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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  • aoreed1979

    Uhm...California? "As of April 2014 San Diego is home to 87 licensed craft breweries & brewpubs, with 31 more in development. Brewing has been one of the fastest-growing business sectors in San Diego, with seven new licenses issued in 2010, fifteen in 2011, and eighteen in 2012 (The Economic Impact of Craft Breweries in San Diego" National University Sytem Institute for Policy Research)." Just saying...

  • Fishbjacobs

    This article is deceptive. It infers that Sierra Nevada is moving its complete company to Asheville band so is New Belgium. In reality both companies are EXPANDING to the east coast, not relinquishing their original sites in California and Colorado. Therefore this doesn't justify Asheville's claim to fame as the beer capital.

  • Ryan Mccrosson

    You know, the point behind this article is vitally
    important for small cities to grasp.  I
    live in Indianapolis – a small city which is starting to “get it”, but which
    still needs to prove itself substantially. 
    Unfortunately, it’s not surrounded by mountains etc.  Fortunately however, it has a well-developed
    infrastructure, business community and culture vis a vi surrounding cities. 
    I only hope the old-world powers in my current city start to “get it”
    like those in Asheville and fully integrate this type of city-business philosophy
    as compared to taking old-world stabs like focusing their efforts on getting
    another super bowl in 10 years – pointless. 

  • Gothra

    Capital, no. But what's so interesting about Asheville is that it is a town (not a city like Portland or a metro area like greater Denver) where so much of the civic life of the town is now rooted around beer (with no one brewery dominating). There's really not much urban, physically or culturally, around Asheville, nor much money, yet they have at least as vibrant a beer scene per capita as seriously wealthy, tuned-in, world-class cities in the US. Much more and better beer is produced elsewhere, but I've never seen a stronger general beer culture amongst the general population (as opposed to a small percentage of beer geeks) than in Asheville over the last few years.  

  • Beer Advocate

    You haven't been to Bend, OR have you, nor Portland, OR.

    And I KNOW you certainly haven't been to Denver, CO.  I know because our culture revolves around beer here.  We have a new brewery opening tomorrow in Denver, one that opened two days ago, GABF (among 25 beer festivals JUST this month!), GABF award winning beer being tapped at Denver Beer Co. today, a beer fundraiser (beer festival) at the Zoo tonight, New Belgium Tour de Fat tomorrow morning, new brewery beer dinner at Our Mutual Friend last night, homebrew and craft beer competitions at our Denver County Fair and Colorado State Fair, a beer-release at Odell this weekend (ok that's Fort Collins) but still so much revolves around beer.  People bike all over town, patio hopping from brewery to brewery, and with 300+ days of sun, it's virtually every day.  Don't kid yourself, there's no "small percentage of beer geeks" here.  We have 23 breweries in Denver city-limits, that doesn't include the burbs, and every single one of them is packed on a daily basis.

    Again, Asheville has a great thing going, but don't ruin it by thinking they're better than everybody else, when there are other great cities that have just as much and more culture and history when it comes to brewing.

  • Gothra

    I think you missed my point. Of course Denver is a bigger and better beer city, as is Portland. But both of those places are cities. Denver is at least 8 times the size of Asheville, which is smaller than many college TOWNS. Comparing it to Bend is a good call. The "small percentage of beer geeks" I referred to might be, in Denver, more than the very population of Asheville itself.

    Let's face it, Asheville is in a relatively unfashionable and, for most that live in any cosmopolitan area, undesirable area. Pretty, yes, but... Is it now the capital of craft bear? - hell no. But Asheville has created a civic culture quite different than most of the greater surrounding area, and in very large part has done that through both a grass-roots and government-supported commitment to beer. I find that impressive.   

  • Beer Advocate

    I'll add while we have 23 in city-limits in Denver (not including metro area suburbs), there are 89 (read: EIGHTY NINE) all within a 60-mile diameter in the area.

  • Beer Advocate

    I love articles about Asheville's growing craft beer scene. It's true, it has a great beer culture.

    But implying it's somehow the best (or "The Craft Beer Capital") is just plain ignorance. It's this perspective that makes it sort of a joke, because while they have 11 or so breweries and two major brewery expansions, somehow saying it's "the capital" implies that it's a better culture than other cities that have a MUCH longer brewing history, more award winning world-renowned breweries, with the same exact progressive, artsy and outdoorsy culture as Asheville. It's like giving the finger to Portland, Denver, San Diego, etc. So please stop using phrases like "Beer City USA" and "The Craft Beer Capital" as it's just inappropriate and simply not true. Beer capital of the east coast? Probably. Beer capital of NC, absolutely.

  • Joel Vanderveen

    Don't forget about Grand Rapids, MI, who this year shared the title of Beer City USA with Asheville.

  • Rusty Neff

    Um No. The craft beer capitol of America is Portland, OR with more breweries than any other city in the world. That would be 51. And there are 120 brewing companies operating 153 breweries in Oregon. You got a ways to go Asheville.