. It’s traditional Appalachian music, and people come to play guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle. Appalachian culture is strong here in Fayetteville. Most people honor the traditions that have existed here for hundreds of years.
I want to give people a great experience here in Fayetteville and southern West Virginia. Our staff keep people informed of what is happening in the area. For people who may not be craft beer drinkers, we let them know it’s a bridge between domestic beer and craft beer, and we make them feel at home and welcome. Sometimes touristy towns tend to be too cool or give the impression of “who cares. There’s a whole other group coming next week. I want to be the opposite. I want to be very hospitable and welcoming so people can go back and tell others they had a great experience.
We just purchased a brand new canning line and are able to pack much more efficiently than we were able to. Our goal is to grow as a brewery. I love the craft brewery model and I love what we’ve done with the tavern because I really think that’s the foundation of what Freefolk is. But I think we achieve those goals through packaging and distribution.
We distribute the I-79 corridor ourselves, to Morgantown, Charleston, Huntington, Lewisburg and Beckley. This is our road right now. In the future, as we grow, we will likely take distributors in the eastern panhandle and in the northern panhandle, ie Willie and Martinsburg. There is a population density issue for us, as there are not many people in West Virginia. The largest city has 70,000 inhabitants. You have to spread over a large area, which is logistically difficult. But it is very useful that we can self-distribute.
Finding staff is also a problem. Obviously, the winter is really harsh here. We’re constantly trying to entice our kitchen staff by saying, “Hey, it’s a really long summer. We understood. It’s really difficult. And the winters are slow. We remain open 365 days a year for this same reason. One thing that I think will eventually happen is that more people will start coming here in the winter months because there is some great hiking, biking and rock climbing, but it will just take time. I think part of that is people like us have to stay open and provide. In the past, around 20 businesses closed directly in November and then reopened in April. It hurts tourism when people come here and no one is open. But I think that will change for us in the future.
One piece of advice I would give visitors is to stay a bit longer, as a lot of people are here for Friday and Saturday, and they are trying to fit in with it all. But there are so many things to do outdoors and local places to visit. I might spend three, four or five days here rather than two.