Western North Carolina is in a unique position when it comes to the alcohol industry. The region is home to a growing number of breweries, wineries, distilleries, and cideries.
Click the link to see a google map created with the alcohol locations we covered in Western North Carolina.
Western North Carolina is in a unique position when it comes to the alcohol industry. The region is home to a growing number of breweries, wineries, distilleries, and cideries.
“We are not the Northern California wine country,” Sheila Tillman, associate dean of hospitality education at A-B Tech said when announcing the school’s creation of the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast. “We are not St. Louis, known for its beer. We are not Kentucky, home of whiskey. We are finding ourselves in the situation of supporting a growing job force of not one part of the beverage industry, but we have three major industries simultaneously coming here.”
Here’s a closer look at the industry and the impact it has on the area.
[quote float=”center”]There are roughly 71 breweries, wineries, & distilleries combined in Western North Carolina[/quote]
Brew it and They will Come: Beer Industry Brings Ripple Effect To Economy
When you visit a brewery in Western North Carolina, you may not realize the impact that operation has on the local economy. From tourism to jobs to revitalization of an area, the growing number of breweries in the area are leaving their mark.
“In Western North Carolina, and the country as a whole for that matter, the sheer amount of craft breweries has grown immensely,” Elise Carlton, public relations manager for Green Man Brewery, says. “Breweries are finding their individual niches in the industry environment, and high standards of quality, consistency, and creativity are held, especially in towns like Asheville.”
Major players, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and Oskar Blues Brewery, have joined the scene, and New Belgium Brewing Company is set to begin production later this year. Many local breweries are expanding and new ones continue to come.
“The larger we grow the more momentum we have for others to come,” Ben Teague, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville and Buncombe County, says. “But you have to go back to some of the first breweries that were here. Certainly the godfather of all of them is Highland Brewing. They created a culture here that breweries are attracted to. So that they find if you look at the culture of Asheville it’s ‘we love beer’, and there’s a lot of places that love beer, but [Asheville loves] beer, and also our community has a brand that [breweries] see their brand with.
“If you look at some of the breweries, it’s not about finding the most cost effective plug and play industrial site. It’s about finding a community and a location that fits them, their customer, and their brand.”
The Ripple Effect
At this point in the beer boom, the supply industry for breweries is a growing one.
“As you start to see multiple breweries, you start to see economies of scale which would allow suppliers to come in like White Labs (Inc. Pure Yeast and Fermentation) – locating on South Charlotte Street, which supplies the yeast and innovative yeasts.”
The ripple effect of local breweries is far reaching. Riverbend Malt House is located in Asheville to provide the area’s craft brewers with locally-farmed, artisan malts. A-B Tech launched the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast, a premier education destination to meet the needs of the rapidly-growing beverage industry in the region, in 2013. Nineteen completed the first class, and they graduated in May 2015.
“Craft breweries have a significant impact because they have a real dedication to local talent, probably more so than a lot of other industries, so that creates even more impact,” Teague said. “You see it from the professional business side all the way to the production side – all down the chain. But our goal for the supply chain is not only to have the end user of the brewery, but the vertical industry going up the chain. We would like to start recruiting more high level suppliers.”
Location, location, location
Breweries are catalytic for areas, Teague said. Traditionally breweries and their supply chains will go in and rehab areas that are tough to invest in.
“They are catalytic in terms of where they invest their money in,” he says. “They don’t come in and take the best of everything and say ‘Okay everybody come to me.’ A lot of times what looks like the worst of things they can really make it a cool funky spot with a lot of investment. And on top of that, a brewery may draw people to an area they may not have been drawn to previously.
“I think that cities and counties and economic development entities can sit there and think about what their plans for an area might be all day long, but speaking frankly, you need a catalytic company to come in there and help get that going, and often times breweries are just that; they are not afraid, and will go in and be the pioneers for a particular area.”
The Brewery District
The South Slope area in downtown Asheville is an example of this renovation. Green Man Brewery moved to Buxton Avenue on the South Slope about 10 years ago, which provided more space to expand their production.
“It has been amazing to watch the South Slope turn into its own community and tourist destination in the last few years,” Carlton says. “We have tourists that spend the majority of their time visiting Asheville on the South Slope now that there is a thriving ecosystem of businesses. Before, people were venturing off the beaten path of downtown to come to our tasting room.”
