Asheville’s brewery scene is not without its controversies: oversaturation, lack of racial diversity, noninclusive atmospheres and that its main product comes with major health concerns. But there are upsides, too, and one group in particular is benefiting from the growing number of tasting rooms: local musicians.
“It keeps a lot of us in work,” says singer-songwriter Leigh Glass. As an artist known for writing her own music (both in her previous musical iterations and in her current band with her husband, Corey Bullman), she points out, “A lot of breweries cater to original music, so you don’t feel pressure to play covers people can dance to.”
Glass, a Western North Carolina native, says she cut her teeth playing at taprooms. French Broad Brewery (now French Broad River Brewery) was always a favorite location. “I loved it because it was so small, it was like playing your living room,” Glass recalls.
Other early brewhouses to support local musicians included the since-closed Craggie Brewing Co., which Bullman describes as “the raw, playing in the middle of the concrete experience.” And, before Highland Brewing Co. added a tasting room, “It was a cool experience for folks because you were [playing] right in the middle of the equipment, and they made a pallet stage,” Bullman says. Highland now has multiple indoor stages and the Meadow, its outdoor performance space.
Other establishments, such as Pisgah Brewing Co. and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., also built outdoor stages, but those tend to host shows by larger, nationally touring acts. Locals typically play the smaller, indoor spaces, and such shows come with certain disadvantages. Sometimes the rooms are loud, and a portion of any given crowd is there for the beer; the live music is just ambiance. But, says singer-songwriter Stephen Evans, “When you go in knowing what to expect, it’s less discouraging. … When people don’t know you, [initially] they’re not listening.” But eventually, many do tune in — enough so that he often tests new material at his tasting room shows.
For up-and-coming or seasoned artists wanting to gauge audience response to new songs, many brewhouses also host open mics (e.g., Sanctuary Brewing Co. and One World Brewing’s downtown location) or musician-in-the-round nights (Catawba Brewing Co.) and open jams (Archetype Brewing). Evans used to host an open mic at Asheville Brewing Co.’s Coxe Avenue location.
And breweries outside the Asheville area are also good stops for touring artists. “When you’re traveling, obviously you’re spending more money to get to the gig, and they can pay,” says Evans.
Glass and Bullman agree. “They are one of the [venues] in town where a musician can play to a built-in audience for a decent amount [of money],” Bullman says. “They’re not looking to make money [on music], they’re looking to enhance the experience.”
Brewery owners tend to be music lovers, often naming brews after favorite bands or songs, Bullman says. He works for Craftpeak, a company that handles digital presence for craft breweries across the U.S. and in the U.K., and has noticed that many of those businesses curate a live music aesthetic (often influenced by the owners’ tastes). In Denver, for example, there’s a spot that specializes in heavy metal.
While Asheville’s smaller scene has yet to embrace such a sonic range, there are some moves in that direction. One World has been steadily building a roster of electronic music and DJ acts. Owners Jason and Lisa Schutz are fans of the sounds associated with festivals such as Burning Man and Transformus, and head brewer Brandon Audette was a DJ in Detroit for a decade, says Robert Sloan, who books for both One World’s downtown and West Asheville locations. He describes himself as a Phish fan who built a lot of music connections while on the road. “That’s a big part of why we got into booking DJs — it comes from our backgrounds,” he says.
“Our music program does bring a lot of diverse crowds,” says Sloan. “I think the music is a lot of what draws people [to One World], but the beer is also delicious.” Dance music and EDM is a niche that’s not fully advantaged, locally, he says, though, “We have a large electronic music community in Asheville.” Acts that have done well at One World include the DJ collectives In Plain Sight and Earthtone Soundsystem.
“I like to book people who are really good at what they do, and I like to give people opportunities to play out because that’s how we get better as musicians,” says Sloan. He also points out One World’s various jam sessions (jazz, soul and funk among them) have been instrumental in creating networks within the local music community.
Sloan has big plans for One World’s music offerings, especially the West Asheville location, which has an outdoor bar. “I’d like to get national acts and have local support for those shows, or vice versa,” he says, “kind of like a small-scale festival. … We’ve done a couple of outdoor festivals for different organizations and causes.” Recently, Phazed fest paired local beers and DJs.
As brewery culture continues to evolve, so does the music scene around it. Asheville’s increase in craft beer producers has grown the number of stages for local acts to play on. It’s also created a niche for earlier performances. “Shows at 6-8 p.m. or 7-9 p.m., and even afternoon shows — that’s huge,” says Glass, who notes that the demographic she most often encounters is 35 and older, often with kids, jobs and other responsibilities that make late-night concerts impractical.
But those early slots aren’t for everyone. “You’re not going to play a metal show from 6-8 p.m.,” Bullman points out.
Sloan notes that One World’s music runs later, as is fitting for fans of electronic genres. That being the case, there’s a sense that local taprooms might be able to please as many sonic palates as beer preferences. Many spaces, such as French Broad, have added larger stages, better sound systems and hired professional sound people and music bookers.
It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing: “Something about beer and music just go together well,” Evans says. “It’s a social thing.”