Over the last year, less news has issued from the Asheville Brewers Alliance than usual. But the decrease in public communication doesn’t mean that the support group for Western North Carolina’s craft brewing industry has been idle.
On Dec. 7, at the ABA’s annual holiday party, Karis Roberts was announced as the group’s new executive director. The Wilmington native is a graduate of UNC Asheville and worked as an early education teacher before shifting her focus to modeling and photography.
“When I’m not being creative, I’m serving you drinks as a bartender at a few places around town, including Wedge Brewing Co., Rabbit Rabbit and The Mule at Devil’s Foot Beverage,” Roberts says.
As a self-described “lifelong educator and learner,” Roberts says she’ll strive to make sure the ABA’s core membership feels supported. She notes that cohesion, communication, conflict resolution and community will be her driving forces, and she’s optimistic about additional progress within the local scene.
“Serving as the face and community liaison for the ABA comes with opportunities for growth, change and ingenuity,” she says. “There aren’t many Black women in the beer industry. And after living in Asheville for 15 years, I have seen how lack of visibility can become harmful and also how diversification can bring about change and new perspectives.”
Roberts takes over for Leah Rainis, who stepped down as executive director — which had been a full-time position — in March. Rainis started work in January 2020 and was instrumental in helping local beer businesses navigate the challenges of statewide restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, pivot to delivery and to-go services and eventually reopen indoor spaces with significant precautions that met safety standards. She remained on in an advisory role to assist the ABA board and executive committee with the transition and now works as project manager for Wedge Brewing.
Though Roberts’ role will start as a part-time position, there is potential for it to grow, says Katie Smith, marketing administrator for Highland Brewing Co. and vice president of the ABA’s board of directors. At its core, Smith notes, the position is about “being the face of Western North Carolina beer, talking to our members and [doing programming].”
Plans are already in motion to bring back health and wellness classes that focus on proper lifting and other brewing techniques to help prevent injuries. And Smith says that ABA members have requested additional offerings that focus on mental health — a need that’s risen in tandem with the challenges of the pandemic. She notes that smaller breweries with only a handful of employees have difficulty providing health insurance for their staff and that finding ways to help local breweries of all sizes will be key for Roberts.
“When we were looking at candidates, we wanted someone who knows the beer scene, has worked in beer in some capacity and has seen different levels of it,” she says. “And [someone who is] great talking to people and can talk to the bartender and talk to the owner and understand the different problems from different stages.”
Roberts will work alongside an enthusiastic board and executive committee that’s been putting in extra hours during the search for a new executive director. In addition to Smith’s June election as vice president, Aaron Wilson from French Broad River Brewing became the group’s new president. Such support will be critical as breweries continue to figure out best practices in a world where COVID-19 remains a factor.
“You have to get your message out differently, make sure that everybody’s comfortable coming out and try to offer outside and virtual options,” Smith says. “If we have educational experiences, we can video them and have them on websites or a YouTube channel. So, even if you’re a brewer who’s brewing during that seminar and can’t go, or you don’t feel comfortable, you can have this other opportunity to watch and get this information.”
Reflecting on 2022, Smith feels that the ABA’s biggest accomplishment was simply “forging ahead” and supporting WNC breweries any way it could. And in addition to the relief of having a new executive director take on responsibilities that ABA officers have been carrying, she’s excited about multiple new breweries that are currently in the planning stages — all of which points to a positive new year for the group and the industry overall.
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