When looking back on the Asheville craft beer industry’s past year, the appropriate complementary tune very well may be Wilco’s “Art of Almost.”
Though 2022 was the first full year since 2019 when operations proceeded largely “as usual,” COVID-19 continued to sideline workers and force temporary closures. And while beloved events like AVL Beer Week returned in close to full force, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s Oktoberfest and other annual gatherings remained on hiatus.
Distinct challenges likewise persisted for some of Asheville’s smaller breweries. To get an insider’s view on what it was like to keep such establishments running, Xpress spoke with local brewers Brandon Audette of 12 Bones Brewing; Zac Harris of Eurisko Beer Co.; Billy Klingel of Oyster House Brewing Co.; and Mike Vanhoose of Riverside Rhapsody Beer Co.
In what aspects has your brewery recovered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where are you still playing catch-up?
Harris: The best we’ve done in recovering from COVID times is building back and then growing our out-of-house sales. Outside sales weren’t a huge part of our business before 2020, but relying almost entirely on our taproom for a long while was brutal. We hired a full-time sales manager this year, and he’s been an incredible asset to our team.
We’re still catching up a bit on bigger projects and expansion plans that were put on hold. Thankfully, none of those are really holding us back too much.
Vanhoose: We opened our brewery about six months prior to the onset of COVID-19 and were just starting to feel like we were getting going when we were blindsided by the pandemic. The pandemic did force us to take advantage of our outdoor area and convert it into a space where our patrons felt comfortable and safe, despite the ongoing spread of COVID-19. We are still recovering financially from the strain imposed by the pandemic.
Audette: We never had a “normal” year since I came on board [in early 2020], so we’re just now getting a sense of what a normal year would be like and we’re adjusting to that every day. Like most breweries, we were packaging everything and focused more on to-go options, and we’re now refocusing on in-house taproom experiences and customer relationships.
Klingel: Unfortunately, we had a cooling system crash out during the shutdown. Obviously, with the restaurant closed frequently and shortened operating hours, our production volume was diminished. So, it really was the best time for the worst thing to happen to temperature control. It halted any production for a few weeks. Since then, we’ve gotten back to our pre-pandemic production levels.
What was your favorite new beer that another Asheville brewery made in 2022?
Harris: Foraging for Forty from Cellarest Beer Co. A Keller Pils with sumac berries, primary-fermented in wood with Hallertau Blanc hops didn’t exactly sound like something I was going to love. I’m usually more of a purist when it comes to lagers, but this beer was out of the box without being messy and overdone. Ever so slightly tart, musty, vaguely fruity, dry, mildly tannic and well carbonated — it was just so superbly drinkable.
Vanhoose: Eurisko’s Cerveza Eurisko Mexican Lager.
Audette: I really like what the DSSOLVR brewers are doing with their tap list. They kind of spread the love around but they really shine in their lagers, which I believe to be the best in town. I also dig what they’re doing with reviving beer-flavored beer with their West Coast IPAs and classic American pale ales.
Klingel: Not sure if it was 2022, but Ashezilla IPA from Asheville Brewing Co. and Zillicoah Beer Co. Galaxy hops might just be the best-tasting thing ever. Well done, friends!
In what ways did the Asheville craft beverage community improve as a whole in 2022?
Harris: Consumer demands and, as a result, brewers’ output is slowly leaning further and further away from being dominated by IPA, especially in Asheville. I’m seeing more and more traditional styles being brewed frequently and being done quite well.
Vanhoose: Despite COVID, the craft beverage community seemed to improve with the addition of new breweries and Devil’s Foot [Brewing Co.]’s new facility for craft sodas. We were forced to rethink our layout and seating, leading us to add outdoor seating ahead of our schedule. After reopening our taproom, we chose not to have bar seating, [thereby] greatly increasing our efficiency.
Audette: I think everyone has become a little more business savvy, a little more focused and grown up. The party isn’t over, and we still like to have fun, but the Wild Wild West days of the early Asheville beer scene are clearly over — at least for now. I believe that to be a good thing for everyone’s health and longevity in this crazy industry.
Klingel: There has always been a real close-knit, buddy-buddy relationship in our bubble. Everyone has always been willing to help out, whether you were in a pinch for a bag of malt or some hops — or even bigger than that, when your system crashes down and halts everything, you’ve got friends who you can count on to get back up and going. During the last couple of years, that support has really elevated the local brewing community. Thanks, everybody!