The Asheville Brewers Alliance has a new executive director. As of Jan. 1, Leah Rainis is steering the “trade and membership organization dedicated to promoting Western North Carolina craft beer and breweries.” She takes over for Asheville Brewing Co. President Mike Rangel, who had been the interim executive director following the resignation of Kendra Penland in July 2018.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., Rainis moved with her family at age 4 to the town of Clifton Park, just north of Albany. In 2001, she moved to Boston to attend Emerson College and eventually worked at a package store that sold liquor, beer and wine.
“They just happened to have a great craft beer selection, and that’s kind of what caused me to dip my toe into the water,” Rainis says.
After she graduated from Emerson with a marketing degree, Rainis says her parents wondered when she’d get a “real job,” so she moved into the financial services industry and stayed there for about a decade. All the while, her interest in the craft beer industry continued to grow.
“I was an enthusiast, I guess you could say — trying new beers, visiting new breweries and all of that,” she says.
Rainis’ passion remained high when she and her now husband, Casey Visco, moved to Austin, Texas, in 2014. A quick stint in an office job reminded her that she wasn’t fond of that type of work setting, which led her to picking up some bartending shifts at Hops and Grain Brewing — as well as a professional revelation.
“I just fell in love with the industry,” she says. “The people in it were amazing, and even though Austin ultimately didn’t end up being the city for me, we moved to Asheville with the intent of me trying to continue working in the beer industry.”
Mountains, beer and proximity to her retired parents in Myrtle Beach, S.C., led Rainis to her new home in January 2016. The following month, she made her ABA debut as a volunteer at the AVL Beer Expo, where she made numerous connections that she’s since maintained. That August, she enrolled in the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast at A-B Tech and started bar-backing and bartending at Catawba Brewing Co.’s South Slope location, working multiple beer festivals with the brewery.
Rainis went on to do her CBI internship at Catawba’s Morganton location, performing a combination of cellar and production work, and moved into operations work doing brewhouse data analysis. She then decided to get into brewing and, upon graduating, was hired at Sanctuary Brewing Co. in Hendersonville.
Throughout her professional development, Rainis’ ties to the ABA strengthened. Around 2017, she was offered a part-time position within the alliance doing administrative work, and following Penland’s departure, the board of directors expanded Rainis’ role to include email correspondence and planning socials and educational opportunities.
In March 2019, she left Sanctuary to take on additional ABA responsibilities and help run day-to-day operations. After what she calls a certain amount of “self-advocacy” for her future within the organization, her position evolved into the executive director role. She feels the promotion is a “natural progression,” considering her varied experiences within the ABA and beer industry, as well as the relationship management skills from her marketing degree and business savvy from her time in the financial services industry.
“When you’re looking at supporting members, having been in their shoes and doing a lot of the things they’ve done really helps inform,” Rainis says. “You gain a better understanding and know where people are coming from. You can kind of translate the different languages if someone’s talking about something highly technical. It’s cool to have all those pieces come together. It feels like this is a full-circle situation where I’m actually using both the degrees I have and my skills.”
Along with Rangel and ABA President Brandi Hillman, Rainis has expressed a strong interest in bringing the organization’s focus back to its brewery members. She seeks to achieve that goal through adding more social events and educational offerings, building on the industry panels from AVL Beer Week — which returns May 22-31 — and AVL Beer Expo, whose return as a more industry-focused event rather than a public beer festival is in its early planning stages.
As for Beer City Festival, it will likewise be back on May 30 at Roger McGuire Field, but Rainis says the ABA is stepping back from its role as a partner to let the “festival experts” more fully run the event.
Rainis is also collaborating with government and municipal entities, including the Metropolitan Sewerage District in regard to sewer-use ordinance updates and N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement agent Stacy Cox in implementing proactive Q&A sessions every four to six weeks to better encourage legal compliance throughout the local brewing community. The ABA is also meeting with Land of Sky Regional Council and Waste Reduction Partners to discuss sustainability issues, such as repurposing spent raw materials from the brewing process.
“The brewing community and what’s done here is so much bigger than the breweries,” Rainis says. “It’s an opportunity to touch on a lot of different aspects of it and look at the community as a whole.”