Oscar Wong sent all of it down the drain. All 6,000 gallons of it. Every drop — 193-1/2 barrels, or 375 pint glasses — of perfectly decent beer flushed away.
It was 1994, and the fledgling Highland Brewing Co. was struggling to stay alive in the cramped, dank basement below Barley's Tap Room on Biltmore Avenue. Wong could ill afford to take the loss. But he also knew he couldn't afford to serve an average ale.
"I thought quality was the only way to go," says Wong, a retired engineer with a penchant for the precise. "It was drinkable, but it just wasn't on the mark."
From those inauspicious beginnings, Wong and his colleagues built a reputation for brewing quality beer, as well as running a dynamic business. Asheville's first brewery — Wong calls it the city's first legal brewery, with a nod to the mountains' bootlegging legacy — set the standard, and others soon followed.
Buncombe County alone now boasts seven craft-brewing operations, with two more set to open later this summer. Related businesses have benefited from those operations. Restaurants with dozens of beer taps buzz with locals and tourists alike. The dozen-year-old Brewgrass Festival is one of the toughest tickets in town. Asheville's beer boutiques ship local product nationwide. Another local business leads brewery tours, and farmers in the area are being urged to grow hops as an alternative crop. Even local bakeries and ice-cream shops are getting into the act, incorporating handmade beer into their recipes.
Asheville has more breweries per capita than such standout U.S. beer destinations as Portland — which Asheville tied in a recent online poll conducted by beer guru Charlie Papazian, the founder of the Great American Beer Festival, the American Homebrewers Association and the Association of Brewers. The unscientific poll, which named Asheville the East Coast's "Beer City USA," carries little actual weight. But seeing Asheville hold its own against a city eight times its size did send beer enthusiasts atwitter. And for local beer producers and consumers alike, the designation has become a point of pride and celebration — 15 years after Asheville's sewage pipes were christened with a mediocre batch of handmade brew.
"It's a nice acknowledgment that Asheville competes with other great beer cities," says Asheville Citizen-Times writer Tony Kiss, who's covered the local brewing scene since its inception and pens the weekly Beer Guy column. "It probably drew some more outside attention to Asheville's beer scene, and maybe there will be more."
Tiger by the tail
Wong saw an untapped market in Asheville when he cranked up Highland. Today, he's just trying to keep up with his brewers, his distributors and his competition.
"I've got a tiger by the tail,” he reports. “Everybody thinks its fun to own a brewery. More accurately, I'm owned by a brewery, but I do enjoy it. It's hard-ass work, but there's a sense of accomplishment when the day's done."
Kiss, a beer aficionado who's done as much as anyone to promote the local beer scene, says the camaraderie and competition mean "You can't get away with selling bad beer in Asheville."
Beer enthusiast Sean Lilly Wilson also saw potential in craft beer, albeit at the state level. He led a grass-roots campaign , Pop the Cap, that prompted the General Assembly to raise the maximum allowable alcohol by volume in N.C. beer from 6 percent to 15 percent.
"The beer scene was already well under way" in Asheville, says Wilson, when Pop the Cap opened the floodgates for creative beer-makers. "It added fuel to the fire to get things going."
Wilson, who left the Pop the Cap organization to promote craft beers and is preparing to open Fullsteam Brewing in Durham later this year, says Asheville's walkability, its residents' do-it-yourself mentality and its tourist-friendly reputation all make it a great beer city in a great beer state.
Wilson sees brewers in Asheville and around the state delving deeper into the concepts of eating local. His own beer concoctions use everything from local rhubarb and sweet potatoes to South Carolina scuppernong grapes.
"The more we do to turn this into an agricultural and tourism story, the better. That's the model of success in the wine industry, and it's good for agricultural and it's good for tourism," he says. "Really, the fun has just begun with all this."
Room for growth
That kind of creativity will only continue as craft brewers seek to grow their 4 or 5 percent share of the overall beer market, predicts Julie Atallah, co-owner of downtown Asheville's Bruisin' Ales beer store. The business ships Asheville brews across the U.S., and interest is growing.
"I think we're going to see more of a push for organic products,” says Atallah. “The other big thing is just experimentation, and I think our local breweries are doing a great job of that," she says. "You can always go to a brewery and find a new beer you've never heard of. Asheville has a lot of room for growth."
Atallah and others also cite the recent formation of the Asheville Brewers Alliance as another sign of the city's maturing craft-brewing scene. Born about four months ago with membership limited to Asheville brewers, the alliance has since expanded to include those in surrounding areas, such as Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain, Catawba Brewing in Morganton and Heinzelmännchen Brewing in Sylva. Members provide mutual support and work together to market their products.
Alliance member Mike Rangel of Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. told Kiss the group plans to invite Portland drinkers to Asheville and establish a brewer's exchange via a sort of “sister-beer-city” program. The June 26 beer bash at The Orange Peel (see “Party Like We Live in Beer City”) will serve as the alliance's official coming-out party.
And while Asheville's strong showing in the Beer City USA polling marks another milestone in the city's brewing history, for beer lovers, it's really the bigger picture that counts most.
