Water, barley, yeast and hops are at the core of nearly every beer. And as the Asheville area’s brewing industry continues to grow and evolve, local craft beverage makers can increasingly source all four ingredients from neighborhood businesses, almost to the point of self-sufficiency.
The access to fresh products not only results in better-tasting products and keeps more money in the local economy, it also accelerates the innovation key to keeping Asheville at the forefront of the nation’s beer providers.
The grain game
Brent Manning and Brian Simpson started Riverbend Malt House in 2010. In search of an encore career after the housing market collapsed, the environmental consultants took a close look at Asheville’s beer industry — which then had a total of 12 breweries — with a desire to improve the sustainability of one of its sectors.
At the time, there were only a couple hundred pounds of hops grown annually in North Carolina, but the limited number of varieties that grow well and aren’t trademarked made investing in them a dicey endeavor. Land and infrastructure were also needed yet absent, though the opposite was true for small grains. Combine that corner’s potential with the lack of an area malt house and a light bulb went on for the business partners.
“North Carolina grows hundreds of thousands of acres of small grains for a variety of different industries, including human food consumption, so the quality piece was there [and] the infrastructure was there,” Manning says. “There was an ag extension network of researchers studying everything and improving upon the quality every year, so we said, ‘Wow! OK, maybe this could make sense. Maybe we can use some of these locally sourced grains to make malts, and we’ll provide our breweries with truly local ingredients. I feel like we were in the right place at right time with the malt house idea.”
Riverbend has grown high-quality 2- and 6-row barley on the Biltmore Estate as part of a partnership, and Manning notes that the property has some of the best farmland in the Asheville Basin. He says barley also can grow in the Mills River area, but it’s fairly challenging because of the narrow bottomland and the impact of the mountains with regard to the morning fog not clearing out of the valley. In turn, moisture creates conditions in which fungal growth can occur, which is bad for barley quality.
“The surrounding area — the farmland around Shelby and that part of the world — provide a perfect complement to the craft beer industry because they’re close in proximity, but have broader, flat land that’s more conducive to growing high-quality grain at scale,” Manning says.
Riverbend has cultivated relationships primarily with family farms of less than 300 acres. In the mutually beneficial partnership, it purchases winter grains grown in the off season (October-June), a time when farmers would normally have a cover crop, which Manning says doesn’t add monetary value to the land besides cheap fertilizer and maintaining topsoil. As a result, the farmers receive a second or third paycheck out of their land management.
As for working with breweries, Manning says it’s the most exciting part of his job, especially the expanded collaborative approach to making malt and delivering unique products made possible by Riverbend’s new 70,000-square-foot facility and cutting-edge equipment.
He adds that 2 million pounds of malt a year are used by South Slope breweries. Riverbend can theoretically provide that amount if every brewery bought all of its malt from the malt house, but due to cost constraints, that’s not the case. He compares the choice to eating at a nice restaurant versus a fast-food establishment as far as the different price points, not the quality of mass-produced malt, which he says is excellent. The main difference, however, is that the latter is made in enormous batches and trucked in from long distances, thereby creating a sizable carbon footprint.
“The closest major malt house is in Chilton, Wis. — 1,500 miles away. That’s Briess Malting, and Briess sources a majority of their barley from the Big Horn Valley in Wyoming, which is another thousand miles west, so now we’ve got 2,500 miles in between farmer and fermenter,” Manning says. “Riverbend sources 100 percent of their ingredients from a 500-mile radius, and for 2018 we’re hoping to shrink that a little bit by tapping into some growers in the Shelby and Hickory areas.”
One of the world’s leading producers of brewer’s yeast, White Labs had been shipping its products to numerous Asheville area breweries from its San Diego headquarters. In 2017 when the company opened its eastern U.S. location in Asheville, a few blocks away from the South Slope brewing district, those same clients could walk or take a short drive to pick up their yeast and take advantage of the facility’s other offerings.
“When we made the announcement, more breweries and homebrew stores called us up and said they wanted to work with us,” says Chris White, president, founder and CEO of White Labs. “The support we got from the local community was way more than we ever expected. There was so much excitement, and we’re just trying to live up to that now.”
When searching for a building, many possible locations were situated outside of downtown Asheville and therefore didn’t interest White. He and his colleagues knew the facility’s will-call area, through which brewers can place individual orders and pick them up that day, would be popular and therefore wanted the new White Labs to be a destination with easy access. He notes that a White Labs box can cost $50 or more to ship, and those savings add up for local breweries.
“Every beer needs yeast. It doesn’t have to be ours, of course, but we make a big selection, and with us making a lot of fresh yeast right there, it makes sense for a lot of brewers,” White says. “A lot of times, brewers know exactly what they want. They just call us, we have a talk about when they can get it, and within days we have it right there in Asheville. A lot of it’s about the availability, but it’s often about what strain to use, too.”
As White Labs develops new and exciting products in Asheville, local brewers are the first to have access to them in the Southeast. White also sees the operation’s tasting room and its rotation of different yeast strains as a resource for brewers to go and explore fresh ideas.
“There’s so many brewers to collaborate with, not only in our own individual little projects but theirs. When you’re trying to develop and innovate something, it’s superhelpful to have people around to help with that, whether in the testing part or participating in other ways,” White says. “[The Asheville facility] opened last January, so we’re a year and so many months in and still, in my mind, in its infancy. It’s still getting going, so that’s the stuff that I’m really excited about for the future is innovation and development of new things there.”
