Over the past 40 years, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has been one of the driving forces of the U.S. craft beer industry. During this period, it has also established itself as a leader in environmental sustainability. That commitment to conservation was evident in 2014 when the Chico, Calif.-based brewery opened its East Coast production facility and taproom in Mills River, outfitting it with permeable pavers in the parking lots, a 600-kilowatt solar system and carbon dioxide recovery measures.
These plans set up the brewery for silver certification for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. But amid construction, ownership decided to expand its application to include brewing process equipment in its energy calculations. In turn, Sierra Nevada became the first production brewery in the U.S. to earn platinum certification.
“We have a pretty strong culture of continuous improvement,” says Ashlee Mooneyhan, communications manager for the Mills River brewery. “We’re always trying to find ways that we can be better and improve processes.”
From this mindset came the Western North Carolina Brewery Recycling Cooperative in 2021. Developed in partnership with American Recycling of Western North Carolina, the program sought to build out infrastructure for recycling common industry waste — including shrink wrap, plastic malt bags and polyester strapping. The initiative has attracted such like-minded local breweries as Bhramari Brewing Co., Buchi, Burial Beer Co., Hi-Wire Brewing, Wicked Weed Brewing and Zillicoah Beer Co. to provide financial support to kick start the project.
“It’s been really successful,” says Leah Cooper, Sierra Nevada’s sustainability program manager in Mills River. “We opened up the [drop-off] dock in January of this year, so we did have some delays with the construction due to COVID. But we’ve been operating this entire year and have had 11 businesses participate in dropping off materials.”
Not all of those collaborators are breweries, and Cooper says efforts are underway to encourage more participation outside the brewing industry. Furthermore, in an extension of that boundary-crossing approach, Sierra Nevada is also partnering with the Pisgah Area Southern Off-Road Bike Association to help finance some of the nonprofit’s repair efforts of area trails. The line of credit from the brewery has proved especially helpful for the group’s continued work when some of its usual funding streams were delayed.
“Trail maintenance is important for the health of the watershed, and a lot of the work that Pisgah Area SORBA does really supports that, whether it’s rerouting trails or maintaining them,” Cooper says. “Working with them makes sense for us as a business because we use a lot of water for our product, and biking is a really big part of our culture as a company. A lot of our employees and consumers mountain bike.”
One by one
Despite certain satirical reports featured in Xpress‘ 2022 Humor Issue, Hi-Wire Brewing isn’t building on the moon just yet. But the Asheville-based brewery is adding new taprooms so consistently that an extraterrestrial location doesn’t seem that far out of reach.
The past 16 months have seen the opening of taprooms in Wilmington, N.C. (December 2020), Louisville, Ky. (August 2021) and a third Asheville location — the RAD Beer Garden (November 2021). And since October 2021, the company has announced plans for additional locations in Charlotte, Cincinnati and Birmingham, Ala., with March’s news of a Nashville taproom bringing the total to 11. But while Hi-Wire’s growth is rapid, it’s enacted with tremendous calculation and consideration behind the scenes to prevent overextending operations at its Big Top production brewery in Biltmore Village.
“Every market we’ve gone into for a new taproom outside of Asheville, we have already sold beer there,” says co-owner Chris Frosaker. “Step one so far has been, ‘How are we doing, and do we see the potential for our brand to grow there?’ And to be blunt, that’s not the case everywhere.”
If more fully joining a market makes good business sense, and if Frosaker and his colleagues find the city appealing, Hi-Wire begins looking for the right buildings for its taprooms. Among the key factors considered are a neighborhood’s population density and whether it’s growing; public transportation options; and the developer’s vision for that particular part of town and the building itself, including what kind of tenants they’ll have as neighbors. Following those guiding principles, notes Frosaker, has made the difference between success and failure and has encouraged the brewery’s prodigious growth.
“We like to be in more up-and-coming areas. There seems to be more opportunity for us there,” Frosaker says. “And we really like being first movers when we can in a neighborhood. Then you get to see it build up around us.”
With each new opening, Frosaker continues, the company sees an immediate 20%-80% growth in the area’s distribution — a fact Frosaker attributes to becoming part of the community. All of this is done, he adds, without overextending Hi-Wire’s capabilities in Asheville.
“Anytime we expand into a new market or add a taproom, the first conversation is, ‘Can the production brewery handle it?’ We evaluate that each year. And this year we actually just spent over $1 million upgrading our production brewery here,” Frosaker says. “You’ve definitely got to make sure the home base is secure before you go out and do something new and fun.”
The increased brewing capacity, enhanced automation on the canning line and grain-out system, and a new pilot brewhouse have helped meet Hi-Wire’s growing demand, though Frosaker notes that with the addition of new tanks, the Big Top production facility is running out of room. Rather than build a new brewery, which would be an expensive endeavor, the Hi-Wire team is seeking to maximize operations within its current footprint.
“We’re actually actively working with some consultants right now who are going to come in this summer and do a third-party audit,” Frosaker says. “‘Where can we be more efficient? If we buy X new piece of machinery, does that increase our output by Y percent?’ We’re trying to get some experts to come in and look at what we’re doing and try to fine-tune to see if we can continue to squeak out more volume.”