In an alternate universe, Asheville would be gearing up to celebrate the 10th anniversary of one of its first breweries, Nantahala Brewing Co.
“We would have come here a long, long time ago,” says brewery founder Joe Rowland. “We looked at Asheville as an opportunity to maybe have a taproom here before we even opened the one in Bryson City because we knew how seasonal [Bryson City] was going to be.
“We thought maybe we’d have a real small taproom [in Bryson City] and would use the majority of where our taproom is now out there as production space and then focus on putting a retail presence in Sylva,” he continues. “But we were really looking at Asheville at the time because there was nothing really going on in Sylva.”
Rowland ended up starting the brewery in Bryson City, a town he’d visited on family vacations throughout his life and where the then-Charleston, S.C., resident wanted to raise a family. Now Nantahala has made good on its decade-plus interest in Asheville with plans to open its Asheville Outpost in the former Anchor Bar space on Haywood Road. The space, notes Rowland, has a shocking amount of design and aesthetic similarities with the original location.
The brewery plans to start pouring its beers at the new venue by the end of August, though the exact date depends on permits. The kitchen should be ready to serve food by mid-September. Nantahala’s previously announced Sylva Outpost remains on target for a late fall or early winter opening.
The West Asheville location wasn’t the first place Rowland considered in his most recent exploration of Asheville properties, which dates to early 2016. Being part of the thriving South Slope brewing district held strong appeal, and he came close to finalizing a deal for one of the old industrial auto buildings on Coxe Avenue between Wicked Weed Brewing’s Funkatorium and the Hilliard Avenue intersection.
While the site would have fulfilled the needs for the taproom side of the business and provided a sizable outdoor presence, there wasn’t enough space for a kitchen or room to expand in any direction by taking over a next-door property or adding onto the existing structure. South Slope saturation was also an issue, and though Rowland says his industry peers were excited about the potential of having Nantahala as a neighbor, they suggested other places that might be more apt for a brewery of its size.
“I just felt like that if we could go to another part of town that maybe was a better fit for us and didn’t have an established large brewery already, that we could maybe have a better shot at having a bigger impact,” Rowland says. “There are other breweries here, obviously, on Haywood, but on day one there’s 26 taps in this place and every single one of them will be filled with our beer, which is kind of an unusual thing.”
Eighteen of those taps will be upstairs, featuring many beers that were previously available only in Bryson City, along with additional booths for seating. The pool tables and dart boards in the former Anchor Bar game room have been removed, allowing for a large event space that will host regular live music and a projection screen for sporting events. As is the case at the Bryson City taproom, the other television screens will be consolidated on a single wall to encourage more communal viewing.
The downstairs “cellar bar” will feature Nantahala’s two most popular beers — Dirty Girl Blonde and Hazy Mountain IPA — as well as its barrel-aged and sour creations. Racks for barrel-aging will be brought in, all the merchandise and to-go beer will be sold on that level, and large murals will adorn the walls there and upstairs.
Downstairs will also be the site of a quick-service restaurant where customers order at the counter and runners bring them their food. The menu will be a pared-down version of what’s offered at the Bryson City location, focusing on Southern fusion with offerings in take-home pint glasses, new chef bowl creations each week, small plates, shareable items and a Southern-inspired taco menu. Put it all together, and Rowland is offering something surprisingly rare in Asheville.
“Our peers made us very aware that there’s not a whole lot of event spaces that incorporate alcohol, food in-house and a large enough event space to handle more than 20-30 people,” he says. “I didn’t know that, even though I’ve spent a ton of time up here working with the Asheville Brewers Alliance. It’s one of those things that I never really thought about.”
Rowland is also mindful of Anchor Bar’s closure after not quite a year of operation. He’s longtime friends with its owner, Jimi Rentz, whose health issues played a significant role in the business’s end. Rowland says the Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria owner has also recognized in their recent discussions that had Anchor Bar been called Barley’s West, it “would have made a huge difference,” but also notes the challenges facing corner bars across the country.
“Breweries have quickly become those public houses and the spaces where people want to hang out,” he says. “Those traditional neighborhood bars are unfortunately suffering as a result.”
Rowland has thought carefully about how the downstairs space — which often appeared lifeless from the sidewalk during its Anchor Bar incarnation — could be best used. His strategy is to brand it differently with decor that makes it clear it’s a brewery and to provide distinct reasons to hang out on that level. There will also be a screen at the bottom of the stairs, visible from outside, playing a looping presentation of outdoor sports and nature footage shot by Rowland’s filmmaker friend. It will occasionally kick over to a live feed from the Bryson City location and possibly the upstairs Asheville bar, further enticing pedestrians to venture inside.
As for brewing, the basement of the Asheville Outpost has enough room for a potential 1-barrel pilot system, and Rowland will revisit that option in early 2019. But for now, he will stick with keeping primary operations at the sizable Bryson City production facility, whose campus spans nearly 6 acres.
“It just makes more sense to us to continue producing all of ours beers in an environment where we can maintain consistency and have all of the technology that we have available,” Rowland says. “It would be really difficult to replicate that anywhere else without spending a pretty huge amount of money.”
Likewise carrying the theme of consistency, the 20-30 new hires between the kitchen and prep staff and bartenders and barbacks will be trained by the Bryson City staff. Several bartenders from the flagship location will be at the Asheville Outpost when it opens, and Rowland plans to bring the Asheville staff out to Bryson City to learn what the business is all about.
“We really want our staff to understand where we came from and what our brand means, so when they’re sitting behind this bar up in Asheville, they can relate,” Rowland says.
Nantahala Brewing Co.’s Asheville Outpost is scheduled to open at the end of August at 747 Haywood Road. Food service is expected to begin in mid-September. For details, look for the brewery on Facebook or visit nantahalabrewing.com.