Under the Influence 46

The Impact of the Beer Industry on Asheville’s Community & Culture

Three brewers and the Chamber of Commerce walk into a bar…

It’s not a joke. We gathered three brewers from hugely disparate breweries to talk about their industry and its impact on our community. The roundtable, facilitated by Ben Teague, COO of the Chamber of Commerce, included Ward Beveridge of nearby mega-brand Bold Rock Hard Cider, Chris Frosaker of longtime local favorite Hi-Wire Brewing, and John Silver, who just opened Homeplace Beer Co. to the north in Burnsville.

Bringing three different experiences—and three cold beers—to the table, these brewers poured up an introspective glass of brew.

Ben Teague, Executive Director Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce: The brewery industry is totally different from your other industries, it’s got a culture to it, everybody seems to be super passionate about it. How do you relate that culture to your work and how do you maintain that culture as you grow?

Ward Beveridge, Senior Cider Maker, Bold Rock Hard Cider: We’ve definitely seen a lot of growth and it’s been a learning experience. We started in a barn with six tanks five years ago, we didn’t know how the growth was gonna go but our five-year plan turned into our year-and-a-half, where-are-we-gonna-make-more-cider plan. I’m sure everybody kind of has that.

Trying to keep the culture, trying to stay craft and hit the craft image while producing a lot of cider has been a challenge. People are saying “they can’t really be craft anymore,” well, come down to the cidery and see the 66,000 pounds of apples we get delivered every week. We try to keep it as craft as possible while still maintaining a high level of production. The other day, I called Henry Childs, he’s up in Virginia, he’s a broker basically for apples, and I said “I need 20 more bins as fast as you can get ’em here,” and he said “alright, they’ll be there in 20 minutes. All they gotta do is load the truck.” Very local, a lot of Henderson County apples, that’s one of the reasons why we’re doing this is because of the apples. When we first talked about opening up a second location I said it’s gotta be in Asheville or near Asheville because it’s just the brewing mecca of the East, really. I didn’t even know Henderson County was the apple capital of the East. That worked out pretty well for us.

Chris Frosaker, Owner, Hi-Wire Brewing: Company culture as we grow is probably one of the hardest things we do. Kind of like Bold Rock, we’ve grown a lot quicker than we ever imagined. We’re not even four years old yet and our median sales production level… We’re struggling to keep up, which means we’re usually short staffed, we’re working really, really hard, the feel of the company right now is much different than it was four years ago. For us to try to keep that light-hearted, good-natured vibe, we have to work at it. Otherwise you get blinders up, it’s all about production and you turn into a tire factory or something where everyone’s miserable, and you don’t ever want to do that. It’s a fine balance. Trying to really schedule time to get together, everybody in here gets along, they’re all friends. People who work here are people I want here. We gotta keep it light while at the same time focusing on getting it done.

In terms of beer culture, I think Asheville is a really special place. We’ve definitely created a really special thing where breweries and cideries keep opening. People ask, “well how is that possible?” I think a lot of it’s because of the culture. We all get along, we’re in an area where the locals respect it and we’ve created a critical mass where it’s a major tourist draw now. There are millions of people who come to Asheville to try our beer and cider. It’s pretty special.

John Silver, Owner & Brewer, Homeplace Beer Co.: We are very much in our infancy. This is our third week, brand-spanking new. We’re a very lean operation now. During my tenure here at Hi-Wire I definitely learned a lot that I would like to take to Homeplace.

Our plans are very conservative, I basically created Homeplace around the hometown brewery model, set up shop and cater to the area. It’s easy to become the local spot. We really launched that pretty well in Burnsville. Burnsville’s a really small town, but there’s a very strong local culture there and they were very much hungry for [something like this].

We’ve been overwhelmed by the response, we just had our first live music night the other night. As far as having a hub for people to come, listen to music, it’s a pretty standard model for breweries these days to have some outdoor games, that sort of thing. Our model is basically built on creating that sort of positive retail experience but also, longterm, growing where we have upwards of 20-30… our goal is very humble, we only need to brew like 150 barrels. Our brewery is about 600 barrels at capacity. There are places in Burnsville, old warehouses that can be refabbed, redone, sublet out for us to grow int in five years.

But for now we’re really just trying to nail that local-first aspect. Every beer we make has a local element. It’s either local honey, local herbs, wildflowers, our gose we make with local salt, so everything we do is trying to highlight Yancey County, which is an area that’s sort of forgotten. We’re trying to get more people up there to see our town, the playhouse, trying to find our niche in all that.

