Beerview mirror: AVL Beer Week 2016 builds on a strong legacy

HAPPY BEER-DAY: Originially an idea hatched over beers shared among friends, Asheville Beer Week celebrates five years of evolution with this year’s iteration. Running May 27- June 4, it features a well-rounded roster of festivals, workshops, tastings and more. Photo from Beer City Festival 2015 courtesy of Asheville Ale Trail

Conceived in 2011 as a means to support and promote Asheville’s burgeoning craft brewing industry, AVL Beer Week has become a local tradition in its own right. Now entering its fifth year, the weeklong celebration has forged a legacy of fostering community engagement and business partnership with area breweries during a period of unprecedented growth and advancement in our city’s booming beer economy. The tireless efforts of a small and dedicated group of Asheville beer professionals have helped nurture this mountain town’s reputation as a brewing powerhouse on the national stage, and AVL Beer Week has played an instrumental role in that.

AVL Beer Week began, as many great things do, over a few locally crafted beers among friends. Mary Eliza McRae, who was working as the craft beer manager at Budweiser of Asheville overseeing products from local breweries such as Asheville Brewing Co. and Natty Greene’s, met with a group of friends to brainstorm what would become the Asheville Beer Masters Tournament. Also present was Anne-Fitten Glenn, then the principal beer writer for Mountain Xpress. And when the conversation turned from the tournament to Asheville’s third straight win in world-renowned beer writer Charlie Papazian’s online Beer City USA poll, the group began to consider what could be done to further advance the city’s blossoming reputation as a national beer mecca.

“There were several of us who had been working on this Beer Masters Tournament, which was spearheaded by Mary Eliza McRae, and we were talking about other cool things that we could do to showcase beer,” remembers Glenn. “At the time, there were a number of beer weeks in different cities across the country, and we thought that as cool as Asheville’s beer scene was, we should have a beer week. So we gathered a group of people involved in the community who were good at planning events, and that’s how it all started. It was very organic.”

Starting from scratch

Still, there were significant challenges.

“We had to build it from scratch,” explains Julie Atallah, co-owner of Bruisin’ Ales, who served on the first AVL Beer Week committee. “Asheville was one of the only smaller cities planning a beer week at the time, so while it was easy to look to San Diego, Portland and Philly as guidelines, we really had to put our heads down and figure out a way to make it work for Asheville. In hindsight, the hard work paid off, and soon after, other small-market beer weeks started.”

The success of that first committee was due, in large part, to the unique skill set each member brought to the table. “There was a core concept that began with a couple of the original committee members. From there, a few more members were recruited, with some good old-fashioned peer pressure, for their expertise and abilities,” remembers T.J. Gardner, formerly of Empire Distributors and currently Sierra Nevada Brewing’s area manager for Western North Carolina. “We really ended up with a well-rounded group of area beer professionals. When we were looking for solutions to ideas or problems, usually someone on the committee had the know-how to make those solutions happen, or knew someone who did. I have a tremendous amount of respect for all the original committee members. They all are still very much a vital part of the fabric of this great beer community.”

IN THE BEGINNING: “We had to build it from scratch,” says Bruisin’ Ales co-owner Julie Atallah of her work with the committee that created Asheville Beer Week five years ago. At the time, Asheville was one of the only small cities in the U.S. planning a weeklong beer celebration Photo by Anne-Fitten Glenn
IN THE BEGINNING: “We had to build it from scratch,” says Bruisin’ Ales co-owner Julie Atallah of her work with the committee that created Asheville Beer Week five years ago. At the time, Asheville was one of the only small cities in the U.S. planning a weeklong beer celebration Photo by Anne-Fitten Glenn

Glenn wrote one of the definitive books on the local beer scene, Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing. She also worked as the East Coast marketing and public relations director for Oskar Blues Brewery before founding Brewgasm Media, a beer marketing consulting firm. McRae subsequently became the regional sales manager for Rogue Ales and Spirits before moving on to manage the craft division of Durham-based wholesaler Harris Beverages. Other core committee members from those early days included Asheville Brewing Co. President Mike Rangel, former Thirsty Monk general manager and current craft beer manager at Empire Distributors Caroline Forsman, Adam Reinke of the Mountain Ale and Lager Tasters homebrewing club, Barley’s Taproom owner Jimi Rentz and former Pisgah Brewing and Craggie Brewing marketing director Simone Seitz.

An Asheville showcase

From the beginning, a key aspect of AVL Beer Week’s mission was facilitating a cooperative atmosphere among the drinking community, local breweries and other Asheville businesses. This goal has remained central to the planning and development of each year’s celebration.

“It was really important that [Beer Week] be driven by the local businesses that were participating — not just breweries but also taprooms and restaurants,” says Kendra Penland, director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance. “The goal was to shine a light on the really cool stuff that was happening here in the craft brewing industry, but also to help invigorate the community and give an opportunity for other businesses to benefit by bringing more folks here. Businesses don’t even have to serve alcohol to participate or host an event. It’s been interesting for us to be able to partner and collaborate with other local businesses.”