Key dates in local beer history
• 1880s: Saloons thrive around Pack Square, and beer flows from taps and bottles at several popular bars in local hostelries, including the Glen Rock, Berkeley and Battery Park hotels. The Grand Central Hotel, operated by S.R. Chedester and his son on North Main Street (now Biltmore Avenue), notes that it sells Bass & Co.'s Dublin Pale Ale, Guiness Extra Foreign Stout and Dublin Porter. Businessman W.O. Muller touts the fact that he was the first to introduce Anheuser-Busch lager to Asheville. And George Sorrells, proprietor of the Eagle Saloon on South Main Street (now Broadway), offered ale, porter and beer on "draught" and dubbed himself "a gentleman of the strictest probity."
• 1895: An Asheville Daily Citizen advertisement for the Carolina Wine and Liquor Stores on North Main and College streets lists the following beers for sale: Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rochester, Everards, Schlitz and Dixie.
• 1907: Voters in the small mountain outpost of Asheville vote to close down beer-peddling saloons and liquor distilleries; the next year, the state of North Carolina follows suit. According to longtime Asheville Citizen-Times columnist Bob Terrell, Asheville was the first town in the state to vote down alcohol, a move he tied to the 1906 rampage by drunken desperado Will Harris, who shot and killed five people in downtown Asheville that November.
• 1919: The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, enabling the national prohibition of the sale of liquor. That move fired up a thriving mountain moonshine market, and beer in Asheville became an afterthought.
• 1933: State lawmakers once again legalize the sale of beer, fruit juices and light wines. The same year, a national movement to undo prohibition gathers momentum and the federal prohibition is repealed. Asheville beer lovers certainly celebrate.
• 1935: Famed writer F. Scott Fitzgerald spends the summer writing in Asheville. In his room at the Grove Park Inn, where he does his work, he detours from gin by drinking as many as 30 beers a day. His secretary later writes: “I haven't ever, before or since, seen such quantities of beer displayed in such a place. Each trash basket was full of empties. So was the tub in one of the baths. Stacks of cases served as tables for manuscripts, books, supplies of paper.”
• 1978: President Jimmy Carter legalizes home brewing in the U.S., giving beer lovers in Asheville and elsewhere license to buy some yeast and hops and start experimenting in the garage or basement.
• 1993: Smoky Mountain Brewing Co. opens in Waynesville. A small operation launched by enthusiastic home brewers, it soon closes. But Asheville is jealous.
• 1994: Oscar Wong and partner John McDermott open Highland Brewing in the basement of Barley's Tap Room on Biltmore Avenue. The bold move marks the official birth of Asheville's craft-brewing scene, setting the local beer-quality bar high.
• 1997: The Blue Rooster, Asheville's first brewery/restaurant, opens on Biltmore Avenue next to Barley's. A venture of Wong's featuring Highland beers exclusively, it closes a year later.
– On Patton Avenue, Laughing Seed Café co-owner Joe Eckert opens Jack of the Wood pub/restaurant/brewery downstairs.
– The inaugural Brewgrass Festival is held.
• 1998: Mike Rangel opens Two Moons Brew 'n' View in the former twin movie theater. The following year, the name is changed to Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. The operation combines second-run movies and first-rate beer and pizza.
• 2001: French Broad Brewing Co. opens on Fairview Road, featuring a small but friendly tasting room and European-style beers.
• 2004: Dieter Kuhn and Sheryl Rudd start up Heinzelmännchen Brewery in Sylva. Asheville takes notice of what is then the only WNC brewery west of the city.
• 2005: Co-owners Jason Caughman and Dave Quinn open Pisgah Brewing Co. in Swannanoa, the first local brewery to produce certified-organic beer.
– Green Man Ales, Jack of the Wood's brewery, moves its operation to Buxton Avenue downtown and opens a tasting room called Dirty Jack's.
• August 2005: "Pop the Cap" legislation takes effect statewide. Raising the maximum allowable alcohol content for beer and other malt beverages sold in the state from 6 percent to 15 percent by volume, the law clears the way for a new generation of beers and beer-making.
• 2006: Highland Brewing moves its operation to warehouse space in east Asheville, next to Blue Ridge Motion Pictures, and expands.
– Local entrepreneurs Mark and Trish Lyons launch the Asheville Brews Cruise, which ferries beer lovers from brewery to brewery.
• May 30, 2008: The Wedge Brewing Co. opens in Asheville's River Arts District. Owner Tim Schaller teams up with former Green Man brewer Carl Melissas, who is known for his Belgian-style beers.
• February 2009: Asheville-based brewers come together to create the Asheville Brewers Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting the area's every-growing beer scene.
• March 2009: OysterHouse Brewing, a microbrewery inside the Lobster Trap restaurant, opens in downtown Asheville.
• Summer 2009: Projected opening for Lexington Avenue Brewery. In the works for two years, the restaurant/bar/brewery is being installed in the former T.S. Morrison's store on Lexington Avenue. Brewmeister Ben Pierson used to work for Green Man.
• Summer 2009: Projected opening date for Craggie Brewing Co. on Hilliard Avenue, just around the corner from Asheville Brewing's Coxe Avenue premises. Co-owners Bill Drew and Jonathon Cort both formerly worked for Highland Brewing.