Teague: I’ve always been interested in the beer industry, by how they collaborate. How do you handle that, how does that work?

Frosaker: At the end of the day it’s just beer. I try to tell myself that all the time. Things get hectic around here, “it’s just beer.” So when we’re working and dealing with other breweries we say it again, “it’s just beer.” We get along on a personal level with every brewery in town. Everybody’s great, everybody’s working really hard to do their own thing, but at the end of the day, beer is a communal, collaborative thing. People drink beer together, they go out after work to get a beer together, so it’s just beer. Keep it fun, keep it light. There’s plenty of beer market share out there owned by big national conglomerates that I would love to take their shared space, we can all be friends, craft beer together.

Silver: When we set up shop in Burnsville, the Blind Squirrel, which is in ___ County, they’d just recently opened an outpost in Burnsville, which is a pretty big deal for our little town when they did it, and people flocked to it, they loved it. They have a great little restaurant, all the beers on tap. And then when we opened, I’d known the Blind Squirrel guys for a while and they wanted to know if we needed anything, and vice versa, but everybody who comes in is like, “Well aren’t you guys in competition?” It’s funny, it never is that way, especially for a small community. With more stuff coming in, that feeds off each other.

Beveridge: It’s a little bit of a different story for us because we are a cidery, we’re not super competitive with any brewery because we’re putting out a different product. I did a collaboration with Sanctuary, which went over pretty well, it’s a very small brewery. Then we did one just recently with Catawba which is pretty cool, just a sour apple pale, threw in a lot of juice and kept testing it till we got something we liked. We’ve gotten a lot of help from different people. Devil’s Backbone is right down the road in Virginia, our original place, and they were giving us all kinds of resources, all different names of people to call… Blue Mountain Brewery, they helped us out, and now we’re here and we’ve gotten welcomed with open arms here as well, it’s been great.

Teague: The beer industry is adding a lot to our economy, plus tourism and our brand, getting our community out there to the nation. Do you feel like with all of this growth—have we topped out as a community? Is there room for somebody else?

Silver: I always used to think that there’s more room for good beer. I used to think there was more disparity as far as quality, but these days every brewery for the most part is putting out quality product. I don’t know if the bubble is coming, but surely it’s there somewhere. As a casual observer, I don’t know where that is, but the way I look at it is Asheville is continuing to grow crazy amounts every year, more and more people want to move here, if there’s more breweries on the way, if they make great beer and they have a neighborhood feel, they’ll be successful. There’s still other areas of Asheville that are still developing as beer hubs, like the Hillman area, that’s a whole new area for breweries. There’s probably other areas, like South Asheville towards Fletcher. As it fleshes out, there’s got to be some point where breweries do become oversaturated, but as far as what I’m doing and what I see a lot of folks doing is, maybe not necessarily within an hour of here, but as you get further out there’s still space. There’s still plenty of those communities.

Frosaker: I definitely echo the quality piece. I think there’s always going to be room for quality product. Asheville has a lot of quality product, a lot of other markets do not. I was just in Nashville and Dallas and Austin, and the general overall quality is low, I had some really bad quality beer in those towns that I was in. And so as time goes on, if you’re making quality product there’s room for you. Being from Asheville, Asheville itself is a brand name now. That’s a foot in the door for us, we’re from Asheville, “Oh you’re from Asheville? I love Asheville, there’s great beer in Asheville.” So we can kind of ride that coattail and I’m happy to do it. We’ve become as known for our quality products, as we have for being innovative, for being fun.

The second piece of the question I think is realistic expectations. Not everybody can go out and become a Sierra Nevada. Those days are over. I think the days of a brewery becoming becoming national—maybe one in a hundred. I think being realistic about where you’re at, like John’s business model is awesome, he wants to be your local brewery, there’s always room for that. Hi-Wire needs to be realistic; we’re never going to be national, it’s just not gonna happen. It costs too much money, there’s too much competition, so realizing that now and realizing where we want to be in 5-10 years, we can make realistic decisions and continue to grow healthily, strongly, and as well as smart. Don’t wanna grown too fast.

Beveridge: There’s gotta be a bubble somewhere, but I don’t really see it. I live over in West Asheville and they’ve opened up a brewery up the road, another one, then there’s UpCountry, they’re starting to can soon, there’s always room for growth here. Like Chris was saying, just the name Asheville itself, you talk to a distributor or someone and you say, “Oh yeah, we’re in Asheville,” and that automatically means something because there’s so many breweries here you have to be quality or else you’re not gonna last here. And everyone that is around’s doing great, it’s flourishing still, even with 72? That’s a crazy number. When I first moved here I thought there’s no way that people can just keep opening up breweries and I was wrong, cause they keep doing it and people keep going.

