Asheville: The New Craft Beer Capital Of America?

Long home to a coterie of boutique breweries, Asheville is starting to attract bigger craft-beer brands that see their own (idealized) corporate image in the city's low-key outdoorsy culture.

A sizable craft brewery in search of a new home needs a couple of non-negotiable resources: space to build the kind of facility that can produce tens of thousands of barrels of beer a year, plus access to railways and roads for quickly shipping the stuff to discerning customers who expect to drink it while it’s fresh. Also, water. Water is a very big deal in the brewing business. Asheville, North Carolina, has fostered one of the fastest growing beer scenes on the East Coast since the mid-1990s in part thanks to the 20,000-acre protected watershed outside of town in the Great Smoky Mountains. Local development official Ben Teague swears that at some points during the winter, you can drink straight from streams there with a cup. (He also puts it this way for the more visually inclined: Those arena scenes in the Hunger Games movie? They were filmed in Asheville’s pristine watershed.)

But for all that beer-friendly infrastructure, the Asheville area recently lured to town the country’s second and third largest craft breweries—California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado-based New Belgium—for reasons that were, first and foremost, much more intangible.

"We looked around, and we were so happy here in Fort Collins," says Jenn Vervier, who led the site selection process for New Belgium’s new East Coast brewery. "We thought, what are the things that make us happy, that make our coworkers happy?"

Both New Belgium and Sierra Nevada—in fact, much of the craft brewing industry—have melded their brands with a laid-back but active outdoor vibe, cast in images of nature, mountain biking, kayaking, and campfires. Asheville conjures a similarly progressive, environmentally conscious outdoors identity. And this is really why both companies will expand into the East Coast through Asheville over the next couple of years.

New Belgium, which is most recognizable for the old-school red bike on its Fat Tire label, wanted to find a site where its employees could themselves bike to work. This criteria—bikability—is not on the typical checklist of most corporate site selectors.

"From our first contact with the New Belgium team," says Clark Duncan, the director of marketing for Asheville and Buncombe County’s Economic Development Coalition, "it was pretty evident that this was a very different economic development project."

To understand what a more typical economic development project looks like, Teague, the coalition’s executive director, put it this way about similar work he used to do in Mississippi: "We sold cheap land, cheap buildings. If someone came to me and said, ‘Ben, I want you to give me 100 acres of land and grade it flat, and, by the way, I want you to build me a building for a dollar and give it to me, and I will in turn give you 100 jobs,’ we would have said ‘where do I sign?’"

But Asheville, he says, has turned that model on its head. The city competed with dozens of other East Coast sites initially targeted by the two breweries (in the end, New Belgium came down to Asheville and Philadelphia). Asheville tries to sell its quality of life, its mountains, its culture. And then it comes in with the business assets. "But we’re not afraid to lead off the presentation with who we are," Teague says.

This means that Asheville is likely to attract a certain kind of company, and both Sierra Nevada and New Belgium embody it. Vervier tells an almost identical story from New Belgium’s perspective. Part of the brewery’s mission, she says, is to be a model for sustainable business practices, and for the idea that a company can grow while remaining true to its values. "A piece of that story is helping communities understand a new model of economic development," she says. "You have to have property, you have to be economically competitive. But here are the other intangibles."

In this case, New Belgium was looking to remediate a brownfield site right in town, both as a solution to its bikability criteria, and as an answer to the company’s internal debates over how to expand sustainably. It will wind up taking over a 20-acre site on the bank of the French Broad River, in the heart of Asheville’s River Arts District. In its many previous lives, this site had been home to gas stations, stockyards, a landfill, and an auto mechanic. About a quarter of the property also sits on a flood plain.

Sierra Nevada, by contrast, chose a more rural setting outside of town but still in the Asheville metro area, in neighboring Henderson County. It bought 190 acres there, only about 18 of which it plans to develop, in a setting that will still mimic in nature and culture the company’s native Northern California. "We really feel that the culture here is just a really important part of how we make our beer, how we get inspired to do the things we’re going to do," says Sierra Nevada communications manager Bill Manley. "It’s impossible to take what we do here and transplant it to a different part of the country that doesn’t have that kind of cultural influence and expect to be making the same kind of product."

Both companies will be joining a community that already has nine smaller craft breweries, including Asheville’s original, Highland Brewing Company. Vervier refers to these businesses as New Belgium’s future "brewery brethren." In this respect, these projects were also highly atypical economic development endeavors: Both New Belgium and Sierra Nevada wanted to meet all the existing brewers in town—the folks who in any other industry might be considered their competitors—to make sure they were welcome. "This is the thing we did not understand about this industry when they first came to town, and it completely caught us off guard," Teague says. "In my mind, if this had been any other company, they would have said ‘I don’t care what they think, I’m going to do what I want to do."

Sierra Nevada even had all the local Asheville Brewers out to Chico in June to brew some beer together there. This industry is different in part because craft brewers have always had a certain collegiality among themselves. But by clustering together in a community like this, they can also create a kind of collective beer mecca for out-of-town tourists. And, Vervier hopes, they can work together on issues like protecting the city’s watershed and developing the industry locally. The local community college, along with Appalachian State University and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center are already developing a fermentation science innovation center and curriculum that will work with and benefit all of the breweries.

For now, Sierra Nevada hopes to be brewing outside Asheville by next summer, with a tasting room open to visitors in 2014. New Belgium should come online the following year. And after that? "Will we be home to fourth and fifth next largest breweries in the U.S.?" Teague asks. "That’s probably not as likely as the fact that we will attract likeminded companies."

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #WhyHere.

[Image: Evgeny Karandaev via Shutterstock]

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