WNC nondrinkers reflect on life in Beer City USA

A BAR WITHOUT BOOZE: Hope Coalition, a Henderson County nonprofit, recently opened The Buzz in downtown Hendersonville. The sober bar offers nonalcoholic beers and mocktails. Photo courtesy of Hope Coalition

When Asheville’s Amanda Jones decided to stop drinking alcohol last year, she figured it would have an immediate impact on her social life.

“We live in Beer City USA, right?” she says. “Anytime someone says, ‘Let’s meet up,’ you know, as an adult, you’re going to a bar or a brewery. So, I had to rethink what that looks like for me.”

She’s not alone. Beer culture — and alcohol generally — permeates Western North Carolina, complicating things for those choosing the sober life. Going out for a night of trivia or karaoke? Most likely you’ll be going to a brewery. Want to catch some live music? You’ll be listening with an audience full of people imbibing.

Alcohol is even present in unlikely places: barbershops and hair salons. 5Ks, swim-runs and half-marathons. Volleyball tournaments. Yoga classes. Pottery-painting shops. Some companies offer canoe tours of the area’s breweries on the French Broad River.

“It’s inescapable,” says Asheville’s Peter Kleczynski. “I was offered a beer sample at an outdoor recreation store. When I started as a massage therapist, I very quickly had to start serving Champagne in the course of my job. It’s like, ‘Why am I serving alcohol as a massage therapist?’”

Kleczynski and other nondrinkers are quick to point out they do not object to others drinking and don’t judge them for it. It’s just that they’d like to find some social options that aren’t centered around booze. That can be tough in a place that markets itself as having more breweries per capita than any other U.S. city.

“I would love one day to see a new business open up that’s not a brewery or a taproom,” says Kleczynski, who chooses not to drink because of a family history of alcoholism. “Can’t there be something else?”

Aware of such concerns, many local breweries and bars now carry nonalcoholic beer and liquor options. And groups and individuals are stepping in to create alternative spaces and events for people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, who are sober or at least “sober curious.”

The Buzz, which bills itself as “WNC’s first sober bar and café” recently opened in Hendersonville offering nonalcoholic beer and liquor. It is run by Hope Coalition, which is dedicated to preventing substance use among young people and supporting long-term recovery.

And Jones and fellow nondrinker Maria Borisevich started Asheville Lose the Booze Crew, a Meetup.org group that hosts alcohol-free social events for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

“We need to start having a culture that understands that not everyone drinks,” says Julie Huneycutt, director of Hope Coalition, the nonprofit that runs The Buzz.

The nondrinking life

People choose not to drink for a variety of reasons.

Some, such as Kevin Nonnenmacher, got sober after decades of alcohol abuse. Others, like Jones and Borisevich, decided to quit drinking to improve their physical and mental health.

Meanwhile, folks like Kleczynski and Keaton Bishop-Marx, have seen family members struggle with alcoholism.

“I’ve been a nondrinker my entire life,” explains Asheville’s Bishop-Marx. “I have pretty severe addiction risk on both sides of the family. There’s a couple of factors at play, but it’s mostly a lifestyle choice to try to avoid having unnecessary challenges in my life.”

In some cases, it’s as simple as trying to lose weight or not liking the taste or the expense of booze.

Whatever the reason, nondrinkers sometimes feel they are expected to explain their decision or make excuses. Kleczynski, for instance, uses his early-morning workout routine as a way of getting out of nighttime events at breweries or bars.

“Alcohol is the one drug that you do have to explain why you don’t use it,” Jones says. “If you don’t smoke, no one is like, ‘Well, why don’t you smoke?’ It’s obvious. I think because alcohol is a part of our culture, some people can’t wrap their head around why you wouldn’t engage in that.”

Some people even get offended about other people not drinking, she says. “But it has nothing to do with me. It’s about their own relationship with alcohol.”

Attitudes seem to be changing, however.

“I’m pleasantly surprised with how frequently people are not only accepting but have some sort of anecdote about a family member or a friend who also doesn’t drink,” Bishop-Marx says. “They go out of their way to be accommodating. And I think that speaks volumes about the kind of people Asheville attracts.”

Borisevich has had a similar experience since moving to the city in January.

“Dating here, I felt like it was more on me to disclose it: ‘Just so you know, I don’t drink.’ But the person on the other side, they’re like, ‘OK, I don’t care.’ I know there are people that do feel that pressure, whether it’s from family members or their group of friends, but I haven’t personally felt it.”

