ASHEVILLE, N.C.— Joining forces with a nonprofit to create a new beer — the proceeds from which will then benefit that organization — is somewhat of a rite of passage for Asheville-area breweries. Throughout the year, sales from these unique creations aid the efforts of such groups as the French Broad Riverkeeper, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and Friends of Connect Buncombe, and the steps from concept to completion are as different as the breweries themselves.
“We are very focused on working with nonprofits,” says Lisa McDonald, co-owner of Sanctuary Brewing Co. in Hendersonville. “You name it, we’ve probably done it or thought about doing it or are about to do it.”
In line with the vegan brewery’s name and McDonald’s animal rescue work, connections with local animal shelters have inspired numerous collaborations, though Sanctuary has also accepted calls to partner with Ale for ALS, the Blue Ridge Humane Society and the Pink Boots Society to make special 7-gallon batches of one-off beers on its 3.5-barrel system. Six weeks is the optimal minimal lead time to create the beer, plan the surrounding release day event and do publicity, but the Sanctuary crew can typically complete those goals in as little as three weeks.
While donating 100 percent of profits from sales of the brew to the nonprofit helps out the organization immensely, McDonald says that model — which Sanctuary adopted in its early days — is not sustainable for a business. Giving $1 per pour makes more sense, but the approach she regards most highly is to auction off a custom beer collaboration experience for charity.
“You help design a beer — figure out the style, help create the flavor profile, come back and help us brew the beer on the brew day and help name the beer. And then, of course, a portion of sales go back to the organization,” she says.
Sanctuary has thus far partnered with Brother Wolf Animal Rescue and the Arts Council of Hendersonville on these auctions. McDonald, co-owner and head brewer Joe Dinan and usually one of the assistant brewers then sit down with the auction winner to taste beers and find out what he or she likes.
Before brewing, the Sanctuary team also often makes a tincture as a way to nail down the flavor profile. For example, to see how a raspberry habanero saison might taste, McDonald says the crew would macerate the fruit and spice, add a little vodka to it, have it sit for a few days, then add the tincture to the style of beer to get a feel for what the final beer might taste like. Once all parties are on board with the creation, she and the brewers figure out remaining logistics, lock down a brewing day, and then everyone reunites to make the batch.
It’s a model that meshes well with Sanctuary’s day-to-day operations and finances, though McDonald does what she can to make room for worthy causes and at the very least provide kegs from the brewery’s regular portfolio. “It’s finding that balance of not sacrificing my own life and the well-being of what I’ve created here, but still kind of doing something that we think is part of the greater good,” she says. “Sometimes we might have to say, ‘Listen, we want to do this thing with you, but we’re working with three charities in December. Can we push it out to March so that we’re not just giving away a huge chunk of our income in the slow months?’ And that’s usually something we can balance out.”
In extreme cases, however, McDonald and Dinan may have to draw a firm line when it comes to the beverage itself. “People get some wacky ideas about what a beer style might be, so ultimately, we always have to say that it’s our brand and our reputation that’s on the line. We’re not going to do anything like, ‘Oh, let’s make a spicy ketchup beer’ or something that we just know is not going to be palatable, but this one person is super into ketchup,” McDonald says. “Nothing surprises me anymore, but that hasn’t really happened. People kind of look to us to be the experts.”
Stop by Catawba Brewing Co.’s South Slope taproom, and it seems as if every week there’s a new beer made in conjunction with an area nonprofit that will receive a portion of proceeds from the brew’s sale. Catawba owner Billy Pyatt says this commitment to charitable organizations comes from a desire to give back to the communities that support the brewery — one so deep-seated that it features near the top of the company’s mission statement and principles of operation.
Beneficiaries range from outdoors and nature groups like Pisgah Area Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to the Asheville City Schools Foundation. Some of these partnerships are recurring, yearly deals that offer plenty of lead time to put twists on prior creations or bring in an entirely different style. For new collaborations, Pyatt says he’d love to have three months’ notice to make the beer that the nonprofit and Catawba want as well as prepare marketing, messaging and occasionally labels in a comfortable timeframe, though exceptions may be made.
“Honestly, sometimes someone brings us a cause, and we just go, ‘You know? OK, best effort, it’ll be out in two weeks.’ And that’s hard, and that’s unusual, but if it’s the right cause, that’s the kind of thing that we’ll do,” he says.
In that short of a time frame, Pyatt says a solid, standard pale ale is about all that’s possible. But more exciting products arise over the optimal quarter-year span at Catawba’s Asheville and Charlotte breweries, which operate as development labs that produce at least one new experimental or collaborative beer a week. Pyatt says the diversity allows Catawba to “really support about anything we can dream up,” though orchestrating it all remains a challenge.
“It’s a big puzzle,” he says. “June through October are our busiest months, so it’s harder to work these smaller beers into the mix. But with Charlotte and Asheville giving us the ability to do small ones, it eases the burdens.”
After the collaborative beer runs out and the check has been cut, Catawba maintains its ties with the community partners and occasionally gets reports on how the funds were used. Whether it’s Morganton-based family crisis shelter Options sharing which programs received a boost, or Second Harvest Metrolina food bank noting that every dollar donated created six to seven meals for hungry children, these tangible effects last long after the keg runs dry.
“For the most part, [the beers are] one and done,” Pyatt says. “But the programs live on.”