New additions to the Asheville-area craft beverage scene are a cause for celebration, particularly when they involve a native or two returning home. Such is the case for cousins Chris Zieber and Nathan Kelischek, co-founders of Boone-based Appalachian Mountain Brewery, who opened their Mills River taproom on June 23.
A full-circle milestone, the expansion arrives at a time when the business is enjoying a newly realized independence after the owners purchased the company back from Anheuser-Busch InBev. But none of it would have happened, they say, without a firm foundation and deep appreciation for the region that made them who they are.
The cousins grew up in Asheville and both graduated from high school in 2007 — Zieber from T.C. Roberson High School and Kelischek from Asheville High School. Back then, the city only had a few breweries, which made the handful of downtown pubs popular attractions. Though still a minor, Zieber recalls soaking in the fledgling scene.
“I definitely remember going to the upper floor at Barley’s [Taproom & Pizzeria] and playing games, and a couple times going to Jack of the Wood to listen to music with my parents,” he says. “People ask all the time, ‘Did you guys just love going to breweries as a kid?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, well, we weren’t 21 when we were kids.’”
While majoring in environmental science at Appalachian State University, Kelischek took an introduction to brewing science course. Though the UNC general administration wouldn’t approve the school’s fermentation sciences program until 2012, the experience proved inspirational for Kelischek, who began homebrewing shortly thereafter.
“Of course, we’re broke college kids, so we’re just doing extract brews,” he says. “But I was doing all-grain stuff at the school.”
At the same time, Zieber was at UNC Chapel Hill, also pursuing a degree in environmental science, and got into brewing while studying abroad in Singapore. His American lab professor couldn’t find a good IPA while overseas and invited Zieber to help homebrew one in the educator’s tiny apartment. The undergrad loved getting a grasp on the process, and back in North Carolina, he continued to pursue this new hobby the best he could considering the resources at hand.
“I was brewing and cooling the wort in my bathtub with ice — all these normal homebrew things, but even more [limited] because we’re in college and just don’t have the resources to do all of it,” Zieber says. “I think that ignited the passion toward brewing and the fun of it and the problem-solving.”
The next time the cousins were back home for Thanksgiving, their uncle introduced them to his three-tiered, malt-based homebrewing system, and together they made a beer that was ready to imbibe at Christmas. The cousins enjoyed working with each other and in 2011 founded Appalachian Mountain Brewery in Boone, where they opened their first taproom in 2013. From there, however, Zieber describes the next 10 years as “a roller coaster.”
From the get-go, Zieber credits his and Kelischek’s college degrees as the keys to AMB’s quick success.
“Environmental science is a little bit of chemistry, a little bit of biology, a little bit of problem-solving — and all those things are really important for brewing,” he says. “Especially [when] running a small brewery where you have to fix things on the fly.”
In 2014, AMB began canning and distributing its beers as well as making ciders. That same year, the brewery also won Brewbound’s and Craft Brew Alliance’s Startup Brewery Challenge. The competition gives new brewery owners an opportunity to pitch their company and product to a panel of expert judges, who then rate the entrepreneurs on their ability to convey their brand proposition, go-to-market strategy and product quality.
According to Zieber, the win put them “in talks with Craft Brew Alliance,” which led to a strategic partnership with CBA, the conglomerate whose portfolio also includes Redhook Brewery and Kona Brewing Co. In 2015, AMB started contract brewing with CBA and making its core beers — including Long Leaf IPA and Boone Creek Blonde — at the Redhook production facility in Portsmouth, N.H.
In 2018, AMB was acquired by CBA and then became a part of A-B InBev in 2020, when the global behemoth went from minority to full owner of CBA. Then, after a few years under the A-B InBev umbrella, Zieber and Kelischek did something unusual: They bought AMB back.
“As we got further down the rabbit hole, the industry also changed,” Zieber says. “The flexibility that’s required in order to innovate new products and the route to market — the timeline between committing to something and actually getting it on the shelf — with a large company like Anheuser-Busch, it’s just too long for us. That flexibility just wasn’t there.”
Zieber adds that additional factors helped him and Kelischek realize that it made more sense to become their own business again, including the ability to make big decisions and be held accountable to themselves and to each other. The challenge of succeeding on their own is likewise appealing for the cousins.
“Anheuser-Busch is a huge company with a lot of resources,” Zieber says. “I’m doing HR, IT, accounting — all of that stuff myself now. So, I think that that’s certainly a factor, but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.”
But before reacquiring AMB, Zieber and Kelischek started planning the brewery’s expansion to Mills River in early 2022. According to the cousins, this project was in the works while AMB was owned by A-B InBev, which contributed to the construction costs and other related expenses. These figures were all factored into the repurchase agreement and, post-acquisition, finishing the project became AMB’s financial responsibility.
“We really wanted a location that was tied into the outdoors and in a community that had more room for growth,” says Kelischek, who now lives in Asheville. “Mills River really stood out for us, being at the confluence between the access to Brevard and Pisgah [National Forest].”
Located across from Bojangles on Highway 191, with whom AMB collaborated on Bojangles Hard Sweet Tea earlier this year, the 3,000-square-foot indoor space features 32 taps and a creative menu crafted in collaboration with chef Michael Harwell.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel throughout the world, so we want to take our travels and kind of put the Southern twist on them,” Kelischek says. “We have everything from smash burgers to gravy-pour poutine with pickled cheese on it — which sounds kind of weird, but it’s absolutely amazing.”
The property also features a 4,000-square-foot beer garden and room for live music and other community events. Though the co-founders would eventually like to brew on-site, all production remains in Boone for now. And while they also plan to become better acquainted with their neighbors at Burning Blush Brewery, Mills River Brewing Co., Bold Rock Hard Cider and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the one-two punch of again becoming independently owned and readying the new taproom has demanded the bulk of their attention.
“It takes time to get to know everybody, but we’ve already been engaging with Pisgah [Area Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association] and other local nonprofits,” Kelischek says. “We’re definitely excited to be a part of the brewing community as well, but our core mantras are community, sustainability and philanthropy. So, first and foremost, we wanted to make sure that we connected with people in the community that need support.”