On Dec. 14, representatives from the Asheville Brewers Alliance gathered at Highland Brewing Company’s facility for a meeting with Sierra Nevada CEO Ken Grossman and his son Brian Grossman. The topic was Sierra’s interest in opening a new operating facility in the area.
Rumors have circulated for weeks about Sierra Nevada and another craft brewer — New Belgium — considering Western North Carolina locations for new East Coast facilities. Two days prior to the ABA meeting, Henderson County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved offering $3.75 million in economic-development incentives to “Project 300 Company” — an unnamed manufacturer that may invest at least $115 million to open a facility and begin operations in Mills River, N.C. That town’s officials and the Golden LEAF Foundation have also offered incentives to the mystery company — and the speculation is that it is Sierra Nevada.
While Ken Grossman did not confirm any negotiations with Henderson County, he did tell the ABA that the company is considering a 50-acre tract near the Asheville Regional Airport and the French Broad River, says Tim Schaller, ABA president and owner of Wedge Brewing Co. The site is also close to rail access, he continues, noting that Grossman also emphasized that other areas in other states are still under consideration as well.
In past weeks Schaller had been concerned about the incentives package and whether or not new jobs would be created for local residents. Other local brewers shared in those concerns, but now, says Schaller, “I don’t think anyone in the ABA is upset now about Sierra coming to the area. … When we got into all the stuff that affects us and voiced our concerns, Ken listened and answered those concerns. He’s shown he really wants to support us and work with us.”
If Sierra opens a facility here, the company would offer local breweries access to its world-class research and development laboratory, as well as bulk raw materials such as grains, said Barry Bialik, owner of The Thirsty Monk Beer Pub and new ABA member.
Grossman also explained that the company wants to set up an East Coast bottling and distribution facility to help offset the increasing cost of gas plus the cost of shipping heavy bottles of beer in refrigerated trucks across the country, according to Schaller. Sierra is a family-owned-and-run business, with Brian Grossman slated to operate the new facility. Brian is currently General Manager for the Chico, Calif.-based brewer. The final decision will be made by the family, the Grossmans have said. Schaller also mentions that Grossman noted quality of life as being as important as transportation for the new facility.
That said, no announcement will likely be forthcoming until the North Carolina Department of Transportation has agreed (or not) to some of infrastructure updates for the French Broad site. Those needs have not been publicly announced but may be part of the incentives package approved by the Mills River Town Council. The same day that Henderson County commissioners approved the $3.75 million package, Andrew Tate, president and CEO of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, presented a proposal to the Mills River Town Council, which unanimously approved an accompanying $86,800 in economic incentives. Like the Henderson offer, Mills River’s incentives would be paid out over seven years for the “Project 300 Company.”
Earlier this fall, Sierra Nevada may have considered a Black Mountain site for its expansion project: In November, as part of a possible economic-development incentive, the Town of Black Mountain Board of Aldermen approved a motion requesting a new Interstate 40 interchange at Blue Ridge Road. That motion was denied by the NCDOT.
According to the proposal presented to Henderson commissioners, the project would create around 125 new jobs that would average higher than the county’s average manufacturing salary for full-time work (in 2010, that figure was $48,600, according to the Employment Security Commission). There currently are a number of manufacturing businesses in the county, including Wilsonart, GE Lighting, Print Pack and Kimberly Clark.
Terrence Sullivan, Sierra’s assistant brew master, recently spent several days in Asheville. While teaching a class to regional beer industry folks at the Thirsty Monk downtown on Dec. 8, he said, “We’re looking at reaching capacity at the existing brewery this year, so it makes sense to build a second facility on the East Coast.” He added, “It’s also so expensive to ship bottled beer across the country.”
The 31-year-old brewery spends about $10 million annually shipping their beer, which is sold in every state in the U.S., said Sullivan. Sierra currently is the second largest craft brewer in the U.S., after Boston Beer Company, and will brew around 880,000 barrels of beer in 2011. The brewery is on track to brew 1 million barrels in 2012, he continued.
Craft breweries, defined as those that produce less than 2 million barrels annually, accounted for $7 billion in the U.S. beer market in 2010.
After the class, Sullivan also mentioned that, initially, Sierra would bring some of its employees from Chico to set up the new brewery and to oversee brewing quality, but he doesn’t expect that to be more than 10 or 12 people. The remainder of the employees for the facility would be hired locally, he said.
New Belgium Brewing, based in Fort Collins, Colo., also plans to open a second facility on the East Coast, and Asheville is on its short list. Founder/CEO Kim Jordan and head brewer Peter Bouckaert attended the Asheville Brewers Alliance holiday party at Lexington Avenue Brewery on Dec. 9. Sullivan and a few other Sierra Nevada executives attended that event as well. New Belgium currently ranks as the third largest craft brewery in the nation.
What does Asheville’s first modern-day, commercial brewer think of these developments? “Sierra Nevada’s decision to build a brewing establishment in Henderson County will be a boon and a challenge to the local beer industry, and bring much needed manufacturing jobs to the area,” says Oscar Wong, CEO and founder of Asheville’s Highland Brewing Co. in Asheville.
Currently, the only brewery in Henderson County is Southern Appalachian Brewery in Hendersonville, which moved there from Fletcher last summer.
“I can’t think of any other brewery I’d be as excited about coming here,” says owner/head brewer Andy Cubbin of Southern Appalachian. “I really respect the way they do business, and I think they’ve made it a priority to reach out to brewers here.”
photo by Max Cooper