Microbrewing In The Mountains Matures Despite Growing Pains

Feb 1, 2017

NPR will be in Asheville on Tuesday February 7th for the latest 'Going There' event.  Weekend All Things Considered host Michel Martin will lead a night of performances and discussion on the topic 'What Happens When Your Hometown Gets Hot?' at the Diana Wortham Theater.  Tickets for the event have sold out but there will be a live stream that night to watch.  You can also join the conversation on Twitter by following @NPRMichel and @WCQS using the hashtag #HotHometown.  In the week before the event, the WCQS news team will feature stories on issues facing Asheville because of its increasing popularity.

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Western North Carolina’s creative economy has fueled a lot of the growth in the region in recent years.  That includes the arts, music, food… and craft beer. The region has become a destination for beer-drinkers looking for inventive concoctions, energizing the industry in the process. But like all industries, the microbrew business has its share of challenges—stemming in part from its growing popularity.

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In America, beer is serious business. According to a 2014 study by The Beer Institute, the beer industry contributed some $253 billion to the economy. And of that industry’s market share, craft beer accounts for about twelve percent, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Nowhere else is this more evident than in North Carolina. In 2010, there were 45 breweries in the Tar Heel State. Today there are more than 170. In fact, there are more breweries in North Carolina than in any other state in the south. With an annual economic impact of $1.2 billion—equaling roughly 10,000 jobs—craft beer can be found just about anywhere in the state—particularly in Western North Carolina.

“Look at where we’re at. I mean, you can go outside on the porch, have a great beer and the scenery around,” that’s Chris White, head brewer of Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City.

“I mean I think it draws people. I think it’s a privilege to be in the same ballpark as that.”

Asheville is regularly voted Beer City, U.S.A., often beating out its rival city of Portland, Oregon. With 27 breweries or brewpubs in the area, the city boasts an inebriating ratio of one brewery for every 8,000 people. Most notably, craft brew giants New Belgium, Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada opened up shop in the mountain area last year.

To smaller brewers like Joe Roland, owner of Nantahala Brewing Company in Bryson City, their presence has helped cement the mountains as a bulwark of the craft beer industry.

Nantahala Brewing Company is among the many breweries popping up in the mountains of WNC. Founded in 2009, Nantahala can produce some 14,000 barrels of beer per year, and plans on expanding in 2017.
Credit Nantahala Brewing Company

“It’s the infrastructure. I mean, just Sierra Nevada or New Belgium alone are going to use so many resources in the malt and hops department that they have to have that support. To have three of them brought even more than we thought. It benefits all of us. There’s a lot of exciting things going on, and I think it’s just going to continue to grow in that way.”

The beer craze continues to grow. In the last five years, two new breweries were founded in Sylva, Bryson City and Franklin, and another in Andrews and Murphy. Just a decade or so ago, many of these counties were dry.

But as the industry matures, not everyone is as excited these days—particularly former brewers. It should be noted that WCQS was initially contacted by a few former brewers, with claims of mismanagement and stolen recipes in the industry, but have since declined interviews.

“I’ll tell you exactly why it’s hard to get anybody to talk. Nobody wants to burn bridges around here,” that’s Liz Nance, a former vice president of a brewing company in Western North Carolina. “The brew scene is a lot like the small towns around here. It’s very tight-knit, where everyone knows everyone. We all tend to help each other out.”

Nance says that the idea of getting into beer-making is an attractive one at first for most young people. Over the years however, she explains a lot of the passion some of them brought with them into the trade often translates into bitterness in equal measure later on, if things don’t turn out as they hope.

“A lot of folks don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into. It’s a physically demanding job, and not often very safe. Lots of heavy lifting. There’s lots of running around, bottling up beer, making orders. Lots of hard work that doesn’t fit with most people’s ideas of making beer. And, they’re doing this for not very much money.”

Down the road, Franklin brewer Noah McEntee is busy pumping the steam from a hot vat of malts into a big steel tank. He’s been working as a brewer for seven years now, and is in the process of starting his second brewery in Bryson City—Mountain Layers Brewing Company. He says the beer business is a glamour job for many starting out, but after a while, it has a way of weeding out lesser dedicated workers.

“A lot of brewers, when they get into it, think they’re gonna be rock stars, designing recipes and going to roll-outs, pouring beers for people that are cheering them on. And it’s not a lot of that. It’s a lot of early mornings and long brew days. It doesn’t pay well. Its production work. And someone else makes money on it—not you.”

It’s not hard for alcoholic beverage attorney Derek Allen to see why some former employees of the craft beer business can get so disgruntled, citing the passion that comes with the territory of brewing beer locally in the first place.

What’s it like working in food and beverage law?

“It’s a lot of fun, particularly in the craft beverage parts of it. The culture is very much an artist’s culture. The folks are interesting and diverse, love what they do, and they’re some of my favorite clients.”

Allen represents some 75 microbreweries, most of which are in North Carolina. He says if there are claims of stolen beer recipes, they don’t really make their ways into court.

“I don’t think it’s a part of the culture. Like with any art, you want to do something to set yourself apart, as opposed to imitating others. Does it happen? I’m sure it happens. Is it something that’s pervasive in the industry that rises to the level of a problem? I just don’t see it. To the extent that a recipe is some kind of trade secret, or qualifies as intellectual property—unless you have an agreement to the contrary, it’s going to belong to the company you’re working for.”

The areas in which the industry does find itself going to court have more to do with its growth, rather than creative disputes; like distribution agreements, interstate trade, acquisitions and trademarking products.

“I deal a lot with expansion right now. A few years back, it was more on the front-end of start-up breweries, now those breweries have started to mature and now we see expansion issues.”

While the craft beer industry continues to grow in Western North Carolina, by all accounts it appears to envision the future with the mountains as part of it.

“I think you will continue to hear terms like ‘hyperlocal’ in the craft brewing space, because folks like to have their own unique spot. That’s part of the fun, for both the brewers and the customers is finding the next new unique thing. Those limits will never be exceeded.”