In just four years, Screech Owl Brewing in Preston County has gone from a couple’s hopeful, all-in risk to a thriving local hangout and international craft beer destination.
The first thing you’ll notice when you stop in at Screech Owl Brewing is the warm, full-throated welcome—well, after you have a chuckle at the “Chicken Lips Farm” sign beside the driveway, the second thing you’ll notice is the welcome. If it’s a busy night, you might be seated with some strangers. Don’t be shy; they’re just as friendly as you are. One of the owners will likely make their way to your table for a chat while you’re there and, by the time you leave, people will wave their goodbyes like you’re a regular.
The owners—the Johnsons—have a way of making everybody feel like family. Since it’s obvious they’re perfectly cut out for hospitality, you might be surprised to learn it’s only recently that they’ve come to it.
It was just about 10 years ago that Roger Johnson got a gift of a homebrewing kit from his wife, Crista, for Christmas. He turned out to like brewing, and his friends liked the beer he made. Not too many years later, tired of the long-haul trucking life after two decades, the couple thought maybe they could turn his hobby into an income that would let them spend more time together.
They had to test their wings all by themselves. “Nobody wanted to lend us any money,” Johnson says. You can’t blame banks turning down a couple in their 60s with just a few years’ experience brewing beer in 5-gallon batches when they asked to finance a commercial brewery—and wanted to put it on their Preston County farm some countryroad miles from any town or highway.
So the Johnsons liquidated everything but their 70 acres and their retirement accounts. They borrowed against their life insurance and, in 2015, they outfitted themselves to brew fledgling little 12.5-gallon batches— two batches a day, seven days a week, an unconventional and labor-intensive way to build a beer brand.
Craft breweries you’re familiar with likely started out as taprooms or brewpubs and eventually worked their way around to distribution. But Screech Owl had an inside understanding of distribution from the start: The Johnsons’ son Jameson worked for local Anheuser-Busch distributor Mona Supply. So Screech Owl beers appeared early on in bars and restaurants across Monongalia and Preston counties.
Maybe it was the distribution-first model that got them growing so fast, plus of course the fact that people really did like their beers, but they haven’t been able to sit still since. They expanded their brewing capacity in 2016 to 3.5 barrels, letting them do batches more than eight times the size of what they’d been able to do before. They brought Jameson’s wife, Kristen, and some others in to help with the brewing.
And, in 2018, in response to overwhelming customer interest, they added on a bar and restaurant with a big, relaxing wraparound deck. The Spent Grain Cafe serves eight fresh Screech Owl beers on tap, from their lightest and most-popular Bold Blonde Ale through refreshing wheat and strawberry ales to, at the darker end of the spectrum, a couple of hoppy IPAs and a Buckwheat Honey Porter—buckwheat is a historically important crop in Preston County. The restaurant’s full menu includes local favorites like pepperoni rolls and fried bologna sandwiches. Johnsonmakes the dough for breads, pretzels, and pizzas fresh daily with the grains left behind by brewing, and Jameson Johnson smokes chickens and pork loin and ribs on-site.
Now there’s a flock of Johnsons running the place. Although Johnson is the head brewer, the family likes to point out that Screech Owl is a woman-owned operation: Crista owns 51 percent of the business. Kristen Johnson is assistant brewer—” the only female brewer in West Virginia, as far as we know,” Johnson says, and Jameson Johnson oversees the kitchen.
Customers signing the guest book at this four-year-old brewery far from anything at all have come from around the world: drinkers from beer-loving countries like England and Germany on craft beer tours in the U.S. as well as world travelers from places as exotic as Paraguay, the Philippines, and Madagascar.
How do they hear about it? It’s hard to say, but Screech Owl has already gotten all kinds of recognition. In the spring of 2018, the U.S. Small Business Administration named the Johnsons West Virginia’s Encore Entrepreneurs of the Year, a category for those who start ventures after age 55—the SBA had eventually loaned them $50,000. Soon after, they were featured in Forbes magazine. Locally, Screech Owl was voted People’s Choice Brewery at the Cabin Fever Craft Beer Festival in Morgantown for the past two years and, more recently, the Johnsons were honored in July 2019 as Hometown Heroes at a West Virginia Black Bears baseball game.
Johnson thinks some of the brewery’s quick success is due to his careful quality control. “I make a traditional, premium beer, and we don’t change our recipes and our beers every week,” he says. “We put a lot of emphasis not so much on volume, but on consistency—I want the beer to be the same every time—and on quality. People like to come in and get the beer they’re used to drinking.”
But the Johnsons credit a lot of the business’s success to their employees, and it’s not just a line. It takes 12 people to run the bar and restaurant on a typical Saturday evening, and the family brags in generous and good-humored detail on the charms and quirks of each of their front- and back-of-the-house staff with the pride most of us reserve for family: how this one has risen to the challenges of her job, how you know when to stay out of that one’s way, how another turns out to be so organized she could run a Fortune 500 company. The family’s natural kind regard spreads out from the Johnsons to each of the staff and from them to the customers and results in an evening out that feels like a big, tasty hug.
The goodwill the Johnsons naturally generate—not to mention the good beer—has meant Screech Owl had more demand from the beginning than it has ever yet been able to meet. When Jameson Johnson left his job with Anheuser-Busch in the summer of 2019 to oversee the kitchen operation full-time, Screech Owl beers were served at “everything that has a tap in Preston County,” Johnson says, and many venues in Morgantown and across Monongalia County. And it’s still growing: The family was in discussions with distributors in Marion County and Oakland, Maryland, to distribute there by the end of this year, too.
In August 2019, the brewery was completing its second capacity upgrade, to a 10.5-barrel system, three times what they’ve recently been able to produce. With that, Johnson looks forward to maybe for the first time catching up. “I’ve got probably 30 other recipes,” he says with a glint in his eye. “It’s all been ales so far, but we’ll start making an oktoberfest and some lagers.” Jameson Johnson says Johnson makes a lager that’ll put Anheuser-Busch on its heels. “Instead of just producing the beers that are in high demand,” Johnson says, “we’ll be able to play a little bit.”
Roger confesses to having felt a little over his head early on. “But now that it has become successful, people that didn’t loan money to people like us started coming back and saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to help you out.’ Well, you’re five years too late,” he snickers. It’s hard to begrudge him that bit of good-natured crowing. “I’m glad now that we did it. We wanted a place that was welcoming to everybody, that was family-friendly, and there was no place like that. This is what we envisioned.” 2323 Ralph Livengood Road, Bruceton Mills, 304.379.4777, screechowlbrewing.com, “Screech Owl Brewing” on Facebook
Photographed by Nikki Bowman Mills