Head to head: Amid lean times, local beer business flourishing

Beer is serious business: Last year, Buncombe County breweries employed 273 people with a total payroll of more than $2.7 million, according to Tim Schaller, president of the Asheville Brewers Alliance and owner of Wedge Brewing Company. photos by Bill Rhodes

The old adage that the business of booze is recession-proof — or recession-resistant, anyway — seems to be panning out for local brewers.

Despite tough economic conditions the last few years, the local beer scene has been abuzz with new breweries, expansions and growing acclaim.

Since 2008, Asheville has birthed four new independent, locally owned breweries: the Wedge, Craggie and Oyster House brewing companies and the Lexington Avenue Brewery. And that's on top of the French Broad, Pisgah, Asheville and Highland brewing companies and the Green Man Brewery. Yet another entry, Altamont Brewing Co., is gearing up to start production next spring.

Highland, Asheville’s first microbrewery, opened its doors in 1994 as a three-man operation in the basement of Barley's Taproom using retrofitted dairy equipment. Today, a staff of 20 can produce up to 20,000 barrels of beer annually at a state-of-the-art facility in east Asheville. Those beers are now sold in seven states.

Meanwhile, the newer microbreweries are expanding fast: Asheville Brewing is gearing up to launch a canning line, Green Man is undergoing major renovations, and the LAB plans to ramp up production and start a bottling line next year.

But it's not just the quantity that's increasing: Our local beers’ national reputation has been growing as well. After tying Portland, Ore., for top honors in the first BeerCity USA poll organized by national brew guru Charlie Papazian in 2009, Asheville claimed the title outright the last two years. Those victories have sparked significant national media buzz, as well as a festival in downtown Asheville earlier this year.

And even as the accolades and expansions have been adding up, so has the thriving microbrew industry's economic impact, Wedge Brewing Co. owner Tim Schaller reports.

"I don't know how long [the growth] can go. You can't tell until someone comes along and doesn't make it," notes Schaller, who’s also president of the Asheville Brewers Alliance. "My thing … is to just keep making good beer, and people here will support it."

Growing economic clout

Last summer, the alliance — formed in 2009 to represent and promote the local beer community — took measure of its members’ collective economic impact for the first time.

In 2010, their study found, Asheville breweries employed 273 people with a total payroll of more than $2.7 million. They paid $370,000 in sales taxes, $360,000 in beer excise taxes, $68,000 in property taxes and roughly $52,000 in water-consumption fees (not including sewer and other charges). In addition, the alliance estimates, these companies pumped more than $2.1 million directly into the local economy for everything from accountants’ and lawyers’ fees to printing T-shirts.

Meanwhile, increasing evidence suggests that the beer industry is fueling the growth of a local hub economy, enabling other businesses to feed and build off its success. More and more companies are releasing products whose main ingredient is local beer — and not necessarily for drinking.

One of the latest is Microbroo LLC, producers of Bröö Shampoo. After experimenting with various brews, owners Sarah and Brad Pearsall chose Highland's St. Terese’s Pale Ale for their formula. The product has found quick success, boosted by ABC News coverage and regional distribution at Whole Foods and Earth Fare. The owners soon plan to release a body wash made with Highland’s Oatmeal Porter and an expanded line of hair and body products featuring St. Terese’s.

Meanwhile, Crooked Condiments’ popular mustards incorporate Highland's Gaelic Ale and Asheville Brewing's Ninja Porter. And local ice-cream makers The Hop and the Ultimate Ice Cream Co. are making frozen treats out of brews such as Craggie's Antebellum Ale.

“A fermenting draw”

Figures pinpointing these products’ economic ripple effect are scarce, as is hard data on the impact of the expanding beer-tourism sector. But those who work in the industry say they're seeing more and more people drawn here by the growing reputation of local beers.

"I can tell you firsthand — it's unbelievable the amount of people we get in the brewery that are from out of town, and the reason they came to town is for the beer,” says Josh Copus, a part-time bartender at the Wedge in the River Arts District. “They say: ‘We're here for the beer. We're doing a beer tour, we're staying for the weekend, we're hitting all the breweries.'"

The economic symbiosis between the brewery and the Clayspace Co-op, a neighboring gallery Copus started eight years ago, is "mutually beneficial," he adds. "That's the future of the River Arts District. People are all worried of it going all commercial and all gentrified. It will go that way, but I feel like the artists kind of need the commercial enterprise. But the commercial enterprise also needs the artists, and the brewery is a really good example of that. People come down here for the brewery and check out the studios, and vice versa."

Of course, the beer scene doesn't compare to such well-known local attractions as Biltmore Estate in driving the region’s $2 billion tourism industry, says Kelly Miller, executive director of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau. But he adds with a grin, "It's a fermenting draw."

Increasingly, notes Miller, his agency is leveraging Asheville’s BeerCity USA designation in its marketing efforts, citing a current major national campaign. "It's a collection of ‘authentic’ experiences that makes up the Asheville brand," he explains. "And I think the craft-beer industry here in WNC is one more authentic experience that cuts through the clutter when people decide where they want to go for a meeting, a vacation, a wedding or whatever travel experience they're seeking."

The brand’s growing reputation is helping local brewers distribute their product beyond the county line, adds Schaller. "The Asheville name on beer now sells it other places. So it allows people that opportunity."

Eastward, ho!

That appeal has almost certainly been a factor in the recent interest the big New Belgium and Sierra Nevada brewing companies have shown in establishing major production-and-distribution facilities here.

The area is reputedly on the short lists of potential locations for both these Western breweries, though details have been scant, with company and local-government officials alike reluctant to give specifics at this point. Still, some observers have estimated that if either or both projects came to fruition, it could generate hundreds of new jobs and exponentially expand the beer-tourism draw.

Not everyone is thrilled, however. Amid speculation that Asheville and Buncombe County might offer the Fort Collins, Colo.-based New Belgium tax breaks to set up shop here, the Brewers Alliance has been outspoken in opposing such a move. Members say they welcome any new brewery, as long as it’s not given an advantage that wasn't afforded existing breweries.

"To give tax money to someone to come in and compete with us, we don't love the idea," Schaller explains. "It's a fairness thing. If they can afford to come in, they can come in. … There are positives to it. … If they both come, it would be really interesting. … It will definitely drive beer tourism."

And though Schaller says the rumors concerning New Belgium have cooled down recently, he also reports that Ken Grossman, founder of the Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada, "actually called a couple weeks ago and really checked around and let people know that he didn't want to step on toes. He was actually offering up, 'OK, if they bring in trainloads of malt barley, that we could share in that.' So it could be a positive thing."

Grossman, notes Schaller, said he was “looking at the Black Mountain area and somewhere in Henderson County."

Either way, says Miller, "I see Asheville and the beer scene similar to what Napa and Sonoma was years ago, where you start to have a cadre of very good wine producers, and it starts to get some brand buzz. My sense is if I was to look into the future, 10 years from now it wouldn't surprise me to see a variety of large-, medium- and small-scale beer manufacturers and all the other ancillary businesses that come with that. I see a lot of potential for growth."

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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