Doug Riley, the owner and head brewer at Asheville Brewing Company, is sitting in a booth at his South Slope location.
The late fall sunshine spills into the popular downtown establishment. Looking out the bay windows onto Coxe Avenue, Riley remembers how quiet the Asheville craft beer scene 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 five years, it’s really exploded, especially to where the South Slope is the place to be since we opened here in 2006.”
In recent years, the South Slope 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.”
With around 50 independent establishments in Asheville and Western North Carolina, the craft beer industry is booming in these parts. Asheville was voted “Beer City USA” in 2010 and 2011. Since then, the city has become the epicenter for a beverage movement unseen in the nation.
“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.
Owner/founder of Oskar Blues, Dale Katechis has built a wildly successful brand of craft beer that is rapidly spilling across the country. Originating in Lyons, Colorado, the business opened a nine-acre $10 million east coast facility in Brevard in 2013. Katechis decided on the location after years of visiting the region, soaking in the ideal combination of southern culture and endless outdoor recreation.
“I fell in love with this area,” he said. “When we were looking to build, Brevard offered quite the temptation. I knew my quality of life was not going to suffer being here.”
Home to several breweries, Waynesville has become a scene in its own right. Frog Level Brewing Co. and Boojum Brewing serve up a wide array of selections that perfectly compliment the innumerable varieties brewed in Asheville.
Co-owner/manager of Boojum, Kelsie Baker, and her family have quickly established themselves as one of the “must try” craft beer destinations in WNC. Amid a highly competitive industry where your reputation resides in every beverage 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.”
With brewing beer comes the keen philosophy of “work hard, play hard.” For Katechis, coming eastward was as much a business decision as it was a chance for adventure in the Great Smokies and beyond.
“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.”
Opening in 2013, Burial Beer Co. in Asheville became an immediate hit with craft beer drinkers and the region as a whole. The brewery produced 150 barrels on a one-barrel system its first year, with that number skyrocketing when their new expanded system was installed, which will hold the foundation for the main facility, as plans are in the works to build 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 Burial co-owner Jessica Reiser. “Seeing people sitting out here and enjoying our beer is a surreal thing, and we have more exciting things to come.”
With the craft brewery explosion in Asheville and greater WNC, 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, 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.”
There’s plenty on tap at Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville (left) and Innovation Brewing in Sylva (right).