Carolina Beer Guy: French Broad River Brewery looks to the future

CHANGES ON TAP: A change of ownership at French Broad River Brewery brings some updates to one of Asheville’s oldest brewing operations, including a new logo, expanded production and broader distribution. Pictured is head brewer Aaron Wilson.
CHANGES ON TAP: A change of ownership at French Broad River Brewery brings some updates to one of Asheville’s oldest brewing operations, including a new logo, expanded production and broader distribution. Pictured is head brewer Aaron Wilson. Photo by Cindy Kunst

ASHEVILLE N.C.— Though it’s one of Asheville’s oldest breweries, a lot is new at French Broad River Brewery.

There’s new ownership — Sarah and Paul Casey have taken over from Andy Dahm — plus a fresh logo and new beers that are joining such core brands as Gateway Kolsch and Wee Heavy-er Scotch Style Ale. The brewery’s name was also tweaked to restore the word “river,” which was originally part of the title, and there are plans to increase distribution across North Carolina.

What has stayed the same is the brewery’s staff and location, which continue to operate just outside Biltmore Village. And it’s still contract-brewing for the Thirsty Monk pub and brewing company, which had originally announced plans to buy French Broad from Dahm, though the deal never went through.

The Caseys, who continue to live in Chapel Hill, took over French Broad on June 1. Paul Casey worked in a corporate setting for 22 years, then left that world behind in 2015, took some time off to spend with his family and started looking for his next adventure.

“I wanted to own my own business and be in charge of decision-making,” Casey says. “I started looking around for a business to acquire, and I came across French Broad. I wasn’t that familiar with the beer scene in Asheville, but I started coming up and looking at the brewery and was incredibly impressed with everything about Asheville.”

While Casey does not have a brewing background — “I’m a bit of a novice to all of this,” he says — he is bringing business expertise to French Broad. “I was attracted to the strong brand recognition,” he says. “And I felt like there was more to the story that we could tell. That’s what I’ve been focusing on — what could the future hold for the brewery and the beers?”

French Broad was part of the first wave of craft brewing in Asheville, dating to 2001, when founding brewer Jonas Rembert left Green Man Brewery, then housed at Jack of the Wood pub, to start his own company. Dahm was part of French Broad since the start and had remained at the brewery, though Rembert eventually left French Broad and Asheville, and was succeeded by other brewers.

Dahm put the brewery up for sale, and in 2016 Thirsty Monk owner Barry Bialik announced he was purchasing French Broad and its brands. He quickly moved to begin brewing some of the Thirsty Monk beers at French Broad. Additional plans included turning the now-closed Thirsty Monk pub in Woodfin into a French Broad tasting room.

The deal, however, never closed. “There are no hard feelings — it just didn’t work out,” Bialik says. “It’s good that someone is reviving the brand. We have an arrangement to do a batch [of beer] a week there. We’re close with them, but business-wise, it just wasn’t coming together. The numbers didn’t work for us.”

Bialik says he now plans to use the former Woodfin Monk’s kitchen to test recipes for the Monk pubs downtown and at Biltmore Park, as well as use the space to wash beer kegs.

Meanwhile, Casey is working to refresh French Broad, which had not made many changes to its beer lineup since its early days. “We had a four-pronged approach when we took over,” he says. “The first thing was to make as much beer as we could make. We had demand in Asheville markets and the surrounding Western North Carolina counties, and we needed to go and meet that demand.”

Casey also wanted to “give the brewery a little bit of a face-lift” and says landscaping has made it “a little bit more inviting.” He will also relaunch the brand with new packaging design and wants to greatly increase distribution across North Carolina. French Broad is now sold around Western North Carolina and the Triangle and Piedmont areas, plus “small places in Tennessee and South Carolina,” according to Casey. By his count, the brewery produces fewer than 5,000 barrels annually.

“At the end of the day, if you’re making good, quality beer and you have a good story to tell, there is a place for you on the shelf,” Casey says, noting that French Broad is adding brand-new brews to its repertoire. Over the summer, the brewery made a summer pale ale using a recipe from the company’s past and a citrus kolsch for its relaunch. “I’m open to new recipes and new beers,“ he says.

French Broad’s recent developments follow the tradition of Asheville’s other older legacy breweries, including Highland Brewing Co. and Asheville Brewing Co., which have worked to add new products to their lines. “[Innovation] has been big for us,” says Asheville Brewing President Mike Rangel, adding that the company is now doing a new smaller-batch beer on a near-weekly basis.

“A lot of it is recognizing the trend that what beer drinkers want the most is new beer,” he says. “Craft beer drinkers want to experiment. It keeps us sharp, and we learn things about making our Shiva IPA or Ninja Porter better. Our brewers are constantly challenging themselves with new styles.”

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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