Are we still Beer City?

Last year, at the first Asheville Beer Week, a new brewery announced it was going to open downtown. After a few years of fast growth, some folks were starting to wonder about the wisdom of opening a brewery in a town that already had plenty. Then, a few months later, Wicked Weed opened.

“In the beer community we were welcomed with open arms. Asheville Brewing Company, Green Man, Wedge and Craggie all helped us open,” says Luke Dickinson, one of the owners of Wicked Weed. The public’s response was even stronger. Wicked Weed was frequently at capacity with a wait to get in. On weekends, there is still sometimes a wait to go to the downstairs tasting room. However, as the next few Asheville breweries come online this year, the question remains: How many breweries can we support?

“Anybody who comes to Asheville now has to come out swinging,” says Mike Rangel, owner of Asheville Brewing. “You can’t just be a couple home brewers that make one good beer and borrow money from your parents. It’s moved to a level where people are working with consultants and business plans … and have a couple years of planning done before they even whisper anything about opening.” In other words, Asheville’s beer scene is evolving.

For those who haven’t been keeping track at home, Asheville has won (or co-won) the Beer City USA poll, hosted by Charlie Papazian and the Examiner, for the past four years. This year, we not only lost; we would have lost big to our ourselves last year. Our total vote decreased from 17,849 to 10,075 — and only 4,000 of those came from within North Carolina. By the numbers, we cared less.

“When we first won, we only had eight breweries [in the Asheville area], but we were enthusiastic about the contest,” says Oscar Wong, founder and owner of Highland Brewing. “Now we’ve been Beer City for four years … in some ways, it’s old hat.” Enthusiasm for the poll has decreased in other well-known beer cities as well. Portland, Ore. — once our main rival — received just 372 votes this year. Denver, Colo., received 328. And the poll overall received about 10 percent fewer votes than last year.

Asheville by the numbers

Though Beer City is as much about enthusiasm and culture as it is about numbers, Asheville’s beer scene has undergone some important changes since the poll began. The number of breweries is about to double, and heavyweights like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues decided to settle in Asheville or the surrounding area. “When we started, I couldn’t imagine beer being like it is today,” says Wong.

Let’s start with the Asheville breweries open inside the city limits: we have Altamont, Asheville Brewing, French Broad, Green Man, Highland, LAB, Oysterhouse, Thirsty Monk, Wedge and Wicked Weed. That’s 10 breweries. If you add the ones about to open — Burial, Hi-Wire, and Catawba — that’s 13. And if you want to look further ahead, we can go ahead and add in New Belgium, Twin Leaf and One World. That’s 16.

The rest of the WNC breweries are outside of Asheville proper. We could count them, but I’m willing to bet people that live in say, Brevard, consider Oskar Blues and Brevard Brewing to be, well, Brevard breweries — not Asheville breweries. And we’d have to add those cities’ populations in, too.

So right now, with 10 breweries, we have a ratio of 1 brewery for every 8,445 people. Once we have 16, that will be 1 for every 5,278. (Portland, often used as the benchmark in capita per brewery, has a ratio of 1 per 8,606.)

On the state level, things are very different for us. The Brewers Association has Vermont in the top spot at 26,073 capita per brewery followed closely by Oregon, Montana and Colorado. North Carolina is the top Southeastern state all the way down at spot 28. (That’s 161,267 capita per brewery.) Our neighbors fare a bit worse: Tennessee is 264,421; South Carolina is 289,085; and Georgia is 440,332. Alabama and Mississippi? They are dead last at 796,623 and 1,483,689.

Beyond the numbers

There are parts of the country where breweries have clustered within certain cities, and to a lesser degree, within certain states. Do their populations drink more beer than neighboring cities or states? There’s no data on that, though the answer is probably yes. Do they also disproportionately provide beer for neighboring cities and states? Again, there’s no hard data, but it seems like the answer would be yes.

To get more specific to Asheville: our neighboring markets are a lot more beer-starved than Oregon’s. And there’s still more room in Asheville itself than there would be in many West Coast cities. Rangel of Asheville Brewing put it this way: “We’re seeing less cannibalization within town. French Broad isn’t taking Highland Taps and Green Man isn’t taking Pisgah taps, as much as we’re all knocking Terrapin out or Sweetwater out. And all of a sudden what used to be regional, or even national, rock stars are now not anymore.”

What Rangel is saying, somewhat indirectly, is that the brand of Asheville beer has improved. It used to be that the small breweries had trouble making a name for themselves. Asheville as “Beer City” helped change that.

Dickinson credits Tim Schaller of Wedge and the “old guard” of Asheville brewing for the quality of the Asheville brand, holding new brewers accountable to high standards. “There’s a lot of great brewers in this town making great beer,” Dickinson says. “We just wanted to come in and fill a few of the holes, add to it where we could, and hopefully that would create a home for us in the community. And we were hoping to elevate the profile of Asheville as a city when it comes to our brewing. We’ll get to where Portland and other cities are with the quality and that’s good for Asheville as a brand.”

What lies ahead

As Asheville’s breweries grow, both in number and in volume, it will create a more competitive environment. “It’s the same as you see with restaurants,” says Rangel. “I’m sure New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s was a lot like beer is here today … it gets more competitive, and yeah, not everyone makes it. But the quality improves and you become known for it.”

There’s also greater opportunity today for our brewers than there was when Highland first kicked things off. “We had trouble getting beer into the Civic Center [now the U.S. Cellular Center],” says Wong. “Now, we [Asheville brewers] have a bit of cachet when it comes to the East Coast.”

However, Wong cautions about comparing Asheville too closely to Portland, “You’d have to take most of Western North Carolina to get us to the size of Portland [in population],” says Wong. “And here, craft beer makes up maybe 5-6 percent of total beer sales [with the rest going to AB Inbev, Miller Coors, and other large brewers] … In Portland, craft is closer to 30 percent of the market.”

In that gap lies the future for Asheville, and Western North Carolina, brewing. If our brewers can continue to build on their strengths, they have the opportunity to chip away at the 94 percent. “The market is still growing and it hasn’t reached that point where everyone is feeling guarded,” Dickinson says. “A rising tide floats all boats. That is where we seem to be right now.”

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