Few people in the Asheville beer community have the breadth of perspective that John Cochran can offer. With over 20 years of brewery experience, Cochran has weathered both the zeniths and the nadirs the industry has undergone.
He started his first brewery, Athens, Ga.-based Terrapin Beer Co., in the middle of one of the worst downturns the craft segment has thus far endured. He opened his second, Asheville’s UpCountry Brewing, at the height of a wave of growth unseen since before Prohibition. The road to starting over with UpCountry was a circuitous one for Cochran, but that path has left him uniquely qualified to comment on the craft beer boom in Buncombe County and beyond.
Cochran co-founded Terrapin in 2002 along with Brian “Spike” Buckowski, and after nearly 15 years of success, the brewery was purchased in 2016 by Tenth and Blake, the craft division of multinational brewing conglomerate MillerCoors. It was then that Cochran decided to get back to his small-brewery roots. He bought Altamont Brewing from Gordon Kear, rechristening the West Asheville brewhouse and taproom UpCountry. Having already grown one brewery to national prominence, Cochran was ready to start working on the ground level again, this time with the benefit of extensive experience in the business.
“I think everybody’s been shocked by the growth in the last few years,” says Cochran. “I don’t see a bubble for breweries making 2,000, 3,000, up to 10,000 barrels to supply their local market, although the market is getting tougher. The real competition for bigger craft breweries is from smaller ones, but the great thing is that they don’t look at it the same way a big corporation would — it’s more cooperative. Asheville’s a very close-knit community of brewers, and the large guys here really care about helping the smaller guys out.”
Cochran started his tenure at Altamont by assuring customers and employees alike that he has no intention of selling this time around. “The big goal that I’m working on here is building that culture of being a family — building trust. It takes time, but it’s exciting,” he says.
Like many beer lovers, Cochran started out drinking mass-produced adjunct lagers in college until a growing collection of bottles showcased on his wall necessitated experimentation. After accumulating every conceivable iteration of macrobrew packaging, he started venturing out of his comfort zone. “I tried a Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, and I was blown away. It shocked me that the bottle was clear — I thought it was black. So once a week after work, I’d pick up my usual case of Hamm’s, but from then on I’d also pick up something new,” recalls Cochran.
Some homebrewing and a brief stint in Seattle after graduating from the University of Georgia in 1993 sparked his interest in the burgeoning American craft beer movement, and when he returned to Georgia, his course was clear. He took on an internship at Marthasville Brewing that led to a full-time brewer’s position. But when that brewery closed in 1997 during the shake-up that claimed many such operations, he ended up at Atlanta Brewing (now Red Brick). It was there that he met Buckowski, and together they set out to start their own operation.
While the idea of Terrapin was straightforward enough, the road that led to its eventual success was anything but. Banks were hesitant to loan the duo necessary startup capital, so they resorted to credit cards and borrowing from family. Cochran and Buckowski contract-brewed for years (“Now it’s called ‘gypsy brewing’; back then it was just called bad,” says Cochran) until a group of local investors came on board in 2007, allowing Terrapin to start brewing in its own space.
An expansion facility followed in 2008, and the brewery’s national profile soared. But the investors had a divergent vision for the future of Terrapin, and Cochran and Buckowski couldn’t buy them out, so in 2011, they accepted assistance from Tenth and Blake.
Coming on the heels of a glut of speculative brewery buyouts on the part of MillerCoors and AB InBev, the Tenth and Blake deal drew suspicion from craft purists — suspicions that were confirmed in 2016, when Tenth and Blake became the majority shareholder in Terrapin. But things were not as dire as they might’ve appeared, according to Cochran.
“MillerCoors was actually less intrusive than the old investors were. It was a way to grow the company and take care of the people that work there. It solidified those people’s jobs, they’ve got better access to resources and materials to compete in a crowded marketplace, and the community has a major employer,” says Cochran. A company, he adds, is more than just shareholder profits. “It’s like a family. There were 132 employees when I left, and they all had families that we provided for. I’ve always been motivated by employing people — it’s a combination of a making a product you love and using that to do something good.”
Cochran has witnessed the ups and downs of an industry struggling to accommodate its own rapid development, and his journey has led him to some prescient conclusions. “People take their beer very personally, and craft brewing started out as ‘us vs. them,’” he explains. “But if the big guys are starting to pay attention to good beer, doesn’t that mean the consumer wins? I feel like we’re finally winning a 30-year fight. Authenticity of the product, where it’s from — that means something. If the really big guys put out something good, I might drink that, too,” he says. “But my first beer will always be local.”