Posted on: November 5, 2021 Posted by: Sarah Giavedoni Comments: 0

Last Updated on June 6, 2023

With 90+ independent establishments in Asheville and across Western North Carolina, the craft beverage industry is booming in these parts.
BearWaters Brewing Creekside in Canton, NC

It all started for Asheville in 1994 with Oscar Wong and Highland Brewing, the city’s first legal brewery since Prohibition. With his first keg, Wong tapped into Western North Carolina’s craft beer potential. Doug Riley, owner and head brewer of Asheville Brewing Company, remembers how quiet the Asheville craft beer scene still was when he opened the brewery in 1999.

“It was no man’s land at the time,” he chuckled. “With Highland and Green Man [breweries], we were only the third to open in the city. And in the last [few] years, it’s really exploded, especially to where the South Slope is the place to be since we opened here in 2006.”

Find the mother lode of craft beer in the South Slope of Asheville, NC

In recent years, the South Slope neighborhood of downtown Asheville has become the epicenter of a craft beer movement, one that now includes dozens of breweries within the Asheville metropolitan area. Within a stone’s throw of Riley, you have Bhramari Brewing Company, Burial Beer Co., Catawba Brewing Co., Hi-Wire Brewing, Twin Leaf Brewery, Wicked Weed’s Funkatorium, and Green Man.

“It’s about quality across the board,” Riley said. “The first time somebody tastes craft beer—your craft beer—is the first time they know just exactly what you’re all about. It has to be great with every sip because your reputation and standard is always on the line.”

Opened in June 2013, Burial Beer Co. in the South Slope has become a hit with craft beer drinkers from across Southern Appalachia and around the world.

“The places we always liked when traveling were the ones tucked away, where you feel like you stumbled upon something really cool,” said Jessica Reiser, co-owner of Burial. “It’s like a hideout from everything. People can come here and feel comfortable, bring their kids. We want that casual environment. One of our customers once told us, ‘I feel like I’m hanging out at my friend’s house.’”

The brewery produced 150 barrels on a one-barrel system its first year. But that number skyrocketed when they instally a new expanded system, which holds the foundation for the main facility. The company also operates an urban farmhouse brewery outside of Asheville.

“It’s been crazy to keep up with the demand. Word-of-mouth popularity has been catching up with us, but that’s a good problem to have,” said Reiser. “Seeing people sitting out here and enjoying our beer is a surreal thing, and we have more exciting things to come.”

Major labels claim a stake in the game

With 90+ independent establishments in Asheville and WNC, the craft beverage industry is booming in these parts. Now known as “Beer City,” Asheville has become the epicenter for a beverage movement unseen in not only the industry, but also the nation as a whole.

In 2014, craft beer pioneer and industry leader Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (Chico, California) opened its $200 million, 217-acre East Coast production facility in Mills River, right outside Asheville.

“The community around Asheville attracts such an artistic and eclectic mix of people, a very similar mix of people like Chico,” said Ken Grossman, founder/owner of Sierra Nevada. “The outdoors is something I try to do on a regular basis—get outside and hike. We’re near mountains, streams, and places to recreate in Chico, and Asheville is just like that.”

Alongside Sierra Nevada, industry giants New Belgium Brewing (Fort Collins, Colorado) and Oskar Blues Brewery both opened East Coast headquarters in WNC. In 2016, New Belgium fired up its $140 million facility in the River Arts District of Asheville. The property has quickly become a beacon of economic and cultural significance for the city. Shortly thereafter, Oskar Blues opened an enormous nine-acre $10 million East Coast facility in Brevard. 

With brewing beer comes the keen philosophy of “work hard, play hard.” Owner/founder of Oskar Blues, Dale Katechis decided on their Brevard location after years of visiting the region, soaking in the ideal combination of Southern culture and endless outdoor recreation.

“We ride bikes and we drink good beer, and we want to turn other people onto that,” he chuckled. “I don’t clock out and go home. I hit the trails, and everyday is like Christmas out there.”

Larger companies have since bough out New Belgium and Oskar Blues, in addition to local start-up brewer Wicked Weed. Those buyouts are evidence of the ever-growing, somewhat topsy turvy nature of the craft beer scene as these newer, unique brews continue to grab a larger share of the national and international beverage market.

There’s plenty on tap at Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville (left) and Innovation Brewing in Sylva (right).

Surrounding towns of the same vein offer valuable nuggets of their own making

When Kelly and Andy Cubbins opened Southern Appalachian Brewing in Hendersonville in 2011, it was an up-and-coming town with no brewery. But, the Cubbinses felt the city had the same potential that Asheville held a decade or so earlier.

“Since we moved in there have been so many changes on Seventh Avenue. All of these incredible small businesses have come in, and on Main Street, too,” Kelly said. “The whole downtown area has been transformed into such a beautiful and welcoming space. And we also have a progressive town government that really tries to bring the community together, especially with things like the ‘Rhythm & Blue Festival,’ which has become such a huge event for downtown.”

“You get to live in this great town, with a lot of new families moving in,” Andy added. “And yet, within a 10-minute drive from downtown, you can be hiking on the side of a mountain where nobody is around.”

Home to several breweries, Haywood County has become a scene in its own right. Boojum Brewing and Frog Level Brewing in Waynesville and BearWaters Brewing in Canton each serve up a wide array of selections that perfectly compliment the innumerable varieties brewed in Asheville.

Co-owner/manager of Boojum Brewing, Kelsie Baker has quickly established the brewery as one of the “must try” craft beer destinations in WNC. Amid a highly competitive industry where your reputation resides in every glass poured, Boojum has risen to the upper echelon of flavor, style, and selection. Between their off-site brewery and downtown taproom, the business is a social and economic anchor within the community.

“From day one, we’ve always said that we want to keep it fresh and exciting, to never cut corners,” Baker said. “We’re really passionate about what we do—always experimenting, reading, learning new techniques and ideas. We use high-quality, difficult to get hops, yeasts, and flavorings (e.g., real raspberries and peanut butter). These things are expensive and generally more difficult to work with, but the result is a much better product.”

Heading west towards Brevard you come across the intersection of U.S. 64/276. Sitting at that intersection is Ecusta Brewing. Since 2016, the brewery has emerged as one of the finest craft beer operations in the region.

“We’re about traditional beers. The flavor is meant to be crisp, clean, and well-balanced,” said Josh Chambers, brewmaster at Ecusta. “It’s all about balance, and we like to taste the malts with the hops. It’s all about variety, too, where we brew a lot of different styles.”

“What I am consistently amazed at is the complexity of craft beer,” added Bill Zimmer, co-owner of Ecusta Brewing. “You think wine is complex? Dive into all different areas and styles of craft beer and you’ll see that the possibilities are as endless as there are different palates of what people want or want to experiment with.” 

Beer in WNC is an embarrassment of riches!

With the craft brewery explosion in the region, Hi-Wire Brewing co-owner Adam Charnack sees it all as friendly competition.

“This industry is filled with camaraderie,” he said. “So what about competition? The more, the merrier. Asheville is this mecca for craft beer. And the more people that place the words ‘Asheville’ and ‘craft beer’ in the same sentence, the better.”

And for Grossman of Sierra Nevada, it’s about continuing to achieve perfection in a rapidly growing industry, one that has become a centerpiece of the WNC economy.

“We invest in quality, invest in people, and invest in systems,” he said. “We’ve been focused on quality since day one. And, I just like beer. I enjoy the whole science and alchemy of turning barley, yeast, and hops into something amazing and wonderful.”

This post is adapted from our annual Welcome to Western North Carolina magazine. Request your own free copy today!

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