Beer Scout: Sweeten Creek, UpCountry take next steps

BESTSELLERS: Sweeten Creek Brewing owners Erica and Joey Justice have canned their three most popular beers, pilsner, session IPA and pale ale. The first of four seasonals, a spiced Belgian-style wit, will be packaged by the end of June. Photo courtesy of Sweeten Creek Brewing

After establishing themselves over a two-year period, a pair of neighborhood breweries with ample community support are making significant moves to grow their businesses.

Creekside canning

From day one, canning beer was the goal for Sweeten Creek Brewing owners Erica and Joey Justice. Getting to that point has involved slow and steady growth for the self-described “technical brewers” with backgrounds in science and engineering who prefer consistency and repeatability over chasing trends.

“We started really small, and we didn’t want to overwhelm ourselves and under-deliver,” Erica Justice says. “Now I feel like we’re in a better position to serve more people here and off-premise. I feel really good about the direction we’re headed.”

After opening in December 2015, the Justices didn’t identify flagship beers but relied on customer feedback to shape the brewery’s offerings. They consider the brewery’s top-selling pilsner, session IPA and pale ale to be approachable styles that are well-done and balanced. Upgrading to a 10-barrel system at the end of May 2017 was the logical next step, and the Justices made adjustments to their recipes to make sure they were meeting the same flavor profiles as they’d produced on the smaller system.

“I think it’s really important to take the time to get to know [the new equipment] and to do it right so that as your demand increases, your quality and consistency is still there,” Erica says.

Although they recognize the nostalgic appeal of glass bottles, the Justices never really considered them for Sweeten Creek. Like many in the brewing industry, they consider cans, with their lack of light and oxygen ingress, to be a superior package for beer and feel that the stigma long associated with canned beer is dying off.

Also appealing is the compatibility of cans with the area’s many outdoor enthusiasts, plus other benefits like cans’ low weight (which translates to decreased shipping costs), their more easily recyclable nature and not having to worry about broken glass on the floor of the brewery.

Sweeten Creek Pilsner, Session IPA and Pale Ale will be sold in six-packs of 12-ounce cans throughout the year, featuring artwork from Asheville’s own Crooked Tree Creative, which also designed Sweeten Creek’s logo. Those three offerings will be joined by four seasonal releases with imagery designed by Raleigh-based Brasco Marketing — owned by Joey’s preschool friend — that reflects the changing natural and recreational scenery on the brewery’s namesake body of water that runs alongside its property. The first seasonal, Summer Sun Spiced Belgian-style Wit, debuted in cans June 22.

Sweeten Creek will continue to offer 32-ounce crowlers of specialty beers at the brewery. The Justices are also interested in offering a mix-pack, which they see as a great way to get their brews to more people, namely via grocery stores. The challenge for realizing that idea is manpower, especially seeing how larger companies like Oskar Blues Brewery and Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. still create those packages using an old-fashioned method. “They usually have an assembly line of people hand-packing, so it’s more labor-intensive to do a mix-pack,” Joey says.

Likewise key to the brewery’s growth is the agreement the Justices signed with Empire Distributors to spread Sweeten Creek beers into Western North Carolina accounts from its regional hub. The partnership has noticeably increased outside sales and gotten the products into places the Justices weren’t able to secure on their own.

“We did some self-distribution for a few months and it was a lot of work. I have a huge appreciation for what they do and the logistics that go into getting beer and wine to everyone that orders,” Erica says. “It’s absolutely amazing.”

Building success

In 2016, when John Cochran purchased Altamont Brewing Co. on the Patton Avenue side of Haywood Road and renamed it UpCountry Brewing Co., one of the first things he wanted to change about the building was its numerous entrances.

“Nobody knew where to go or how the flow should work,” Cochran says.

In turn, many visitors to the brewery half were unaware that there was a restaurant on the other side of the wall and vice versa. To improve the flow, raise the ceiling and open up the room, Cochran worked with Emili McMakin at Form & Function Architecture and general contractor Jason Holtzclaw and woodworker Mike Roberts of Nail Guns For Hire.

The kitchen closed Jan. 8, heralding a time marketing director Lauren Davenport jokingly refers to as “the dark ages.” The construction crew walled in the kitchen, installed a garage door behind an all-new bar with 20 taps and built an open-air covered porch out back with ceiling fans. Beyond it in the previously unused lower space is additional seating and a corn hole area.

UpCountry’s renovations were unveiled to the public May 10, and there was a grand reopening at the end of AVL Beer Week on June 2. A giant colorful mural by Asheville artist Julie K. Ross now welcomes visitors on the left wall, and an area near the entrance is dedicated to live music. The brewery will keep the longstanding stage in the former taproom open for larger musical groups, with drums being the general determining factor for which space artists will play.

“We’re working to be the West Asheville family-friendly, dog-friendly [place] on this side [of Haywood Road],” Cochran says. To help accomplish that goal, the restaurant added dog food to its menu. After having the Buddha Bowl — rice topped with diced apples, sweet potato, chicken and a hard-boiled egg, Davenport says her dog will no longer eat its regular dry food.

Still to come is an outdoor beer garden out front with tables and umbrellas, as well as an expansion on the brewery side. New fermenters will give UpCountry an additional 1,000 barrels per year under the direction of head brewer Bryan Bobo. There will also be a pilot brew system that people will see when they walk through the front door. Small-batch offerings and other fusion beers are already being crafted by new brewer Allison Carr, who moved to Asheville from Charlotte.

“She is amazingly creative, so we’re trying to do a lot more varieties and experimental-type things in-house,” Cochran says. “We’re making great beer, but I feel like we can take it another step up.”

While all of the above has been taking shape, UpCountry has rebranded with a new logo and over the summer will roll out cans of Mangose and UpCo Mountain Lager with redesigned graphics. The brewery is also ramping up its collaboration beers, both with local nonprofits — whose causes are reflected in artwork on custom-made pint glasses that customers can take home on Thursdays — and breweries, including a forthcoming ginger saison made with Ginger’s Revenge.

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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