The hops connection
Beau Evers, Crosby Hop Farm account manager for the Southeast and Rocky Mountain districts, identifies mildew as the No. 1 killer of hops. Due to North Carolina’s moist air and consistently humid summers, it’s been difficult to grow the crop on a commercial level within the state.
“Hops don’t really like that, and that’s what’s essentially a catalyst for that mildew,” Evers says. “When you have a downy mildew, it stunts the initial binds coming up, and the nodes are really short. You want the nodes to be really long so it can grow higher.”
Evers says over 99 percent of the yearly U.S. hops crop comes from Oregon (where Crosby is headquartered), Washington and Idaho. In lieu of area production on a significant scale, he provides breweries a local human connection with a wide variety of fresh hops from the Pacific Northwest.
“All these hop varieties were bred either by Oregon State [University] or Washington State [University] through the USDA public program, and those hops have been bred for the Pacific Northwest. That’s where they were crossed and put in greenhouses and inoculated with mildews, separated between male and female and they figured out all the different agronomics that were going on with that,” Evers says. “So ultimately, if certain regions of the country want to succeed in growing hops, you have to breed for certain regions.”
The Nashville native spent six years in Oregon but felt a calling to come back and be closer to family and friends. Once Crosby grew to the point where it could have regional account managers, Evers could have lived anywhere in the Southeast but chose Asheville as his base for the craft beer culture.
He compares the community to Portland with its many neighborhood breweries and, though he’s been here six months and is on the road 50-60 percent of the time, is already seeing the benefits of face-to-face dealings with Asheville brewers with whom he’d been doing business from afar for five years.
“There’s a certain osmosis effect: If you’re not based in an area, you’re going to miss it. You’re not going to be able to go to your local beer fest and be part of the guilds or the Asheville Brewers Alliance. You miss out because you’re inherently not around,” Evers says.
While farmers can and do grow Cascade and Centennial hops in North Carolina, Evers says the current low yields typically make the undertaking not viable for business. As for the potential of genetic modification aiding the state’s growing power, he says the hops industry — whose lone product is beer — doesn’t produce enough global revenue for a company like Monsanto to become involved.
In selecting the Asheville area as the home for its East Coast operations, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., New Belgium Brewing Co. and Oskar Blues Brewery have all cited the region’s high-quality water as a major determining factor.
According to David Melton, interim director of the city of Asheville’s Water Resources Department, the city’s primary sources of water are located in eastern Buncombe County. Water flows from pure mountain streams into two pristine lakes that are surrounded by 20,000 acres of highly protected forests owned by the city. Proactive management of the watershed ensures the high quality of the source water, which in turn yields a very high-quality treated water product.
“The watershed is surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest, which is also protected and managed,” Melton says. “The Water Resources Watershed Team manages the health of the forest surrounding the reservoir, which prevents erosion and other factors that can affect quality.”
The reservoir is completely nonrecreational, and the team ensures that it remains undisturbed. The active management decreases the susceptibility to potential contaminants, and both the source and finished water are consistently monitored and rigorously tested for changes in pH, alkalinity, turbidity, total organic carbon, bacteria, pathogens and other factors. The finished water meets and/or exceeds all state and federal regulated standards — just what brewers want to hear.
“Interactions with breweries or prospective breweries primarily include sharing information related to water quality, water chemistry and water delivery in the early stages,” Melton says. “The ongoing maintenance and operation of the water system by highly trained staff keeps the quality consistent upon delivery.”
All on the farm
On Sideways Farm & Brewery in Etowah, owners Carrieann and Jon Schneider are working to provide all of the core ingredients — and then some — themselves.
Sideways currently uses Hendersonville city water, but the Schneiders are looking into putting a well on the property, which they say will involve lots of testing to make sure the quality of the water is up to the brewery’s standards. They will also be working with White Labs to learn how to harvest their own yeast from the farm. “There’s ways that we can do it on our own, but to get a reliable culture we’d like to involve them,” Carrieann Schneider says.
Likewise on the locally sourced front, though slightly less orthodox, Sideways plans on using the two types of brewer’s yeast that N.C. State University scientists discovered in the microbes of a wild bee and wasp, respectively. And as for hops and barley, the business is receiving help from N.C. State’s Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.
“They have some experimental hops that they want to have us test,” Jon Schneider says. “What they’re doing out there is splicing a particular hop that has done very well in their trials with some of the other hops varieties that we’re using in hopes that they can capture that growth of the one particular into the others.”
The Schneiders have also run one trial using two different barley varieties. Though neither grew very well, they’ll do more trials next winter and will otherwise source extensively from Riverbend. Leaning on local businesses for sourcing has been at the forefront of their decision-making — even before they bought the Sideways property in early 2015. And in line with Manning’s hopes that within five years, hops-knowledgable craft drinkers will have a favorite malt, and Evers’ desire for buyers to demand sustainably sourced hops, the Schneiders see the increased education of craft beer consumers as an exciting development.
“A lot of the other breweries are starting to get it, where they’re using local farms. Rayburn Farms, for example. But I think consumers still think of beer as more of an industrial product,” Carrieann Schneider says.
“When you go to a winery, you go out to the farm and you have that experience and you start to make those connections. There’s not a lot of breweries in the area that you go to that you make the connection that beer is an agricultural product. So for us, it’s about starting with the consumers and having them make that connection, which will in turn hopefully cause them to care a little bit more about the sustainability of water and farms that are producing the barley and hops and what kinds of things they’re using on those farms.”