Asheville breweries expand into new markets

GREEN LIGHT FOR GROWTH: Green Man Brewery's 18,000-square-foot expansion project is key to the company's planned entry into Florida's budding craft beer scene, say public relations director Elise Carlson, left, and operations manager Jon Spath, right. Photo by Thom O'Hearn

Oskar Blues beers will soon be available in 46 states, the brewery recently announced. And while homegrown Asheville breweries haven’t quite reached that point, several are taking important steps toward eventual national distribution.

South for the winter

Since opening in 1997, Green Man Brewery has grown organically, becoming one of Asheville’s most respected beer-makers. It was also among the earliest to distribute outside North Carolina, moving into Tennessee markets in 2012 and South Carolina late in 2013. High demand for Green Man products has driven growth in these areas, but the brewery is also seeing more thirsty customers in Asheville and environs.

The current 18,000-square-foot expansion, slated to be operational early next year, is essential for a planned entry into the burgeoning Florida craft beer scene, say operations manager Jon Spath and public relations director Elise Carlson.

With a state-of-the-art bottling line and keg wash/fill from world-renowned German manufacturer KHS, a Kaspar Schultz brewhouse, additional fermentation space and an expansive floor plan to expedite packaging and shipping, Green Man’s new facility opens the door to broader distribution in the future.

Meanwhile, says Spath, the brewery has worked hard to maintain quality and consistency even as it extends its reach. The flagship brands will be the most readily available out of state, with seasonal and specialty brews entering those markets as production allows. And when it comes to choosing distributors in new markets, Carlson’s explanation reflects the ethos of Asheville’s craft beer industry: “We go where the love is!”

Howdy, neighbor!

Hi-Wire Brewing co-owners Adam Charnack and Chris Frosaker spent the last two weeks of October in South Carolina and Tennessee attending events to commemorate the brewery’s debut in those markets.

Charnack says the neighboring states were chosen for their communities’ familiarity with and appreciation of Asheville culture. To reward that loyalty, Hi-Wire will do its best to make its whole portfolio available throughout its distribution footprint, augmenting the flagship and seasonal offerings with a limited number of small-batch, specialty releases in bottle shops.

“We make approachable and balanced beer that’s meant to be enjoyed in everyday situations out with friends, so it’s logical for us that we would be in grocery stores where people can grab a six-pack and go,” says Charnack.

Hi-Wire struggled to meet the in-state demand from its original Hilliard Street location, so the July move to the new 27,000-square-foot Big Top production facility in Biltmore Village was essential for expanding distribution. In addition, notes Frosaker, he and Charnack “were excited to be able to hire a bunch more people and bring them into the Hi-Wire family.”

For a 2-year-old brewery, adds Charnack, “This was a huge expansion. Now we want to focus on the two states that we just expanded into and give them the time and focus they require. We expanded quickly with breadth, and now we want to go into those markets with more depth.”

Welcome to Atlanta

Approaching its third anniversary in December, Wicked Weed Brewing has already generated national brand awareness. “Being able to medal at all four major competitions has put us on the map in the craft beer world,” says co-owner Ryan Guthy, who’s also the head of sales. Accordingly, he continues, Atlanta was a natural choice for Wicked Weed’s first out-of-state market.

The decision was guided by population density, craft beer consumption and reports from brewpub staff concerning patrons’ hometowns.

For starters, Wicked Weed beers will be available at 50 outlets in the greater Atlanta area, with a focus on bottle shops such as Ale Yeah! and Hop City as well as craft beer bars. Initial offerings will include the company’s flagship IPAs, with at least one seasonal brew in each shipment.

Concerned about quality assurance, Wicked Weed conducted a lengthy search for distributors capable of meeting stringent handling requirements that aren’t typically offered to breweries, including cold storage. “We still wanted the beer to be on our terms, and we played some hardball with those guys down there and ended up getting what we wanted,” brand manager Erin Jones explains.

Although the company is already looking into other markets, Guthy says the focus is on steady, sustainable growth. North Carolina will continue to be Wicked Weed’s top distribution priority, with further expansion into other parts of the state continuing alongside development in Georgia. And enhancing Asheville’s reputation, he notes, is still foremost among the brewery’s goals. “We love Asheville, we support Asheville, and we want the best-quality product coming from here.”

To Cleveland and beyond

All three local breweries, though, hope to eventually attain the reach that Highland Brewing Co. has achieved since its launch in 1994 as Asheville’s first craft brewery. Back then, says President Leah Wong Ashburn, founder Oscar Wong used to drive around town urging folks to try his brews out of the back seat of his car. These days, Highland’s presence spans nine states, from Florida up to the Mason-Dixon Line and west almost to the Mississippi River.

Ashburn cites the brewery’s 2006 move to a 180,000square-foot facility — only slightly more than half of which is currently being used — as a tipping point that set the stage for wider distribution.

And though Ashburn says she and her colleagues never imagined themselves managing a vehicle fleet, maintenance costs and other responsibilities persuaded them to invest in their own trucks. Distribution manager Matt McCommish, whom she calls “the truck jockey,” schedules deliveries for the roughly 45 distributors and ensures that production is keeping up with current and future demand.

When choosing a distribution partner, Highland staff members talk to the business’s ownership, management and sales force; they also visit the market’s grocery stores, hang out in local bars and chat with retailers, whom Ashburn says are excellent sources of information.

North Carolina and Tennessee remain Highland’s most lucrative states, but the company has seen significant growth in outlying markets. Highland plans to expand its reach into Cleveland, Ohio, next year and is considering a couple of other new markets.

“Our brand is so relevant in the Southern Appalachians, so places that are in the Southern Appalachians or connected to the region either geographically or visitation-wise are places that we will always look at,” she explains.

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