Before you raise your glass to celebrate Asheville Beer Week …

It's no wonder that the second- and third-largest craft breweries in the country, not to mention another top-30 brewery announcing on their heels, all plan to build brewing facilities in North Carolina. The state is home to 60 operating breweries and brewpubs, 10 of which are in the Asheville area, and the sourcing of state-grown ingredients — from hops and malts to sweet potatoes and blackberries — is becoming an increasingly important part of North Carolina's agricultural beer heritage.

What more could you need to celebrate "The State of Southern Beer" and its community of brewers, wholesalers, vendors and enthusiasts at Asheville Beer Week?

Before you raise your glass, consider North Carolina's recent beer history, which dates back to 1985 when Uli Bennewitz, a German immigrant living in Manteo, persuaded legislators to legalize brewpubs in the state. A year later, he opened Weeping Radish Farm Brewery in Grandy, which remains the oldest operating brewery or brewpub in North Carolina and has evolved into a 24-acre sustainable-food and beer destination that upholds its farm-to-fork principles.

The state's craft beer industry, however, didn't quite take off until 2005, when the Pop the Cap Campaign, led by Sean Lilly Wilson, now of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, and Julie Johnson of All About Beer Magazine, successfully lobbied to raise the alcohol by volume limit on beers sold within North Carolina from 6 percent to 15 percent. In the almost seven years since the passage of this significant piece of legislation, the number of breweries in the state has increased from 26 to 60, with North Carolina's newest production brewery, Brevard Brewing Company, opening its doors in Brevard in April.

The sheer number of breweries in the state is not what makes North Carolina's beer industry unlike any other. Its increasing commitment to use local ingredients and environmentally friendly practices and its focus on creating and serving local communities make the beer in this state truly unique. It means no one works independently. The brewers themselves have formed a network of collaboration in not only brewing beers together but also sharing ingredients, equipment, costs and knowledge.

And North Carolina's breweries aren't the only ones contributing to this burgeoning industry. One of the country's few micro-maltsters, Asheville's Riverbend Malt House, sources grains such as barley and rye from across the state to provide area brewers with locally farmed, artisan malts. Heinzelmannchen Brewery in downtown Sylva recently used Riverbend's malt in its Hoppin' Downtown Ale, and Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain currently offers its new Riverbend Brown on draft in its taproom.

Similarly, Echoview Farm in Weaverville, along with several other smaller farms in the state, have produced small hop harvests to sell to craft brewers and home brewers. The North Carolina Hops Project, a research initiative of North Carolina State University, is working to determine which varieties of hops grow well in particular parts of the state, exploring issues related to hop nutrition, disease and pest control.

In addition to regionally grown malts, other in-state sources have helped numerous brewers craft beers particularly close to home. Mother Earth Brew Co. in Kinston brewed a small batch of its "All-NC" beer using Riverbend's Heritage Malt and Cascade hops from Echoview. Mystery Brewing Co. in Hillsborough recently released its Waggledance, a "farm-to-glass" Belgian-style farmhouse ale, using two-row barley from Farm Boy in Pittsboro and locally harvested lemon balm and honey.

Needless to say, this is an exciting time to be a member of the North Carolina beer community. As we welcome large, nationally distributed craft breweries like Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, New Belgium Brewing Company and Oskar Blues Brewery to our state, our communities will only continue to thrive and grow as a craft beer destination. So pull up a stool beside your neighborhood brewers this week, grab a pint of locally made beer and celebrate the passion poured into your glass.

— Win Bassett is executive director of the North Carolina Brewers Guild, leads Social Media & Beer Education at All About Beer Magazine, and regularly contributes beer-related articles to various online and print publications.


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