“Look at Green Man Brewing where they are, and now that Buxton Hall Barbecue is going down there and Vortex Doughnuts is going down there — South Slope is starting to become a hot area, where as before it was described as seedy,” Teague said.
Brewery Tourism Industry
In an area of the country already popular for out-of-town visitors, breweries are making a large impact on the tourism industry.
“If you just took the anecdotal things that we have seen across all of our clients for large breweries, you are going to have several hundred thousand people a year visiting those breweries,” Teague states. “With synergistic effects of 27 breweries, I think you will see even more than that. And beyond that you see spinoff services like Brews Cruise and that sort of stuff that is a whole different industry in itself that is facilitating the brewery tourism industry.”
What does the future hold for the local beer industry? Teague believes supplying the workforce that is needed will not be a problem. But will there be enough customers to support them?
“From a customer base standpoint, this is the defining factor,” he says. “If you feel like your customer base is just Asheville, or even Asheville and the surrounding area, yes, it has a finite future. Because there are only so many customers to serve and there is a lot of competition. But if you are a larger brewery your customer base may be New York to Miami. Your local sales in Asheville is a drop in the bucket to what your potential sales are across the Eastern United States.
“If you look at a large regional or greater brewery, I don’t feel we are anywhere close to tapping out. With that said, there’s a third factor that could hurt the appetites of breweries in the area, which is do they see a place for their brand to be represented in the area. I think there is a lot of room for a lot of different looks and a lot of different brands, but they need to be able to have that vision to be able to see that.
“I only see things getting better in terms of more breweries being here. If we had to really shift our attention, yes, maybe there is room for one more large brewery, but we would shift our attention to talent and innovation and supply chain because we want the companies that are here across the entire spectrum of breweries to do well, and that’s going to come through some of those different pieces – talent, innovation, place making for them.
“A lot of the people are seeing breweries as a fast growing and very recent trend, but like most all economic development it takes a long time to be an overnight success. We are standing on the shoulders of a lot of people like Oscar Wong, who brought the craft brew industry here many, many years ago, and we’re proud to do our part over the last six – seven years to cultivate that.”
New Belgium Countdown
New Belgium Brewing Company is joining the Asheville beer scene on a grand scale with an impact on the economy, tourism, and the revitalization of a neglected site.
The project is at the peak of construction with most work now taking place on the inside of the facility. On the south end of the site you can see the liquid center, which will house the tasting room that will open to visitors next year. Production is set to begin by the end of this year.
There are several characteristics New Belgium looked for when deciding where to build their East Coast facility. Jay Richardson, general manager of the Asheville brewery, explains that easy access to transportation corridors, high quality water, and a desirable place to live are all factors.
The company looked for a site close to the center of town so that co-workers could live close to the brewery and have access to fun things to do.
Was Asheville’s thriving beer scene also a deciding factor?
“It certainly feels good to be in a place that already has an appreciation for craft beer, and throw on to that an appreciation for great food and a growing farm-to-table movement and all the sustainable characteristics that go along with that,” says Richardson. “Certainly that played into the decision.”
Engaging in Asheville
Partnering with nonprofit organizations and community involvement have always been a part of New Belgium, according to Susanne Hackett, the Asheville brewery’s community and media relations specialist. Grant programs will benefit local nonprofits, and New Belgium has already partnered with Highland Brewing Company on the Brewing for Greenways project to support greenways in Buncombe County.
“We have had a really good time engaging in Asheville because Asheville is so incredibly engaging in itself,” Hackett says. “We’ve had a lot of people get in touch with us, and we are really grateful that we’ve been embraced in that way through this process. So even before we are up and running we have had the opportunity to really get involved in the community.
“We’ve worked a lot with our neighborhood and business association in this construction process to work through challenges and share our information to make sure people understand what is happening and how it is happening. We’ve also done a lot of potlucks, and that’s been great for us and our new co-workers to learn about Asheville. We’ve really tapped into our neighborhood to help us get settled in, and they have been very supportive about that.”
Opening the Doors
Richardson is anticipating 200,000 visitors per year to the Asheville brewery, which is more than the company sees at its Fort Collins’ headquarters. This is due primarily to the amount of tourists who visit Asheville throughout the year.