This year’s AVL Beer Week sponsors, for example, include Red House Architecture, the Insurance Service of Asheville and MB Haynes Corporation, a general contracting company.

Public engagement is also of paramount importance, the organizers say, as it’s the event’s ability to draw new and returning customers from both Asheville and beyond that ultimately benefits local businesses.

“AVL Beer Week is a nationally recognized beer event. The more exposure we get from beer tourism, the more we will see folks returning to Western North Carolina,” notes Shelton Steele, an Asheville Brewers Alliance member who is the director of retail operations for Catawba Brewing Co. “Our bars, restaurants and breweries are some of the best in the world, so it’s no surprise that folks are returning year after year for AVL Beer Week. As the format has continued to evolve, the public has found more ways to participate. Creativity and innovation are hallmarks of the local food and beer scene, and AVL Beer Week showcases these attributes. There is something for everyone, ranging from sophisticated beer dinners to sensory learning experiences to ice-cream beer flights. In my opinion, AVL Beer Week has fostered business collaborations that showcase the best of what Asheville has to offer.”

Beer madness

The first AVL Beer Week in 2012 was an 11-day bacchanal of all things beer. Displaying unrestrained enthusiasm for craft brewing, it was a resounding success. And while that passion hasn’t dissipated, change was inevitable. As Asheville collected more national attention and investment, Beer Week festivities grew in scope to encompass breweries from farther afield, and the logistics of managing events became more complicated.

“ABW has really matured and begun settling into itself. The first year was a wild, wide-open sprint into as much beer madness as we could possibly squeeze into a week,” says Gardner. “We swelled the second and third years with literally hundreds of events — so many we couldn’t attend them all. That was itself an opportunity to learn and get better. Each year we have tried to carefully hear and digest the feedback from event hosts and Beer Week attendees. As we learned from this information, we have settled into a groove of what Asheville Beer Week is today: a well-rounded and dependable week of events to entice both the novice and entrenched craft beer drinker. Last year, Asheville Beer Week became a function of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, which is important because it also tells the story of the organization maturing and taking a bigger role in shaping, supporting and promoting the entire beer scene here in Western North Carolina.”

The organizers, says Glenn, “realized we needed an actual nonprofit designation. It made sense to have Asheville Beer Week under the Asheville Brewers Alliance, because applying for a 501(c)(3) takes a lot of time, money and paperwork. But we could fold Beer Week into the Brewers Alliance, which was already a partial beneficiary of any extra money that the festival might make, because the idea is to support beer year-round, not just during that one week.”

“Before,” clarifies Penland, “it was a grassroots effort by some folks in the local brewing industry who thought there was a hole to fill, and they did that.” Now, the Asheville Brewers Alliance, which was already closely associated with the festival’s planning and execution, is “here as a resource that can provide additional support and coordination.” This should help ensure the event’s longevity while also facilitating communication between businesses hosting events and the general public.

Making memories

AVL Beer Week is not just about supporting local businesses: It’s about celebrating the people who make them possible. First and foremost, it is about building memories of good times in a great community. Some memories evoke the perseverance of the stalwarts who followed their bold vision to craft a festival befitting Asheville’s beer culture. Once, for example, Steele and the Catawba crew took chainsaws to a fallen oak tree a mere two hours before a farm-to-table beer dinner at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.

Other memories are strictly of unadulterated fun, such as when Atallah and other industry leaders starred alongside local comedy troupe The Feral Chihuahuas in a promotional video for the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau that was inspired by an AVL Beer Week event. There are also nostalgic reminiscences of the unfettered days when Asheville’s beer scene was still in its infancy, and prominent industry leaders could get away with things like serving while drinking, or pouring beer from sixtels strapped to their backs at the Beer City Festival. Such acts of dubious legality would never be permitted today. And then there are those Beer Week memories that are better left out of print altogether.

Regardless of what sort of memories you’d like to have of this year’s AVL Beer Week, the important thing is to go out and make some. Have a beer at the grand opening of Highland’s rooftop patio, meet the women of WNC beer at the Thirsty Monk, see a concert at Pisgah Brewing or The Grey Eagle, or enjoy one of the many beer pairing brunches or dinners throughout the week. However you choose to participate, you’ll not only be in for a good time, you’ll be supporting the people and institutions that make Asheville such an extraordinary place to live.

An evolving event

When AVL Beer Week began in 2012, such notable Asheville breweries as Wicked Weed, Burial and Hi-Wire were still on the horizon. The same was true for Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Brewing, the three Western breweries that would soon choose to make their East Coast homes in the Asheville area. Back then, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to predict the remarkable growth that has ensued in both the local brewing and tourism industries.

It is therefore unlikely that anyone can accurately predict what the coming years will bring for Asheville’s craft brewing community. While some aspects of AVL Beer Week have remained consistent — such as the perennial participation of industry leaders like Asheville Brewing and Bruisin’ Ales, or foundational events like Just Brew It and the Beer City Festival — the only true constant in the industry is change, and AVL Beer Week will undoubtedly continue to reflect that. It can be safely assumed, however, that future changes will mirror the industry’s continuing development, which has proved to be a boon not only to beer lovers but to Asheville as a whole.

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