The Asheville area’s natural beauty and friendly beer culture lured Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. to Mills River, despite bigger economic-incentive packages dangled by other suitors, says company founder Ken Grossman.
A celebratory mood reigned Jan. 26 as company executives, local business leaders and elected officials gathered near the 90-acre site on the French Broad River, about 25 minutes from downtown Asheville.
"We could've gone anywhere, and we chose Mills River and North Carolina," Grossman exclaimed, as cheering listeners sipped pints of the brewery's renowned pale ale.
The company plans to build a 300,000 barrel brewery with a restaurant and souvenir shop on a wooded parcel in Henderson County’s Ferncliff Industrial Park, near the Asheville Regional Airport. An outdoor music venue and a small barley farm are also being considered.
All told, Sierra Nevada expects to invest $107.5 million over the next five years and hire 95 full-time and 80 part-time employees. Roughly 60 construction jobs will also be created, according to a press release from Gov. Bev Perdue’s office. The average annual wage for full-time jobs will be $41,526 plus benefits — well above Henderson County’s $32,240 average wage.
The expansion aims to meet rapidly growing demand while reducing shipping costs, Grossman explained. The second-largest privately held U.S. brewery, Sierra Nevada has more than 500 employees; its Chico, Calif., facility produces nearly 1 million barrels of beer annually. Sales increased about 8 percent last year, and similar growth is expected in 2012.
Some $3.5 million in tax breaks from Henderson County and a $1.025 million grant from the state's One North Carolina Fund helped seal the deal. But Grossman said quality-of-life factors were what trumped bigger offers by governments in Tennessee, Virginia and other states. In the end, he said, he and his family "fell in love with the site. It's a really spectacular piece of land: It's got a great heritage, it's got great water, it's near a river.”
The area, noted Grossman, “reminds me a lot of where we come from in northern California. We're close to mountains, rivers, streams, backpacking, mountain biking, road riding — all those things [we and] our employees love to do. We wanted to be in a community where we could have the same kind of connections to the land and the people."
“A wonderful beer culture”
Another major draw was the local beer culture, said Grossman. The publicity surrounding the city’s BeerCity USA crown several years ago didn’t hurt, but it was his recent visits, including encouraging get-togethers with local brewers, that clinched the deal.
"Asheville has a wonderful beer culture — much better than many other cities," Grossman gushed. "We wanted to be welcomed to any community we came into. The local brewers … were very supportive, and hopefully we'll have a meaningful, positive partnership."
Spurred by rumors that New Belgium Brewing Co. was considering a Buncombe County production facility, area brewers banded together last summer, arguing that hefty economic incentives give big outside companies an unfair competitive advantage.
"I understand the concerns,” said Grossman, adding, “That was one thing we agonized over as we were looking at sites.” It’s also one reason the company decided to locate outside Asheville, he revealed.
After meeting Grossman, however, local brewers greeted the newcomer enthusiastically.
"We welcome them with open arms," said Asheville Brewing Co. head brewer Doug Riley. "They're a great company … and they make great beer."
Julie Atallah of Asheville’s Bruisin’ Ales shop said the move will boost the area's growing reputation for great brews — and its tourist draw.
"It's a win-win for jobs, the local economy and helps cement Asheville as a craft-beer hub," she noted.
Wedge Brewing owner and Asheville Brewers Alliance President Tim Schaller observed: "I was lucky enough to have Oscar [Wong] and Highland Brewing pave the way for us here. Ken and Sierra Nevada paved the way for the whole craft-beer world.”
Perdue, meanwhile, toasted the deal, raising a pint of pale ale as she proclaimed, "We're turning grain into gold with Sierra Nevada. You couldn't have picked a better place, a better community or a better people than us North Carolinians. We welcome you home."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anne Fitten Glenn contributed to this article.