The Beat: Beer rumors hopping

On tap: The Asheville area is on the radar for California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which plans to open an East Coast facility in 2012. photo by Max Cooper
On tap: The Asheville area is on the radar for California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which plans to open an East Coast facility in 2012. photo by Max Cooper

For weeks, rumors have circulated that high-profile craft brewers Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are considering setting up shop in Western North Carolina to better serve East Coast markets. On Dec. 14, members of the Asheville Brewers Alliance met with Sierra Nevada CEO Ken Grossman and General Manager Brian Grossman at Highland Brewing Co. (Sierra Nevada is family-owned, and Brian, Ken’s son, is expected to manage the new facility.)

Two days earlier, the Henderson County commissioners had unanimously approved $3.75 million in economic-development incentives for “Project 300 Company” — an unnamed manufacturer that may invest at least $115 million in a Mills River facility. That same day, the Mills River Town Council unanimously approved an $86,800 incentives package. Both deals would be paid out over seven years. Meanwhile, at the state level, the Golden LEAF Foundation has also offered incentives to the mystery company, rumored to be Sierra Nevada.

Brewers Alliance President Tim Schaller, who owns the Wedge Brewing Co., reports that while Ken Grossman did not confirm any negotiations with Henderson County, he did say Sierra Nevada is considering a 50-acre tract near the Asheville Regional Airport and the French Broad River. According to Schaller, Grossman emphasized that sites in other states are also being considered.

Schaller and other local brewers had previously questioned the fairness of offering big breweries such incentives and wondered whether area residents would have a shot at any new jobs created. But now, says Schaller, “I don’t think anyone in the ABA is upset 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.”

After the Dec. 14 meeting, Thirsty Monk owner Barry Bialik reported that if Sierra Nevada opens a facility here, it would give local breweries access to bulk raw materials and the company’s world-class research-and-development laboratory.

According to Schaller, Grossman said the Chico, Calif.-based brewery wants to set up an East Coast operation to offset the rising cost of shipping beer across the country in refrigerated trucks. And during a November visit to Asheville, notes Schaller, Grossman said quality of life is a key factor in siting the facility.

Earlier this fall, Sierra Nevada was said to be considering a Black Mountain site, and in November, the Black Mountain Board of Aldermen formally requested a new Interstate 40 interchange at Blue Ridge Road. The DOT denied that request.

According to the proposal Andrew Tate of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development presented to board of commissioners, the project would create about 125 jobs paying more than the county’s average for full-time manufacturing work ($48,600 in 2010).

The 31-year-old brewery spends about $10 million annually shipping its beer to all 50 states, assistant brewmaster Terence Sullivan revealed during a Dec. 8 class he taught at the Thirsty Monk for local beer-industry folks. Sierra Nevada, the second-largest U.S. craft brewer after The Boston Beer Co., will produce about 880,000 barrels of beer in 2011. The brewery is on track to brew 1 million barrels next year, said Sullivan. He also said Sierra expects to bring 10 or 12 employees from Chico to set up the new brewery and initially oversee brewing quality; the other positions would be filled locally.

Craft breweries, defined as those producing less than 2 million barrels annually, accounted for $7 billion in U.S. beer sales in 2010.

New Belgium Brewing, based in Fort Collins, Colo., also plans to open an East Coast facility, and Asheville is on its short list. Along with a few Sierra Nevada executives, New Belgium founder/CEO Kim Jordan and brewmaster Peter Bouckaert attended the Brewers Alliance’s Dec. 9 holiday party at the Lexington Avenue Brewery. New Belgium is the nation’s third-largest craft brewery.

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 Highland Brewing Co. founder and CEO Oscar Wong.

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. “I really respect the way they do business, and I think they’ve made it a priority to reach out to brewers here.”

— Asheville-based freelance writer Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at annefittenglenn@gmail.com.

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