While craft beer has put Asheville on a host of lists — including third for most breweries per capita by Forbes magazine — other beverage makers are betting that locals and visitors have a thirst for drink options other than suds. Several cideries, one of the few sake breweries in America and one of the country’s leading kombucha brands all call Asheville home, and an influx of craft spirit makers brings our distillery count to seven. Add a ginger beer brewery, some meaderies, a craft soda maker, and a local bitters and shrubs company, and nearly every type of craft beverage is produced locally.
What is it about Asheville that makes it possible for all these beverage businesses to thrive in a city of fewer than 100,000 people? “When you look at the food culture here, the focus on local/sustainable/farmer and foragers, etc., you can tell there is a standard that the people in Asheville have for what they consume, and that translates to the people visiting us for our food scene. The same standards go for the beverages we consume,” says Charlie Hodge, owner of cocktail bar and restaurant Sovereign Remedies.
James Donaldson, co-owner of the forthcoming Apothecary Beverage Co., also credits Asheville’s reputation for artisan food and beverages with bringing “people from all over the nation and generating support and interest in creative innovation.” This small-batch distillery is currently in the build-out stage and will be the city’s first local purveyor of gin.
The book Craft Beverages and Tourism cites studies showing that people “highly involved in outdoor recreation and cultural activities … are more likely to be drink tourists.” This connection certainly applies to Asheville, since hiking and other outdoor adventures draw numerous visitors here each year. Add our culinary offerings — another important factor for drink tourists — and the affection these types of travelers have for locally sourced restaurants and farm-to-table events, and Asheville has everything needed to support a diverse local beverage portfolio.
While the title of Beer City looms large, makers of other craft beverages may see this distinction as helpful to their businesses as well. “The existing craft beer scene presents a wealth of resources, including a thriving beer tourism market. Locals also love to explore new and exciting options and are supportive of small, local businesses,” says Cristina Hall, owner of the ginger beer brewery Ginger’s Revenge. She also praises resources like Mountain BizWorks and the Asheville Brewers Alliance for creating a support system that “really helps small craft beverage owners navigate through the various hurdles that come your way.”
Michelle MacLeod, head brewer for Ben’s Tune Up sake brewery and restaurant, also applauds the support of the brewing community. “We are sandwiched between Hi-Wire and Asheville Brewing Co., [and] I can’t count the number of times they have helped us with equipment, ingredients and advice. I would say that’s reflective of the brewing community as a whole here in Asheville,” she says.
Ben’s Tune Up has also used the wealth of knowledge available at area colleges to troubleshoot the growing pains that come with operating a niche craft brewery. A-B Tech has provided microcanning tests, quality employees and ample advice for the sake brewery, while Appalachian State University’s fermentation science program helped design the equipment needed to piece together Ben’s Tune Up’s brewing process. N.C. State University also lent a hand by conducting a study that found a way for Ben’s Tune Up to process and monetize its waste products into a face cream.
In praise of handmade
MacLeod also thinks that the city’s avoidance of commercial gentrification, which plagues many other downtowns, has helped this craft beverage sector grow. “Our local economy values handcrafted things, from beverages to our amazing local art scene,” she says. “And all of the community members that are contributing their crafts make our city feel grounded and resonate soul.”
Ben Colvin of the new Devil’s Foot Beverage Co. echoes MacLeod. “The wide availability of amazing craft beverages produced here has created a local community of people who are knowledgeable, savvy and aware of what makes great beverages, and they prefer local craft over multinational corporate options,” he says. Colvin’s operation produces ginger beer made with regional honey, and in 2018, he hopes to release a spicier version of this flagship drink along with small-run batches of new craft sodas and freshly squeezed fruit juice-spiked sparkling waters.
“Asheville is legendary for the local support of small businesses like mine,” says Ivar Scholz, owner of Bee & Bramble meadery. “I would not have attempted such a venture if that weren’t the case.” He also points to the local Chamber of Commerce. “They work very hard to promote the craft beverage tourism industry. I consider that to be a huge component,” he says. The fact that mead is the fastest-growing craft beverage also helps his cause — the number of meaderies in the U.S. doubled to nearly 500 between 2013 and 2016.
For would-be entrepreneurs interested in joining Asheville’s growing craft beverage scene, Leah Howard of H&H Distillery believes “the playing field is wide open, [but] the bleachers won’t be full for quite some time.” She’s discovered that many locals, including restaurant owners, don’t realize there are local craft liquors to be offered. “You will be welcomed into the community, but be ready to work,” she advises.
Howard also notes that the fact that 86 percent of businesses in the Asheville metro area employ fewer than 50 people indicates that “there is a craving for something genuine and wholesome when tourists are choosing their vacation destinations.” For Howard and her fellow area craft beverage makers, as long as those cravings include drinks other than craft beer, we should expect continued growth in this sector.
Geoff Alexander, co-owner of Appalachian Vintner bottle shop, agrees that the field is still open for those interested in joining WNC’s burgeoning craft beverage market. “I feel like there is still room for quality-driven companies in Asheville,” he says.