Does anyone remember Benefit Brewing?
It was Asheville’s second brewery, and it opened in 1997, tucked in a small corner at the Jack of the Wood pub. Jonas Rembert co-owned the operation with Andy Dahm, and they left in 1999 to start French Broad Brewing Co.
The Jack of the Wood brewery then took the name Green Man, found new ownership and moved to Buxton Avenue, becoming the first brewery in the now-busy South Slope brewing district.
Beer is no longer made at Jack of the Wood, but many of the pub’s original elements remain. It’s still a downtown hot spot, and founders Joan and Joe Eckert, who still own it, have maintained the original English and Irish vibe. The old-time mountain and Irish music jams continue, and the venue extends a welcoming feeling to regulars and newcomers alike.
The Eckerts moved to Asheville from Philadelphia in 1991 and opened a vegetarian lunch counter at the downtown YMCA. Two years later, they expanded the business into a full-service restaurant on Wall Street, and while Laughing Seed Café was an immediate hit, they wanted something more.
Back then, says Joe Eckert, “There were no neighborhood bars in Asheville.” He wanted to do something similar to the ones he’d known in Pennsylvania, but with an atmosphere reflecting his and his wife’s heritage. “We had English and Irish backgrounds,” he explains. “Joan worked in our local pub in Philly. That’s where we met.”
The connected building underneath Laughing Seed, which fronts on Patton Avenue, was available, and the couple set to work creating the pub. Although local philanthropist Julian Price had helped get Laughing Seed going, Joan Eckert says she and Joe used the restaurant’s profits to build Jack of the Wood. In those early days, City Bakery was located on one side of the Patton Avenue space, with the pub and brewery on the other: There was “yeast everywhere,” Joe Eckert recalls.
While the pub was under construction, Rembert came in and asked the Eckerts what they thought about brewing in the new space. Fresh out of brewing school, Rembert was eager for an opportunity in a downtown that at that point had exactly one — Highland Brewing Co., just under Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria on Biltmore Avenue.
“I thought it would be great, but I didn’t have the brewing resources,” Joe Eckert says. “So Jonas bought equipment and built the brewery back where the dart boards are now.” Rembert and Dahm owned and operated Benefit Brewing and sold beer to Jack of the Wood. After they departed, the Eckerts took over the brewing side, hired other brewers and named the business Green Man Brewery after the mythical character of English and Irish lore.
In search of more space, the Eckerts eventually moved the brewery to an industrial area just off Coxe Avenue and opened a small tasting room called Dirty Jack’s. “I came up with that name,” Joan Eckert says. “At first I thought it would be Dirty Joe’s but then settled on Dirty Jack’s.”
The pub business continued as usual at Jack of the Wood, but in 2010 the Eckerts sold Green Man to Dennis Thies, who still runs the brewery. “We just didn’t have the people to manage it,” Joe Eckert explains.
A number of celebrities have passed through Jack of the Wood and Laughing Seed over the years. Woody Harrelson, Sandra Bullock and Willem Dafoe all visited while shooting movies in the area, and actress Andie MacDowell, who lived in Asheville for many years, was known to occasionally visit Dirty Jack’s.
Although the Eckerts are no longer married, they still run the Laughing Seed and Jack of the Wood as a team. At least one of them is at one of the businesses most every day, maintaining what Joe Eckert calls “an ongoing passion.”