Asheville Brewing Co. is brewing better beer and lots more of it
Two years ago Mike Rangel, co-owner of Asheville Brewing Co., took a trip out west for the San Diego Brewing Convention. While he was there, he visited a brewpub called Pizza Port.
Pizza Port is no ordinary brewpub; it’s one of the most highly decorated establishments of its kind in the United States. It keeps between 12 and 20 of its own beers on tap at any given time, and many of them are only brewed once a year, or once ever. Yet it has such a solid reputation, locals and tourists alike flock to the pub for whatever’s pouring.
Rangel came back from his trip inspired. “I want to make Asheville Brewing Co. more like Pizza Port,” he said. Yet this was the founder of a company with a different brewing model. At the time, ABC was afraid to pull even its least popular beer from the lineup because it had its fans. Instead, ABC brewed the same house beers day in and day out. But that was about to change.
A New Direction
It’s hard to put an exact date on the start of the transition at ABC because there was no big event — things just started to happen. If you stopped by once a month, you might notice a new beer here or there. Maybe Roland’s ESB wasn’t on the board, and an experimental IPA and another brand-new beer were there instead. Then a few months later the board had 14 beers instead of eight. “I think we all realized things had changed in the beer scene from when we opened,” says Rangel. “Commercially, we can’t change all our beers all the time, but as a brewpub we realized we could make a lot more beers than we were making … and we started to embrace that.”
In addition to the increased number of beers on tap, ABC retooled its house recipes little by little. To say that beers like Ninja Porter are better now than they were a few years ago is not a subjective statement. The brewing team just took home a coveted gold medal from the World Beer Cup — a medal it had tried for before with Ninja.
What’s behind the jump in quality? According to Rangel, it’s the growth of the company and how that’s allowed the brewers to specialize. “We hired a brewer about a year ago who was a former water engineer for the city of Tampa. … He just geeks out about water,” says Rangel. “We’ve also been able to move some of the day-to-day brewing off of Doug Riley, our head brewer since the beginning. … We’re all really happy about that because it allows Doug to better oversee the entire brewing operation. Before it was like if I had to come in every day and make the pizzas in addition to running the business. I wouldn’t have a lot of time to look at the bigger picture.”
While many breweries have their eyes set on world domination, Rangel says that’s not the case for ABC. “We just aren’t that interested in other markets [outside of Western North Carolina]. We don’t want to have to sell our beer in towns that aren’t as cool as Asheville,” says Rangel. Yet just to satisfy the home market, ABC needs to make more beer. “Right now, we’re about 30 percent behind what our distributor wants from us,” says Rangel. “Sometimes by the time the trucks get to Sylva they’re almost out [of beer].”
So ABC is looking at a couple of options for expansion. Rangel says that the more likely plan will be to install a new 30-barrel system at the Coxe Avenue location to make beer for canning and turning the 15-barrel system into a dedicated brewhouse for the specialty beers. That change will roughly double the size of the existing setup in the next six months.
That’s crucial, because plenty of new beers are in the works for ABC. Rangel is planning a collaboration where three high-profile breweries will fly into Asheville and co-brew collaborative batches of Ninja. Pretty soon, ABC might have a new beer in cans as well. “Perfect Day IPA has taken us by storm,” says Rangel. “It’s giving Shiva a run for its money, and people are asking for it in cans.”
After the year it’s had and with a big expansion in the works, you might wonder what the next big goal is for ABC. A medal at the Great American Beer Festival, perhaps? Or maybe a glowing review in Beer Advocate? “We actually want to win Best Brewery in the Mountain Xpress ‘Best of.’ … We’ve won the award for Best Pizza, and we’re going to keep trying until we crack the top brewery award, too,” says Rangel.