Reiber: It seems like the supply chain is growing around it.

Frosaker: White Labs just moved here, and malt supplier River Bend Malt House, started here, so we have local North Carolina malt. People are coming to us, which is awesome. It helps us save money, makes life easier, I don’t have to ship our yeast across the country anymore, we can drive across town to get it.

Teague: The Chamber helps these companies, we help breweries but we’re switching our support to some of the innovation pieces, like White Labs, but what do y’all think is next for the industry here? Growth in the supply chain, innovation pieces?

Frosaker: I think what’s next is what John’s doing up in Burnsville. I think it’s hyper-local. I think what we’re doing, which is expanding geographical distribution, as well as Bold Rock, is going to become harder and harder as new breweries and new cideries open. It’s gonna be harder to get distribution, to get shelf space, so I think where it’s going to go is serving your neighborhood. Even down to the fact that South Asheville I don’t think has a brewery yet. Somebody’s gonna open there and really own that area.

I think it’s gonna be expanding out to smaller towns. We have some friends out in Sylva, Innovation Brewing, they, for lack of a better term, own that town. Everybody loves them, it’s their social spot. It’s where people get out to have a good time, it’s their Friday night. I think it’s going to become more and localized, down to the point where it could even be my “two-block” brewery.

Silver: When we first wrote our business plan, it was very conservative expectation-wise on the retail side of things because I just didn’t know how much more we would have locally, for the first six months to year, but we’ve had so much support locally that I’ve had to shift focus away from getting our distribution up and going and focus more on getting our taproom right, the logistics and all that, making sure everybody’s happy there. I’m curious to see just how—this kind of goes back to the previous answer, if you make quality beer there’s a place for you—I’m curious to see, as far as trends, just how fragmented the types of breweries become, as far as who’s niche are they serving, what type of clientele are they serving. You know, you have Wicked Weed, Fonta Flora, to some extent Burial, they’re very niche-sour products, and I’m wondering just how long those are going to be niche products. They’re not really even niche anymore because they’re like the hit thing to consume and to purchase, these small batch sour beers. And you know Hi-wire certainly got that running a year or so ago with their sour program. But it’s still a relatively small part of the business. Anytime somebody asks me, “What are you doing,” it’s almost immediately followed by, “Are you doing sours?” Well, we’re doing some, but you know that’s not what we’re really based on.

The more and more those specialty and funky beers become more and more accepted wide-scale, it’ll be interesting to see how many breweries can still survive just opening and serving ESBs, porters and pale ales, because there are hundreds of versions of those that are totally popular and great. If you’re competing in a place like Asheville, honestly that’s one of the reasons I decided to go to my hometown of Burnsville and do what I’m doing, I knew just from a business perspective what the expectations would have been.

I mean, if you open in Asheville now to move the needle you’ve gotta start with a very ambitious goal, a very ambitious set of ideas of what you wanna do. Some of the new breweries that are popping up—Euresco, Zollacoa, some of these that aren’t even open yet—their whole plan is centered on creating a whole gamut of funky, weird beers and creative, imaginative things. And I wanted to do just a little bit of that, and also focus on just bringing craft beer in general to a small community. I think that’s where the bubble might be if there is one, is in how the fragmenting of particular styles and what types of beer and clients you’re trying to serve and how that plays in a market that’s saturated with other types of beer. The other beers that are still growing, like the wilds and the sours, there’s a lot of growth there.

Beveridge: That’s one of the things we’ve looked into as well, where is the growth here other than just sticking with the mainstream stuff, and what drives customers out there is small-batch stuff. Innovative things, just coming out with something that nobody’s seen before. Because sure, you can make great beer, and you’ll do great, but you’re not going to get a lot of crazy publicity for just something that everybody else is doing. So you need a small innovation tank where you come out with something new that no one’s done before or that’s gonna get people excited about the product or reenergize your brand name. Especially in an area like this, to open up a small brewery and do something wild that people haven’t seen before, that’s gonna do great.

Silver: These products, like the the bottles you guys [Hi-Wire] are doing, are pushing and elevating the cachet of the core brands.

