In a field flush with fresh grass and rimmed with friendly shade trees, a sizable crowd has gathered to watch local favorites The Secret B-Sides unleash some soulful tunes from an outdoor stage. It’s early on a Friday evening, and The Meadow is speckled with a patchwork quilt of picnic blankets harboring lawn chairs, food containers and the occasional dog.
A gray-haired couple sporting matching straw hats holds hands and sways to the music. Children run in loud, gleeful packs, veering off occasionally to climb a tree or kick a ball around, while adults stand in loose groups, talking and sipping pints of amber beer. The aroma of smoked meat and deep-fried edibles beckons from a pair of food trucks stationed at the perimeter.
It could be a scene from LEAF or some other local festival, but it’s actually a weekly happening known to many locals as simply “Fridays at Highland.” With its flat, open outdoor area, free live music and laid-back, welcoming vibe, Highland Brewing Co. is just one of numerous craft breweries in the region that, for many, have come to be about much more than just the artisanal beer.
IF WE BREW IT, THEY WILL COME
Local breweries run the gamut from Lookout Brewing Co.’s half-barrel, 20-gallon-per-batch system and cozy, homey tasting room to Sierra Nevada’s expansive Mills River operation, with its international distribution and ambitious plans (restaurant, tasting room, estate gardens, indoor and outdoor music venues, hiking/biking trails and French Broad River kayak and tubing landings). But whatever their size or flavor, craft brewery tasting rooms are increasingly becoming regular community gathering spots for Asheville residents of all ages and walks of life.
The beer, of course, is a major draw. Some 15 breweries now operate — and apparently thrive — just within the Asheville city limits (with others in the surrounding area). So it’s clear that these mountains are home to a healthy population of brew hounds with a hankering for handcrafted suds. And though many local beers can be found on tap at area restaurants and bars, some breweries don’t distribute beyond their own boundaries or even offer take-home options like growlers. This means that if you want to sample Burial’s Skillet Donut Stout, you must be up for a little taproom socializing.
“I think taprooms separate themselves from bars specifically because you might not be able to get their product anywhere else,” says Lookout Brewing co-owner John Garcia. “Ours in particular you can’t get anywhere else in the world.” Guests at Lookout in Black Mountain can take their favorite flavors home in quart-size mason jars, but Garcia and his wife, Alison, don’t bottle or can their beer for wider distribution.
Still, he maintains, there’s something more at work here. “Being the way we are, having our family there all the time and with Alison and me working there most of the time … it’s a place where people can meet and feel like it’s their living room and have this atmosphere that’s intimate and small, but they don’t have to [meet] at their house.”
Catawba Brewing Co. co-owner Billy Pyatt says he was surprised to witness the same phenomenon when they opened a 1,700-square-foot brewery in the little town of Morganton, N.C., back in 2007.
“We didn’t have a taproom or anything,” remembers Pyatt. “We were just concentrating on production. … We never realized it would become a gathering spot … but then we realized that we were seeing a lot of families, a lot of people over and over again. We had people who had met there, then got married and had the reception there. It’s just been really interesting.”
Catawba embraced its role as a local, all-ages hangout in Morganton and has extended that approach to the temporary Biltmore Village tasting room the brewery opened recently. Pyatt says he hopes to create the same environment at the larger tasting room and brewery the company intends to build across the street. “Plans since day one have been to create a community gathering space with the new facility,” says Pyatt. Architectural renderings show both indoor and outdoor areas with a German beer garden feel and plenty of room for socializing.
Grant DaSantos, Highland’s tasting room manager, says The Meadow, with its outdoor bar and stage, evolved in a similar fashion. About five years ago, he recalls, the company opened a small taproom in the back corner of its East Asheville production facility (an area he and other Highland employees jokingly dubbed “the prison yard” because of its barbed-wire-topped chain-link enclosure). DaSantos decided to book bands to play free shows starting at 6 p.m. for folks who couldn’t make it out to local music venues with 10 or 11 p.m. start times.
“People started bringing their families, because it was a convenient time, and we thought, ‘How cool!’” he explains. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to be a kid-friendly place?’ And we all agreed that it would be pretty neat. I mean, in some countries, that’s pretty standard.”
West Asheville cabinetmaker Terry White finds elements of his native London’s pub life at Wedge Brewing Co., his favorite Asheville hangout. “The typical English person is always looking to find a pub,” says White. “I’ve got a lot of friends at the Wedge that are German, Belgian, French. It’s just a really good meeting place, and you can bring your family too.” He’s quick to add, however, “The Wedge is particularly good, because they have really good beer.”
Leah Mathews, an economics professor at UNC Asheville, frequently visits local breweries with her husband, who works for Sierra Nevada. During a recent study she conducted of local tailgate markets, Mathews, an applied environmental economist, found that the social interactions and community-building aspects influence purchasing behavior and are crucial to bringing customers back week after week. She sees the same dynamic at work in breweries.
“As an observer,” says Mathews, “I think there are aspects of microbreweries in Asheville that make them what we might call ‘third places’: a place where you can gather that’s not work and not home, where you can meet up with people you won’t necessarily encounter at work or home but who you want to cultivate relationships with.”
Peter Nieckarz, an associate professor of sociology at Western Carolina University, likes to hang out at Sylva’s recently opened Innovation Brewing. He believes taproom socializing is part of a broader reaction against an increasingly globalized, homogeneous culture.