Bishop-Marx, 27, and Borisevich, 32, think their experiences may reflect the fact alcohol is less culturally important to their peers than it is to older generations. Polling group Gallup reports that the percentage of people 18-34 who say they “have occasion to use alcoholic beverages” has declined from 72% to 62% over the last two decades.

Being sober in Beer City

Nondrinkers have various strategies for maneuvering the area’s alcohol scene.

“The gravitational pull of beer in breweries is ever present, so it’s going to be a little hard to find things that aren’t either hosted at breweries or have beer readily available,” Bishop-Marx says. For instance, he sometimes plays disc golf at Highland Brewing Co. He is OK being at breweries but worries about those who are in recovery and triggered by being around booze.

A big part of his social life revolves around playing online video games with friends. That means staying home and avoiding the brewery scene altogether.

Kleczynski tries to steer clear of the area’s alcohol-centric nightlife by going home early. “It’s like I only exist during the day,” he says.

Also, he tends to socialize more with women than men. “I feel like men are physically incapable of relating to each other without alcohol being involved.”

He says he and his wife, who moved to Asheville in 2013, are thinking about relocating to someplace that has different experiences to offer — and less of an emphasis on alcohol. But others find the area’s abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation provide alternatives to drinking.

Nonnenmacher says he moved to Asheville from Raleigh in large part because he loves riding his motorcycle in the mountains. “And that’s kind of what got me to quit drinking. I bought a motorcycle, and I knew I was going to die if I didn’t stop.”

Nonnenmacher got sober 15 years ago, a few years before he moved to Asheville. “I moved to Beer City sober, man,” he jokes.

Despite being a recovering alcoholic, he doesn’t mind being in places where booze is served, especially if live music is being played.

“It’s all good if you can get past the fact that alcohol’s going to be served everywhere, no matter where you go,” he says.

That reality was the impetus behind Jones and Borisevich starting Asheville Lose the Booze Crew in March. The meetup group regularly hosts hikes, coffee walks, pickleball games and more.

“When I moved to Asheville [in January], it was important for me to surround myself with people that value [not drinking] for whatever reason,” Borisevich says. “So, we had this idea of creating a space for people to explore living without alcohol, whether that’s just for that event or long term. This isn’t like a 12-step program.”

A similar idea was behind the creation of The Buzz.

“We felt like, with over two dozen breweries and multiple wineries and cideries cropping up in Henderson County, there was a need for a safe, sober, socializing space,” says Huneycutt, the coalition’s director. “This is a place where you don’t have to feel pressured to drink, but you can still have a barlike atmosphere.”

Huneycutt says she goes to breweries occasionally but less frequently than she used to. “I think as a culture we’re teaching our kids that in order to have social conversations, in order to have social lives, you have to include alcohol. We just wanted to change that.”

Leave out the alcohol

The Buzz isn’t alone. Most WNC breweries and several concert venues now offer nonalcoholic beers from national brewers, says Karis Roberts, executive director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance. And while no local brewery brews its own NA beer, at least one is in the process of trying to create an in-house option, she says.

Additionally, she points out that there are a number of Asheville bars that offer NA beer and mocktails, including The Whale, Golden Pineapple, Appalachian Vintner and Rosetta’s Buchi Bar. The Pot Stirred is an alcohol-free mushroom and botanical bar.

“It’s very naive to think that everyone in your party is going to be participating in drinking alcohol,” she says. “There should be options for everyone.”

During May’s Asheville Beer Week, The Mule at Devil’s Foot Beverage hosted a nonalcoholic event. And the week featured an ice cream social and other sober-friendly events.

And The Mule will host the ZeroProof Non-Alcoholic Social Experience on Friday, Nov. 10, and Saturday, Nov. 11. The event, in partnership with Charlotte’s Counterculture Club, will feature an extensive list of NA beers, spirits, wines and other beverages.

Jones is a big fan of Athletic Brewing Co. beers and has even turned some friends who still drink onto it. Founded in 2017, the Connecticut-based brewer makes a variety of NA IPAs, stouts, lagers and more.

“I had a lot of anxiety about what it would be like with my friends and social circle when I stopped drinking,” she says. “I thought I was going to start getting uninvited from things, but most of my friends were pretty accommodating. I realized that I had been making assumptions based on where I live and the brewery scene that people want to drink beer and they want to go to bars. But when given the opportunity to do something else, I think people will choose it. We have to offer the opportunity.”




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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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