Frosaker: Yeah, the sales of our specialty beers are 1-2% of what we do, but it’s all we talk about. We have one to two new beers every month, and every month there’s something new. We’re brewing Pink Drink right now, a sour with lemongrass, it’s supposed to be like pink lemonade. People go nuts over it. We only do a couple hundred cases and it sells out instantly, all while pushing our Brown Ale and our IPA and our Lager. These beers that are our bread and butter, that are building our company, are just kind of in the background doing their thing. People get really excited about the new releases and for a split-second they think about Hi-Wire, oh lager, I’ll grab it. Propels our company.

Teague: Looking forward and what’s next, but of you had to look back and say I was gonna give some advice to those looking to get into the brewery industry, what are your lessons learned?

Frosaker: I could probably write a book on this (laughs). Things we would do again: start out with a product that not a lot of your local competition are making, so for us that was lagers. Very few craft breweries were making craft lagers at the time and that’s still kind of the case. We’ve been on the forefront of that. I would do that again, have a niche product. I would also start packaging for grocery store distribution, assuming it was the same business plan, I would do that again, it got our name out there really quick.

On the other hand, things that I would do differently: both of those things cost a lot of money, I would start with a lot more money. There’s a saying in beer, “If you wanna make a million dollars in beer you better start with two.” It’s the truth. These breweries are very, very expensive, especially when you’re trying to grow. We just added two more tanks unexpectedly, and that’s a big bill, to fund that out of cash flow is very difficult, but we’re doing it and managing to get by. We’ve got some used equipment out there and we keep it running, we have very talented handy employees who fix things. Also looking back—this is going to sound crazy cause this is our bread and butter—but I would probably take a more local approach, I’m not sure I’d be this big distribution brewery. I don’t regret anything we did, four years ago this made sense, but if I were starting today I would say do not try it. Unless you are an award-winning, world-class brewer with a name already behind you, if you’re just a homebrewer off the street, don’t try to become a big distributor.

Beveridge: A couple things I think we did right. Find some investors, cause as he said you’re gonna need some money, a lot more than you ever thought. You can write down all the prices and you can cost everything out, but it’s gonna be probably twice that by the time you get done. You’re gonna forget little things and those little things add up. Pay attention to your core brand, and get a solid core of products. Our Carolina apple, Carolina draft IPA, those are going to be core brands and they’re gonna stay core brands, so you push those while coming out with smaller, innovative things at the same time. But don’t ever expect to push those out of being your core. You don’t want to cannibalize what you want to be your core.

A couple of things that I would do differently. Be realistic with what you can do and how fast you can do it, or else you start shorting orders and making promises you can’t keep, and it’s just impossible. And get some sleep (laughs), don’t work yourself to death. Once you get really into something and you start loving what you do and you’re passionate about it, you kind of forget that you have a life outside of it for a little bit, and you need to know when to slow down or you’re gonna start not liking your job anymore.

Silver: I think if I could do it over—we’re obviously still so young—but I know automatically that if I could have done something different I would have had a much larger operating capital right out of the gate so I’d be able to hire more people, to hire qualified people. I think there was a sense that I could do a lot of this myself, and while I’ve been able to crawl along with a lot of the tasks that needed to be done, we could have been much further along by now and much more entrenched in what’s going on if I’d had the capital to hire a PR person or a sales person from the beginning. A lot of people do that when they know. Our guest tap is Ginger’s Revenge, they’re doing it right. Now they’re sort of fine tuning their brewery and their bottling machine and they’re not sweating the front of the house, it is what it is. They’re putting all their time and resources into making sure they have good quality help to make the product and a good engineer type on hand at all times to get their bottling line going, whereas I’m just wearing too many hats really. So that’s one thing I would definitely recommend if someone starts a brewery is don’t think you can do it all because you can’t. Even if you can multi-task and do a lot of different things, budget at least a year’s salary for a qualified individual to be there to partner up along the way. That’s just gonna make you more money in the long run, gonna give you more time to be out doing other things you need to be doing.

You make a small fortune by starting with a big fortune, is the old adage, like Chris said. That, from what I’ve heard, is the most common mistake for breweries and a lot of industries is they start undercapitalized. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a brewery starting up underneath the umbrella of what they thought they’d spend, it’s always time and a half, two times as much We’re definitely right around the time-and-a-half what we thought we’d spend, and a lot of that could have been used for upstart operating capital. We’re getting comfortable with where our retail is to where I can walk away and start doing these other things. Within the next six months or less I’m going to hire a full-time tasting room manager and a full-time assistant brewer, and that’s what I should have had in place in the beginning.