“People don’t want to just drink Budweiser or even Heineken anymore,” says Nieckarz. “They want to feel connected to the places where they live, and they’re ready for something different. They find this difference in craft brew … and it becomes this community-embedded thing where people have to drive to the Wedge or to French Broad and get their growler. Oftentimes when I buy my growler I will sit down and have a pint or two, and it just feels very organic, very natural. You get to know the other people, and chances are the people in that brewery feel the same way you do about investing in your local community, and I think there’s a lot of synergy there.”
BRING THE KIDS AND DOGS
Many breweries, notes Nieckarz, now have business models aimed at nourishing that synergy. They do it, he says, by creating an atmosphere reminiscent of The Bywater, a River Arts District bar that offers outdoor recreation areas, picnic tables and the option of bringing or even cooking your own food.
“The people who drink craft brew tend to be a little older, in their late 20s, 30s, 40s; they tend to be middle-class and often have children,” Nieckarz explains. “If you want those people to come drink your beer, you have to welcome a family environment, and most of these breweries in WNC have done that — made it a place where you can sit on a Saturday afternoon, bring your children and not feel ostracized or feel like you’re being a bad parent.”
Indeed, most Asheville-area brewery taprooms are both kid- and dog-friendly, and many actively encourage families and pet owners to hang out by providing things like toys; games; juice, sodas and snacks for the kids; and water bowls (and sometimes even doggie treats) for the canine contingent.
Many breweries also feature family-friendly closing times — often as early as 8 p.m. — offering free music and other activities earlier in the day, when families are more likely to be out and about.
East Asheville resident Amy Tepper and her two young daughters, Rae and Cora, can often be found dancing to the music in Highland’s Meadow on Friday evenings. “There are people from our neighborhood who go there, and other families,” she says. “My kids can interact with their peers, and I get time to socialize with my peers.”
Tepper, a single parent, also notes that Highland’s free music and community atmosphere give her an option for an evening out that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. “I can go there and have a beer, get my kids a pizza and, you know, have a Friday night. … I can’t afford to go out and see a band and pay a baby sitter. … And I know Downtown After 5 is free, but it gets crazy down there.” At Highland, she continues, “There’s usually someone there I know, and I feel like it’s a community: It’s family-friendly, not just a lot of people getting drunk.”
Jacqui Castle, a mother of two who recently moved to Asheville from Portland, Oregon, says it’s this feeling of community that sets Asheville’s brewery scene apart. She paused to talk with Xpress as she and her family packed up their picnic blanket after their first visit to Highland’s Meadow — a practice she says they plan to make a weekly tradition.
“There are a lot of family-friendly places in Portland,” she says, “but what we don’t have there is the small, community feel that we have here. There aren’t many places you can take the kids and hang out with friends and feel like you don’t have to be watching them every second. … We all look out for each other; it’s amazing. It makes it such a relaxing experience for everybody.”
KEEPING IT SAFE
But does the mix of potent beer, children and dogs ever create problems?
“We worry, because we want everyone to be safe, so we’re constantly looking for potential safety hazards,” says Leah Wong Ashburn, Highland’s vice president. “It’s impossible to make an industrial manufacturing facility 100 percent safe, so we’re really trying to find balances, and the closer parents can keep an eye on their kids, that helps,” continues Ashburn, the daughter of company founder Oscar Wong.
To that end her husband, Brock, has devoted himself to clearing The Meadow’s wooded area of poison ivy and other potential fun killers. The contractor and engineer also tries to keep an eye out for other technical issues that need attention.
“Most places don’t really encourage families, because it’s a lot to keep up with,” says DaSantos, speaking about tasting rooms elsewhere in the U.S. “But I think it helps our vibe. We don’t really have to deal with any drunkards, because it has that natural family environment and everyone’s here just to relax.”
And John Garcia says with a laugh, “I’ve had a few dogfights and a couple of kid fights, but no more than you’d find at a local playground or anywhere else.” His taproom at Lookout has the feel of a family living room, with chess boards and other games indoors, free popcorn and a cozy fire pit on the outdoor patio.
“I find that introducing [kids and dogs] to the atmosphere definitely changes it from that of a bar. I worked in a bar for quite a while, and it’s just different,” he says. “We don’t have as many people who are there to get drunk. We have people who are there to enjoy a great product. Instead of asking, ‘How many of these can I drink?’ people say, ‘I’m going to try a couple of these and then we’ll probably go on our way.’”
Ultimately, these brew-centric venues are much more than watering holes for beer aficionados. By offering places where folks of all ages and walks of life can congregate and connect, breweries may be doing their communities a real service.
“Opportunities to establish, maintain and foster social ties,” says Nieckarz, “tend to strengthen communities and build social capital, which can result in further opportunities for community improvement.”
Pyatt, meanwhile, says building community around a pint glass may just be human nature. Before launching his brewing career, Pyatt traveled the globe for 27 years as a marketing executive, and in places like Germany, Austria and France, he saw a similar dynamic at work.
After you travel for a while, he says, “You start looking at how people gather: It’s coffee shops and beer gardens. This is not a new phenomenon; this has been with us since antiquity. Folks have been doing it forever.”
Gina Smith can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 107, or at email@example.com.