In bed with the Brewers’ Alliance

[Editor’s note: This dispatch arrived in our mailbox last month, and we haven’t quite been sure what to do with it. With the near-news that Sierra Nevada will be coming to Hendersonville, it seemed like a fun time to run it.]

A running start

The annual Asheville Brewers Alliance Christmas party convened last month in the back room of the Lexington Avenue Brewery. I met up with my co-workers, Todd Claussen (fellow cellarman) and John Silver (“Gentleman Brewer” — the nickname I gave him), at the French Broad Brewery beforehand. Over a half pint of 13 Rebels, we had elaborately planned to be rescued from driving home by our sweethearts. My sweetheart is my wife, Arielle, who manages the French Broad tasting room. We’re a French Broad family.

The soiree

I’d never been in the LAB’s backroom before (the bar’s music venue). It’s nice, isn’t it? That raised bench along the rear wall appeals to me in some deep way. Early on, it was employed primarily as a horizontal coat rack. A jazz trio was playing. Andy Dahm, who winces when I call him “boss,” was there. He immediately put John to work trying to fix the jockey box, which, along with 12 growlers, constituted our brewery’s donation to the party. And what’s that? Cans of Asheville Brewing Company’s Shiva IPA, frosted over in ice-filled coolers. Any other year, these little cylindrical aluminum darlings would’ve been all the buzz. But things are afoot in the local beer scene, as everyone knows.

A lot of our ilk still lingered at the Thirsty Monk, where distinguished personages from California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. were guests of honor. Guests today — competitors/comrades/compatriots tomorrow?

Enter Stoudt, Deep Space and worrisome grease

I started with a French Broad Ryehopper. Andy pointed out the CEO and CFO of New Belgium Brewing. They were chatting with a sophisticated older couple I’d learn later were the Stoudts — as in Stoudt’s Brewing Company of Adamstown, Penn. Mike Rangel of ABC was there. Every time you see that man he’s doing something. I was nervous about interviewing people. I didn’t yet know that most people genuinely like being interviewed. I would by the end of the night. I slide into the present tense.

A nice lady comes around serving duck confit porkbelly wantons. I have one, which will be all I eat tonight until late, heavy-lidded on the couch, foraging for desserts and watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to outlast my drunk. The wanton is entirely too greasy and utterly delicious. Todd says “Whoa, greasy,” and, while I agree, I privately worry about how grease doesn’t bother me as much as it does other people. And it should, right? That in itself is worrisome, yes?

A very likable Greg

Then that wonderful thing happens that sometimes happens at parties. You haven’t really seen them come in, but all of a sudden the room is crowded. I tiptoe into the night’s project by introducing myself to a very tall, slender, red-haired man named Greg Ferguson. He is the packaging supervisor for Highland. I’m not up to whipping out the iTouch with digital voice recording app just yet, which is why I don’t have any direct quotes from Greg, who’s an instantly likable man. Taking a wait-and-see approach to the whole affair is Greg. When I point out that arguably his brewery has the most to lose if heavyweights of the craft industry swing into town — heavyweights laden with six-packs — he shrugs off the threat.

New Belgium: They go maybe too nuts right now

Emboldened by my foray, I shimmy over beerside, where among a cluster of imbibing biomass is Peter Brouckaert, the Belgian who’s been head brewer at the sprawling Fort Collins New Belgium brewery (700,000 barrels a year) since they were Highland Brewing Company-sized. He can’t say the word Appalachian. “We want to move fast,” he tells me. “We’ll probably announce once we’ve bought a piece of land somewhere. We’re trying to target by the end of the year to make a decision, so we only have three weeks left.”

You’d not be surprised if as a boy Peter demonstrated a particular zeal for dissections. I ask him his impressions of the Asheville beer scene:

“I’m only here now 40 hours or something, so … it’s interesting. Coming from the West, there’s a good beer culture here but I haven’t been impressed about … people here are not so much pushing the portfolio. Out West we do crazy stuff. We go maybe too nuts right now — prickly pear and orange and cezanne yeast. Haven’t seen much yeast experimentation, haven’t seen much alt ingredients. If we were to come here I think we’d have a lot of fun. I haven’t had any bad beer — I should say that. But people stay very European in style, where we in the west maybe are completely nuts right now.”

He says something about an explosion of flavors, and adds, “We try really bad things that we don’t like and the customer doesn’t seem to like either, but sometimes you hit upon something that’s like, wow, people love this, and I kind of like it too. And so, we’re at the Wild West front-edge right now in what we do. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago.”

