When Hops & Vines was purchased by Lila Stokes in May and converted to Cork & Craft, the decision was made to change course from the previous ownership and no longer carry homebrewing supplies.
“We would have loved to keep it, but we wanted to add a wine lounge in the back of the store, and being able to carry both wasn’t an option,” Stokes says. “We certainly appreciate the craft of homebrewing. We have a lot of friends that do it. … But the 5-pound bags of barley and such took up a lot of room, as well as the bins of yeast and the larger tools used to homebrew. So it was pretty much a decision to add the wine and beer lounge that we wanted to add or keep the homebrew section.”
Stokes now refers homebrew customers to the two remaining shops in town with that focus: Asheville Brewers Supply and Fifth Season Gardening Co. The shrinking number of options suggests everything from a lack of interest in the hobby to the decreasing economic viability of running such an operation, which may come as a surprise considering the recent craft beer boom and Asheville’s status as an East Coast beer mecca.
“As a whole, the national trend is really on the downslope. Over the last four years it’s been shrinking, and the No. 1 reason it seems to be happening that way is the prevalence of breweries,” says Tedd Clevenger, owner of Asheville Brewers Supply. “Pretty much, you can go to any gas station and at least find some sort of craft option, even in the middle of nowhere. Obviously, that didn’t use to be the case. To get anything craft or world-beer style, you’d have to make it yourself.”
It’s that same ubiquity, however, that makes Clevenger think homebrewing will gradually regain its popularity. With plenty of mediocre beer being sold for premium prices, he sees cost as a strong driving factor with which the commercial beer industry will soon have to contend.
“Craft beer is getting very expensive,” he says. “It’s amazing how much the price points have come up in the last, even, three years. I think that can potentially sway people to get back into the hobby if they had previously gotten out or in coming to the hobby.”
Chris Mills, instructor and brew department lead at Fifth Season, feels that the growth of Asheville breweries has actually increased the number of homebrewers but agrees with Clevenger that taproom tabs are part of the motivation to get creative on the domestic front.
“They go out, they find something they really, really like, and they go, ‘Damn, I want to make that!’ And they don’t want to spend $6 a pint out at the bar to get that beer, so you can make it for half the price or less,” Mills says.
Having a thriving local professional industry also carries plenty of perks for the stores. Former Asheville Brewers Supply customers have gone on to open Bhramari Brewing Co., Whistle Hop Brewing Co., Eurisko Beer Co. as well as nearby Mills River Brewery, Ecusta Brewing Co. (Pisgah Forest) and Hickory Nut Gorge Brewery (Chimney Rock). Clevenger says he does business with pretty much every brewery in town, including providing supplies for certain operations.
“We’re able to wholesale for some of the smaller ones and get them pricing on things that would otherwise require them to order a pallet,” he says.
Clevenger and Kristin Weeks, store manager at Fifth Season, identify the influx of local commercial clients as a perk of working in Beer City. Clevenger has also seen an uptick in beer tourists who take time away from their brewery visits to pick up locally produced supplies, namely products from Riverbend Malt House, which he says are increasingly requested by out-of-town customers.
Both shops also pull orders from beyond Western North Carolina through online sales. Weeks notes that Fifth Season’s website inventory comes with the benefit of the store not having to stock everything it carries, and orders of those items can typically be on-site or shipped out within days. The online presence of independent establishments also resonates with the DIY aesthetic of people who make their own craft beverages, and either no longer have a local homebrew shop or refuse to do business with Midwest Brewing Supplies and Northern Brewer, both of which are owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev.
“Homebrewers are still rather averse to supporting those companies, so they’re looking for shops like ours,” Clevenger says.
Business from around the U.S. certainly helps, as does catering to a community with a diverse interest in fermentation that’s grown to include people making wine, cider, cheese, kombucha, bread and mead — the latter of which Weeks and Clevenger has seen grow significantly as more residents become beekeepers. But the stores’ lifeblood remains local amateur beer makers. Keeping experienced homebrewers supplied with raw goods, replacement parts and new items is a major part of each’s business, but educating new and emerging craftspeople is also a key component.
“We definitely cater to beginner brewers,” Weeks says. “We hope they feel welcome to come in and get what they need for their first batch without feeling intimidated.”
Fifth Season accomplishes that goal through its flagship class, in which participants make 5 gallons of the beer of their choosing on the store’s brewing systems. Asheville Brewers Supply offers a free beginner class each month, where students use malt extracts and some grain, going through the entire brewing process to collaboratively produce a beer. The store also has an advanced class that brews an all-grain beer, and both operations host the occasional kegging workshop for homebrewers who want to take the next step beyond bottling.
“Of course, we’re a seven-days-a-week resource, too,” Clevenger says. “People can come in or call and ask a million questions, and we’re here to answer them and provide guidance. It’s what we do. We’re not just a retail store. It’s like half our job.”
And lest one think that the Asheville homebrew supply business is a malicious cutthroat community, consistent with the supportive, encouraging attitude of their local brewing industry colleagues, Clevenger, Weeks and Mills are likewise invested in seeing each other’s stores succeed.
“If we don’t have something, I’ll send them over to Tedd,” Weeks says. “We work together. A couple of times a month, there’s that phone call, like, ‘Hey, I only have three of these. Do you have five?’ ‘Yeah, send them over.’”