Its total number of breweries may be fewer than the count on a single block in Asheville’s South Slope, but Sylva has already seen its share of change within the local industry. Over the past year, Heinzelmännchen Brewery — which in 2004 became the town’s first such establishment — and The Sneak E Squirrel Brewery have closed, while Balsam Falls Brewing Co. has set up shop a short walk down Main Street from Innovation Brewing.
Now two more breweries are joining the Jackson County beer scene and seek to tap into the appeals that first attracted Nicole Owen, who co-owns Innovation with her husband, Chip Owen.
“We had been searching for a location to open our brewery for a year when we found Sylva, and we instantly knew it was the place for our business and to raise our family,” she says. “It met all of our criteria as it was within an hour of Asheville — which had been our home for the previous five years — and it was a community-oriented and extremely authentic group of people and businesses.”
Though Balsam Falls proprietor Corey Bryson has lived “all over the country over the years,” his family is from Sylva, and he’s always considered the town home. He views Jackson County breweries as distinct from others in Western North Carolina, primarily for their focus on the local market.
“We’re not intent on building a national following or sending our beer out of the area. We want to make great beer for the great people who work and live here, and for the visitors who love our mountains. It’s our home,” Bryson says. “Our patrons are diverse. We have folks from all walks of life and various political persuasions, but with a pint of fresh local beer, we’re all family.”
The sense of neighborhood unity also appeals to Joe Rowland, founder of Bryson City’s Nantahala Brewing Co. Rowland has plans to open an “outpost” taproom and pilot brewery in downtown Sylva at 5 Grindstaff Cove Road, just a few blocks from Balsam Falls.
When Nantahala opened in 2009, its first account was at Nate and Nick’s Pizza in Sylva, and the brewery continues to sell the majority of its wholesale beer from Waynesville to the western border as opposed to the Asheville market. The Sylva location allows the brewery to better serve the local population, which Rowland notes is significantly larger than Bryson City — even before factoring in the Western Carolina University community — and has less of a seasonal drop-off in business.
“It’s a tough sell sometimes to get folks that live over in Sylva to drive the 25 miles from there to our brewery on a regular basis. And obviously, none of us condone drinking without having a designated driver,” Rowland says. “For us, it really is a way to become a bigger part of that community and to make ourselves more accessible to the folks that have been supporting us since day one.”
Rowland has yet to estimate a completion date for the Sylva location but says that since the pre-existing building is structurally sound, he’s hoping for a quick turnaround. The new taproom will feature Nantahala’s flagship, seasonal and special-release brews and have much in common with the Bryson City location. Its interior will likewise offer a music venue and televisions for watching sports, while the exterior is also set beside water, has a grassy space for Nantahala’s Brewball dodgeball league and is connected to the original taproom by the same railroad line.
Opening in spring at the southern end of Jackson County is Whiteside Brewing Co. While the Cashiers establishment will be the county’s newest brewery, owner Bob Dews rooted his business in local beer history when he hired former Heinzelmännchen brewer Dieter Kuhn to craft its offerings.
“He’s a very intuitive brewer. He knows how to brew a beer like some people know how to play a piano by ear,” Dews says. “Heinzelmännchen had some outdated equipment, but he was still pumping out some fantastic brews. We have some very nice precision equipment from American Beer Equipment, so I’m really excited to set him loose on that, and that way we can refine his craft even more.”
Dews and his wife, Lise, moved to Cashiers in 1995 and have owned and operated the Laurelwood Inn ever since. When the adjacent facility became available, they purchased it and set about turning it into a brewpub. Dews says Whiteside will make Cashiers even more of a destination and strives to be a catalyst for downtown economic growth and tourism. And as beer tourists make a larger circuit beyond breweries in Buncombe and Henderson counties, he sees his taproom as “a great tying point” to help complete potential regional loops.
Whiteside will have six year-round house beers available exclusively on-site, though Dews would like to have taps in a few of the many Cashiers country clubs. The brewery’s output will focus on hearty ales that, in keeping with Kuhn’s strengths, will slant to the German characteristics of beer. But in line with the brewery’s slogan, “Mountain Life in a Glass” — to be reflected through the taproom’s primarily outdoor setting that incorporates green spaces, a garden, an open patio, covered porches and an old barn that contains the brewhouse — it will also feature one or two new beers each season that incorporate indigenous edible plants, fruits and starchy roots.
“In the spring, it [might be] some kind of flower,” Dews explains. “In the summer, it’s a berry of some sort. In the fall, it’s a chinquapin nut in a brown ale, and in the winter, we can find a starchy something. It’s really going to be fun to do that. Most of the edible materials that are up here are fairly bitter or tart — it’s not a lot of sweet stuff. I think that will play well into the profile of different beers.”