I mention that Sierra Nevada talked about growing its own barley locally. “That’s Sierra. Sierra … ” he says. “It’s quite a different business model than New Belgium. They like to do that type of stuff. If you look to Sierra they’re a leader in the U.S. on the brewing side. They probably need to come out here also. But personally I have a huge respect for them. It’s not about the scale; it’s about who they are. If you get those guys in town, consider yourselves lucky. They’re good guys.”

I ask, what about New Belgium? “It’s quite a bit different,” he says, then goes on to explain that his team is more focused on “internal culture.”

A discussion under the moon(shine)

You have to admire the business heads on these ABC guys. That south location is gonna rake. Mike’s brought moonshine he distributes generously (doing something). Peter and I have some along with everyone else.

Joe Whitney shows up bearhugging little Peter in that I’m-falling-down way big burly men have. He introduces himself to me as Fred Mertz. When he explains that this is Fred Flintstone’s name I say, cryptically, “You beat me by three years.” What I meant was, if I was three years older I’d have remembered that, but by now we’re all a little drunk. “Joe is an asshole,” Peter says. “That’s why I wear a hoodie,” Joe says. Joe had some of Popcorn’s moonshine in Tennessee.

“Do you know what that article said that I sent you?” Peter asks Joe.

“No, it was in Flemish!”

“Shut up now. He’s in sales so he never shuts up.” Then Peter divulges his deep love and affection for Joe, who in fact is Sierra Nevada’s marketing director. “And yet still I will fight you!” he concludes, channeling his inner dissector. “I will fight you to the death!”

“It’s completely different what those companies can offer a town like this,” Peter returns to the topic at hand. “Joe is an asshole.”

“We’re a very technical company,” Joe says. “They’re a very creative company.”

Peter goes, “From a supply-chain perspective, Sierra has more to offer.”

An interlude with the stately Stoudts

Outside for a smoke I point out Scully’s to a disoriented young Florida transplant. We establish that he doesn’t know my sister-in-law. I ask him for his take on Asheville beer, write down his name, and he becomes like one of those Republicans Woodward and Bernstein harass in All the President’s Men. He asks me to fork over the page in my notebook with his name on it. This I won’t do, but I scratch it completely out and promise not to reveal any damning particulars. He says he likes Gaelic Ale and wants to go on a Brews Cruise. Then he warns Ed Stoudt about me. “You gotta watch this guy,” he says.

Stoudt Brewery, 25 years going, has a 12,000-barrel capacity. Ed is in Asheville celebrating his 36th wedding anniversary with his stately wife, with whom he’s sired five kids. He wears horn-rimmed glasses and smokes a pipe. Perhaps more than anyone here he digs the jazz. Frank Langella would play him.

Don we now our beer goggles

I come back in to Anne Fitten Glenn, who’s looking good. She’s maybe done something to her hair. It looks more substantial. I hug her, I think, which is perhaps unwarranted. But then love is everywhere in the room.

Actually with only a few notable exceptions the Asheville beer scene is populated with attractive people. Though it’s true that I find, as I age, everyone gets better looking. Sort of like your palate expands over time. I remember when in fifth grade the three Ashleys and Joel Riffee were the only good-looking people in the universe.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” I imagine saying to someone. “This Wedge IPA is serious beer!”

Mashing with ABC

Pete Langheinrich, brewer with ABC, is sanguine at a little table with his fiancee. “I think it’s a great thing,” he says about Asheville’s potential new neighbors. “Who complains about more beer? I mean, there’ll be challenges with big fish coming into our already inhabited pond. But I think they’re friendly folks. I have no idea what to anticipate. I just brew beer here. I’m worried about mash temperatures.”

The mixed feelings of a native

Zak Foy, one of those rare white men with a name six letters long — and, even odder, an Asheville native — has feelings a bit more mixed. “I think it’s actually a really good thing that both New Belgium and Sierra Nevada see Asheville as legitimate, but I entirely disagree with any tax benefits they may have received.” Is he worried? “Between French Broad and Highland especially — and, oh my God, Wedge — there’s a beer scene here that’s not going to be easily steamrolled. Maybe five years ago that would’ve worried me a little bit, but not now.” Our local breweries should be recognized by the same apparatus that’s helping out these bigguns, Zak says. “They shouldn’t get special privileges, but in the end, Asheville can compete. I have no illusions that [we’re] gonna stay small-town forever.” He went to Reynolds. “I’m excited! I have mixed feelings!”

Anonymously speaking

What exactly is it like, this critical mass? What was the last local industry to so flower? Homegrown, bellied, rubber-booted, catalyzing a renaissance …

One local brewer insists on anonymity and then doubles down with a clever gambit. “It’s pretty cool for them to be in this room with all the Asheville breweries. You think that shows their commitment — them coming here?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“You think you and I might get paid more because they’re coming here and we have to have competitive wages?”

“… I’m interviewing you,” I say.

