With more breweries per capita than any U.S. city, Asheville, N.C., has become a sort of Napa Valley of beer. And at the third annual Asheville Beer Week this week, this tight-knit beer community is strutting its stuff with tastings of barrel-aged sour beers and fermented Chinese tea saisons, and chocolate truffle and beer pairings.
Outsiders have noticed that Asheville's locally owned, small-batch-beer scene is hot. And they want to join the party. The city is now getting a major infusion of new suds and cash as large out-of-state breweries come to town.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., based in Northern California and one of the largest breweries in the country, has opened a production facility just outside the city. New Belgium, of Fort Collins, Colo., is planning to open one here in late 2015. They follow Oskar Blues, a company from Lyons, Colo., that built a second location in the nearby town of Brevard in 2012.
While there have been a few quiet grumblings from locals, the city's brewing community has been surprisingly welcoming to the newcomers. Mike Rangel, president of Asheville Brewing Co., says he was initially nervous, but now sees the arrival of the big breweries as a net positive.
"In a small, cool place like Asheville, everyone is naturally going to be scared that anything big and foreign could spoil the paradise," he says.
But these concerns were allayed early on as the big breweries showed interest in supporting the local community, not overwhelming it, he says.
Oskar Blues, for example, has helped the local Blue Ridge Community College develop a brewing curriculum and offered up its own brewing space for use by students.
Sierra Nevada, which has plans to begin shipping in barley on a customized rail line, may make some of the grain available to local brewers, according to Ryan Arnold, a company spokesman. That grain could end up being cheaper than what the local brewers normally pay shipping it in by truck.
To woo its new neighbors, Sierra Nevada also hosted 14 Asheville breweries at its Chico, Calif., facility in 2012. The group made two new beers that were later released as collaborations, Arnold says.
New Belgium, as well, invited brewers from Asheville's Wicked Weed brewery to make a sour IPA. And New Belgium has made a rye-based IPA using grain from Riverbend Malt House, a brewing supplies outfit in Asheville.
Another collaboration beer came from Oskar Blues and Thirsty Monk Pub and Brewery, which teamed up to brew an IPA.
"It's been a real camaraderie thing," says Chall Gray, Thirsty Monk's vice president.
The big craft breweries' inroads into Asheville come at a time when craft beer nationwide is undergoing a transformation. As we've reported, the Brewers Association, a lobbying group for small brewers, has changed its definition of "craft brewer" to allow larger companies into the category.
That's stirred up some angst from microbrewers who say the craft beer designation should be reserved solely for the smallest beer-makers — those that may need the most support with lobbying and marketing.
Even in Asheville, there are undertones of resentment.
Jessica Reiser, co-founder of Burial Beer Co., says she is overall glad to be making beer alongside such nationally known breweries but has mixed feelings about the tax breaks.
"I know that North Carolina wants these breweries here and that it's good for tourism, but that's the one gray area for me," says Reiser.
Arnold of Sierra Nevada acknowledged the company has already received several million dollars in state support to help it build the brewery and generate jobs.
Jenn Vervier, New Belgium's director of strategy and sustainability in Fort Collins, says her brewery will be receiving nothing upfront but has "negotiated a certain incentive" with the city, county and state that will be based upon property tax reports and how many local residents New Belgium employs at the planned $150 million facility. She says the new brewery will employ 140 people, mostly locals.
But Arnold stressed that Sierra Nevada did not choose Asheville solely because it's getting some support from the state. Access to good water for brewing and the outdoors for employee recreation were key factors, he says.
New Belgium, too, says it was attracted to Asheville because employees and customers would be able to walk or bike to the brewery.
And Oskar Blues, which is not receiving government financial incentives, according to spokesman Chad Melis, is moving to the town of Brevard simply because its owners liked the area.
"We're from a place with great mountain biking, music, beer and adventure," Melis says. "We found a similar atmosphere out here. We knew we were growing, and we thought, rather than keep expanding our first brewery, it would be a hell of a lot more fun way to get bigger to become a part of a second small community."
Alastair Bland is a freelance writer based in San Francisco who covers food, agriculture and the environment.
Editor's note on May 29 at 1:43 p.m.: Ryan Arnold, a spokesman for Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, contacted The Salt to clarify his comments on his company's plans to make barley shipped by rail available to local brewers. An earlier version of the story stated that the barley would be available at "bargain" rates, when in fact Arnold was saying that the barley may be cheaper than what the local brewers can buy when they ship it by truck. Arnold also clarified the millions of dollars Sierra Nevada has received from the state of North Carolina were for building the brewery and generating employment.