With the final days of 2018 came the end of Lexington Avenue Brewery, Asheville’s first such establishment to close since Craggie Brewing exited the industry’s scene in late 2012. The downtown brewpub opened in January 2010 and pulled in customers around the clock, thanks in part to its high pedestrian traffic location. But after nearly a decade of work and with a new baby at home, LAB owner Mike Healy was ready for a change.
Keeping beer and food on the premises, Healy will be landlord to the CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective — whose members include Oskar Blues Brewery and Cigar City Brewing — and its CANarchy Collaboratory, which has an anticipated opening date of late March.
Aaron Baker, senior marketing manager for Oskar Blues in Brevard, says the brewery’s ownership has been considering a restaurant in Brevard or Asheville since the Colorado-based company established its East Coast operation in December 2012. After years of unsuccessful searching for the perfect location, the LAB opportunity arose, and with the space secured and CANarchy continuing to grow, it made more sense to highlight the collective in Asheville instead of merely offering Oskar Blues products.
“If you’re going to collaborate on a beer, why not take that one step further and start collaborating on best practices and sourcing raw materials and all kinds of things?” Baker says. “This is kind of the next step in that. Now we have this great collective with a ton of talent and so many great brewers, and now we’re going to be able to have a front door for all of that and a space to bring all kinds of collaborations to thirsty people.”
Demolition began Jan. 2, and the space’s redesign includes a brand-new bar and an expanded tap system. The restaurant’s menu is being developed with input from across the collective, and the venue will also feature projects from Asheville’s leading chefs, artists and musicians. While LAB had seating for roughly 125 people, Baker says that by rearranging and better organizing the room, the Collaboratory will be able to accommodate close to 225 seats.
“There’s going to be a lot more space and a lot more room to walk around,” he says. “It’s going to be more open and inviting.”
Wayne Wambles, brewmaster at Cigar City, is spearheading the beer side of the new endeavor. He’s already working on collaborations with breweries within CANarchy, each member of which is also reaching out to breweries outside the collective and making their own collaboration beers. The plan is to continue that pattern with the intent of bringing the resulting beers to the Collaboratory — including crossovers with some of its new neighbors.
“For the grand opening, what I was looking for were breweries that have a long history in Asheville and also other ones that I think are doing more modern approaches and breweries that I admire,” Wambles says. “We’ve got three local breweries that we’re working with, and the beers will be brewed at their breweries in the Asheville area.”
The identities of those institutions will remain shrouded until closer to the opening date. Wambles, who’s brewed over 150 collaboration beers, also looks to build on existing relationships with domestic brewers and those from around the world.
“I’m really looking forward to bringing some of my international friends in — some of them from a very long way away — and making these beers in Asheville,” he says. “And also allowing them to experience Asheville because probably, in many cases, they never have, and I think it’s one of the best craft beer cities in the Southeast U.S.”
Wambles identifies collaboration and innovation as the two primary focuses of the project and feels that they can be applied in multiple ways. One aspect that he’s particularly intrigued by is that new experimental beers at the Collaboratory may eventually make their way to refrigerators around the country.
“I’m hoping that some of the innovation that takes place at the Collaboratory ends up being a packaged core brand one day,” Wambles says. “It’s a perfect environment to be able to trial potentially new successful projects or products that can go to a much higher production level and possibly stretch across the U.S. and maybe go international. It really all depends on how people respond to it.”
In addition to being a testing ground, the Collaboratory will also offer beers from across the CANarchy collective, many of which Baker says likely wouldn’t be available in the Asheville market without the new brewpub. CANarchy is in the process of getting all the paperwork, distribution agreements and licensing lined up so that every brewery within the collective will be legally able to have their beers poured at the Collaboratory — steps that have been delayed by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s closure during the federal government shutdown.
Despite the setback, Baker and Wambles remain hopeful that they’ll be able to open in the spring and officially join an already thriving beer community. “It’s pretty cool that a little place like Three Weavers [Brewing Co.] in L.A. — they’re pretty small, I think they’re a few thousand barrels — they’re going to be able to have their beer on draft in Asheville. They’re doing some really awesome stuff,” Baker says. “We’re excited about that and Deep Ellum [Brewing Co. in Dallas]. There’s a ton of great beer across the collective that we can bring to a great market like Asheville with supersmart consumers.”