“I’m anonymous! I like to answer questions in the form of an — I like to make answers in the form of a question.”

Then he gets rolling and talks very, very fast. “You hear all these rumors going around … but they’re both here in the room together at the Asheville brewing alliance Christmas party. I definitely feel like [we] might be getting to the point where we have enough breweries. I don’t think there’s anything like this going on anywhere in the country. Where do you see two of the biggest West Coast breweries in the same place on the East Coast that already has nine or 10 breweries? I hope it becomes a circus here … I hope people are falling hand over foot to come see the beer circus up in hillbilly country. Don’t you think it’s good for us? I was adamantly opposed to it in the beginning. I’ve definitely warmed up to it. But I don’t want Asheville to jump the shark.”

A thirsty monk, an optimistic bruiser

Norm Penn, zealous true-believing homebrewer lately appointed abbot of the Thirsty Monk’s single-barrel system, makes the rounds with his wife and ponytail, discussing, no doubt, beer.

Outside for a smoke I run into Jason Atallah, the owner — with his wife, Julie — of Bruisin’ Ales. “If either or both of these breweries would come and open a brewery here it would be enormous for our business,” he says. “I couldn’t be any more in favor of it. A lot of whether we have a good day or bad day depends on people coming into town. People come here because we won the [Beer City] poll. The biggest brewery in the whole state covers five states. Having a brewery with national presence say ‘I’m gonna open up in Asheville’ would be enormous for our town.”

So what about the other local breweries? “It would help everybody in the beer business,” he says. “It would garner enormous national celebrity. All this beer tourism we have going on now would just blow up! When someone comes in to see New Belgium they’re gonna go to Highland, they’re gonna go to Pisgah, just like they do now.” What about the competition for local consumers? “[A six pack of New Belgium] is already the same price as a six of Highland and they come in on the same truck. I don’t think the idea of either of them is to sell more here in Asheville — it’s to expand on the East Coast and shorten the distance that they have to ship to places.” But what if their six packs get significantly cheaper? “There’s a floor there that craft brewers won’t go below, or can.”

I needled Jason, asking the same question over and over again. Did the same thing, in fact, to Peter. I suck at interviewing people, but will maybe get better.

Asheville beer: dramatis personae

Pisgah’s here. Wedge is here — aloof rock stars of Asheville beer, confident and not entirely lacking in swagger. French Broad is the proletariat of the scene, big and gentle, unstylish, a touch shambling. Highland: the jetsetter, slick and self-assured. All is revelry, echolalic chatter drowning out the jazz trio.

Pucker up, Asheville

Joe Sollazzo, the owner of Asheville Brews Cruise, has come with a lovely date who’s got an unusual name no one quite hears right. Arista? Marista? Karissa? Joe, 15 years ago, was probably the picture of a ‘40s flyboy. You can imagine him wearing scarves. “I’m all for it, 100 percent,” he tells me after we’ve discussed the entangled fates of our fantasy football teams. “And I really think most of the local breweries should be all about it, too. New Belgium and Sierra Nevada aren’t here to put Craggie out of business — they could care less about it. It’s a win-win. I don’t know anyone who would object to it. I mean, Bruise Cruise? The first thing we’re gonna do is go kiss their ass,” he says. “I hope every brewery in the world comes to Asheville.”

If you can’t belong, don’t be long

A woman insisting on anonymity vents a little: “At first I was pissed off … I love that we have a local thing going here and that’s what Asheville’s all about. Even though they are craft breweries and they started small like the rest of us, at first I was like: ‘F—k that! Why are they coming here? We’ve got our own breweries!’”

Lauren Weldishofer knows a bit about the scene, having poured pints at Coxe Avenue and the French Broad and having for a boyfriend, Trey, who brewed for ABC and now for Highland. “Here’s my thought process: I’m all about it if they want to be team players like everyone else in this town. Breweries loan things to each other, they help each other out, they’re all on the same team and are really all about promoting Asheville beer and Asheville breweries and Asheville being a beer-centric town. So if they want to be part of that … I’m all for it. If they wanna just burst in and do their own thing and not be part of that then I think that’s shitty, ‘cause they’re capitalizing off who we are and what we are, so they should be part of it.”

“Word,” her anonymous friend seconds.

“Word,” Lauren says.

Coda: “Keep with me, forward, all through the night”

It’s a new chapter for Asheville beer. The funniest thing about living, maybe, is that you never know what’s going to happen next. Little cultures can thrive, and sometimes do, and usually fizzle or reach a point of diminishing returns, retract, fortify, and stay put. But sometimes little cultures do the other thing.

The next day, Friday morning, will drag a bit — all of us at the French Broad in various states of recovery. Then I put Cindy Lauper on the radio, and the whole place comes alive.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

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