If you visit, tasting the beers will be a big focus. There will be plenty of space to hang out – both indoors and outdoors. The tour will begin in the liquid center then move into the brewery for a process overview and a look at the company history.
“We are trying to be part of not only the national brewing community but also the local brewing community,” Hackett says. “We’ve been working to make sure that our liquid center, which is our tasting room, is a place where locals want to come and spend time with us.”
Location of Brewery:
The brewery will be built on Craven St. between the Craven St. and West Asheville bridges in West Asheville and across the French Broad River from Asheville’s River Arts District. This area is a revitalized commercial warehouse district lined with restaurants, bars, retail, and more than 150 artists and galleries of high-quality fine arts and crafts. It’s the gateway to West Asheville and near downtown Asheville, which is just over a half mile away.
Projected Size of Brewery:
133,000-sq-ft total, including: 127,000-sq-ft brewery; 6,000-sq-ft Liquid Center
Elements of Brewery:
Tasting room, brewery tours, outdoor event space
Anticipated Opening Date:
A Great Growing Season
Wine may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of North Carolina – but maybe it should be! While Biltmore Winery is celebrating its 30th anniversary, the growing wine industry is thriving in the Tar Heel state due to the various climates from the mountains to the coast.
“The mountains create a very unique environment for growing grapes,” says Justin Taylor, assistant winemaker at Burntshirt Vineyards in Hendersonville.
“From soil profiles, to slope, elevation, mountain temperatures, and even rainfall — this area is very unique. Our growing season is slightly behind that of the Yadkin Valley and the Piedmont because of our elevation, allowing us to have a great growing season.”
Many wineries are on land that has been passed down in families from one generation to the next. A winery offers a unique opportunity to keep the land fruitful.
“We built our vineyard and winery in Western North Carolina because we viewed it as a way to preserve the family farm for at least another generation,” says Jeff Frisbee of Addison Farms Vineyard in Leicester. “The piece of property where Addison Farms Vineyard is located was my maternal grandparents’ farm, and it is only about one mile from my paternal grandparents’ farm.”
Alan Ward, of Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards in Hendersonville, started his business due to a need he saw for sustainable farming in the area. His winery is located on acreage that has been in the family and farmed for more than nine generations.
“We are always trying to learn new things about farming,” Ward says. “We are constantly pushing the envelope on what we can do.”
His grapes are grown at three different elevations — 2,300 feet at his winery; 3,000 feet on top of a mountain in Edneyville; and 3,500 feet farther south.
“The good weather is one of the main reasons I came to Polk County to plant my grapes in 2000,” says Dennis Lanahan of Mountain Brook Vineyards in Tryon. He explains that Tryon is in a thermal belt and has a viticultural history that dates back over 100 years.
The wine industry has seen changes in the last five years, due in part to research and training.
“Grapes are such a long term product from planting, to yielding quality fruit, and finally producing stellar wine from that fruit,” Taylor says. “At Burntshirt, we have learned what varietals we can grow well, and what styles of wines our fruit is best used for.
“With the development of associates programs at Surry Community College, bachelor studies at Appalachian State, and even the fermentation sciences work at A-B Tech, we are bringing enough research into the field to grow and develop sustainable knowledge about the industry. In five years I believe we will look back and realize that we have grown again two-fold.”
New varietals, trellising systems, and wine styles are some of the biggest areas of growth that Taylor has seen.
“Wine production starts in the vineyard, which is why you see the biggest learning curve in that area,” he says. “Wine production is also finding its strengths. The varietals like Grüner Veltliner and Petit Manseng are among some of our whites that are less known in the United States but have really taken off in North Carolina.”
Frisbee notes that one of the biggest and most exciting things he is seeing is how much wine quality is steadily improving.
“We are seeing some really interesting varieties, including a couple that we think show great promise in this area,” he says. “Petit Manseng seems to have a real affinity for Virginia and North Carolina. It maintains really great acidity while building sugar to levels we do not see with other varieties, and that gives us the ability to create some really incredible wines.”
“The industry has invested heavily in the technology of wine making and grape growing,” Lanahan says. “We have more clones of grapes now than we ever had 50 years ago. The equipment to assist the winemakers in analyzing wine have improved dramatically. On a macro basis, this is now a worldwide industry. Wines are moving from all parts of the world to the USA. On a micro basis, North Carolina has grown to over 140 wineries in the last 10 years, with most of that growth coming in the last five years.”
As with any business, there are obstacles to deal with — one of them being the weather.
“We tend to have higher humidity and, if Mother Nature deals us a tough hand, high rainfall in certain years,” Taylor says. “It doesn’t make our job impossible, it just requires us to become more creative with our production goals. The high humidity is the largest limiting factor in my opinion. Any thin skinned, tight clustered grape like Pinot Noir, would have a very tough time growing in Western North Carolina.”
Tourism is an integral part of the winery business. Many of the local wineries report that out of town visitors make up approximately 85 percent of their traffic. The challenge is reaching these people on what may be a limited advertising budget.
“For small wineries like us the challenge is to make ourselves known within the confines of very limited budgets,” Lanahan says. “Getting people to our winery is the challenge we face on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.”
“Tourism is critical to our business,” Frisbee says. “The guests to our farm are composed of a little over 85 percent visitors to Western North Carolina and a little less than 15 percent from local traffic.”
Ward agrees, stating that on any given weekend, visitors from Atlanta, Charlotte, Tennessee, and upstate South Carolina will stop by.
In many cases several wineries may be located near each other, drawing in more tourists to the area.
“Wineries like to have company – the wineries feed each other,” Lanahan says. “We regularly refer our visitors to the other wineries in the area. We have become a destination for people from Greenville, Spartanburg, Columbia, and Charleston, South Carolina, plus Charlotte.”
These vintners all agree that providing a good experience for their visitors is important.
“We want people to understand and enjoy their wine,” Ward says. “Wine is made to enjoy.”
An Apple a Day
Where better to produce hard cider than in the heart of apple country? While hard cider is growing in popularity across the country, local cideries are attracted to Western North Carolina due to the bountiful crop of apples.
Alan Ward, the owner of Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards in Hendersonville, is so excited about apples that he is launching a new business, Appleachian Artisan Ciders, in time for this year’s apple season. He will produce traditional Normandy ciders.
“We get excited about cider, because we are in the heart of apple country,” he says.
Andrew Tate, president of the Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, shares that Henderson County has experienced recent growth in the cidery market and, of course, has a long history in the business of apple growing.
Most recently, Bold Rock Hard Cider announced a second production location in Henderson County, growing out of their main production facility in Nellysford, Virginia. The company considered locations in Eastern Tennessee, upstate South Carolina, and Western North Carolina before selecting Henderson County.
Cideries are having an impact on the local economy as well as agriculture. “Cideries create jobs, pay taxes, utilize local apple sources, and encourage tourism,” Tate says. “In this regard, cideries add value to many elements of our economy, encouraging traditional economic development measures like jobs and investment, but also overlapping with consumer and brand engagement driving visitor spending in the area.”
Tate says that cider currently holds a small market share compared to other beverages, estimated at maybe one percent in the United States. The hard cider market is however growing at a rate many times greater than other beverages (according to Nielson who tracks retail sales). Year over year sales growth has been strong over the past few years and shows no sign of curtailing. The Blue Ridge Apple Growers (Henderson County) produce about 85 percent of North Carolina’s apples, and North Carolina ranks seventh in apple production in the United States.
“Cideries are attracting visitors to the area as consumers explore the ‘branch to bottle’ concept of understanding the supply chain in their food and beverage choices,” Tate says.
Black Mountain Ciderworks is owned and operated by David Bowman and Jessica Puzzo-Bowman. When they realized that Hendersonville was full of apples, they decided to start a small cidery in the nearby Swannanoa Valley.
“Our goal was to produce cider more like that which we had at a street fair in England than what is mass-produced in the United Kingdom and America,” Puzzo-Bowman says.
“We get our apples from Henderson County orchards. During the harvest season, we purchase a few bins a week, take them to our cidery, and process them as quickly as possible (chopping and pressing the apples into juice). The season starts in August and goes through the end of the year, but apples are still available in cold storage until about March, so we press and chop from about August to March. It is very much a seasonal business since we don’t buy juice to ferment but rather produce the juice ourselves.”
Black Mountain Ciderworks produces mostly for their own tasting room and serve about 30 different ciders, meads, and cider-mead blends throughout the year. Their plan is to “stay small and grow organically, but never so big that we lose authenticity or are no longer able to do most of the production ourselves.”
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