Chapel Hill, N.C. — Margo Metzger describes it as a movement – a Southern craft beer movement. Bill Manley calls it a Renaissance.
“Craft brewing right now all over the country, and to some extent, all over the world, is really going through a renaissance. It’s exploding everywhere,” said Manley, beer ambassador for Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which recently opened a brewing facility – its second – in Mills River, N.C. “You really don’t have to go far to find a really excellent beer anywhere in the country now.”
Metzger, executive director of the N.C. Craft Brewers Guild, said North Carolina is at the forefront of the Southern response to a national trend in craft brewing.
“It’s starting to gain some recognition nationally as a great place for craft beer,” she said.
Between 2010 and 2014, the number of breweries in the state almost tripled, rising from 43 to 124, according to data from the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.
The Brewers Association found that North Carolina craft beer sales had an economic impact of $791.1 million in 2012 – a figure that placed it at 14th in the country.
Metzger said the 2006 Pop the Cap campaign — which raised the state’s alcohol by volume cap from 6 percent to 15 percent – was pivotal for North Carolina’s burgeoning brewing scene because it made the effort of brewing worthwhile.
“It made all the difference, and if we can continue to be progressive like that, gosh, the sky’s the limit,” she said.
North Carolina has the eighth highest excise tax on beer in the United States – something Metzger describes as a burden on small brewers. The state also places a 25,000barrel limit on a brewery’s annual selfdistribution. By comparison, California and Colorado both allow unlimited selfdistribution, and New York sets the cap at 100,000 barrels.
“There are probably close to 20 states that either have unlimited selfdistribution or allow a greater amount than we do,” Metzger said. “And when you look at it in the South, we look pretty good, but I’m not satisfied with comparing us to the South. If we’re going to be what I believe we can be — which is a mecca for East coast beer — if we want to set our sights on that, then we’ve got to be more progressive.”
When customers dine at the Fearrington House Restaurant in Pittsboro, N.C., they sample root vegetables grown on the property, eat wild beef sourced from local farms, and drink beer – a seasonal pecan coffee porter – that is brewed at Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery using coffee beans roasted at Fearrington Village and pecans grown on its own trees.
The experience is both fresh and hyper local, unlikely to be replicated exactly in any other restaurant. And that’s the idea.
Xavyer Burroughs, sommelier for the Fearrington wine team, sees it as a part of the farm to table movement in a restaurant culture that now includes beverages – like beer.
“It's a cool snapshot into the ingredients, kind of what grows up here in North Carolina – in this small part of North Carolina,” he said.
The state’s unique landscape and agricultural resources are part of what has positioned North Carolina to be a force in the brewing industry.
“I think North Carolina’s been a pretty strong state in terms of craft beer acceptance, even I think a real shift toward the local food movement here that stems from having such rich agriculture here, and it’s changed people’s attitudes about caring about where their food
comes from,” Metzger said. “And I think that translates also into beverages.”
Suzanne Brown, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Commerce, thinks that’s a part of the draw for tourism — an industry that brought $20.1 billion to the state in 2013.
“So many of our breweries use local ingredients and reflect the landscape and the history and the agriculture of our state,” Brown said. “It’s a great part of our tourism product because it relates on so many different levels. It’s not just one beautiful thing, but it draws from a lot of
This spring, Sierra Nevada will enter the final phases of opening its Mills River facility, utilizing its 200-acre location in the mountains by adding hiking trails and biking paths that will contribute to the brewery’s reputation as a destinationstyle brewery.
“I think that you track a lot of this to the state’s natural assets,” Brown said. “All of this really does have to do with this land and what comes off it, whether it’s the beauty and the recreation or what’s grown.”
Sierra Nevada’s Mills River location was designed with tourism in mind, from recreation to brewery tours.
“In a lot of ways, I think to people, making beer is — it’s like magic, you know?” Manley said. “You take things that don’t seem to really make much sense together, and you put them together, and all of a sudden, you’ve got beer. And you know, who doesn’t like beer?”
A Southern Shift
Despite the newly popular craft brewing trend, Sierra Nevada – based in Chico, Calif. – has been brewing since the early 1980s.
Looking to expand, Manley said the company weighed the cost, difficulty and environmental impact of continuing to ship beer to the East Coast, where sales were picking up, and chose to find a second facility somewhere east of the Mississippi River.
The company looked for access to the outdoors, a good music scene, affordable housing, good schools and communities committed to renewable resources and alternative energy creation — components he described as the ethos of a brewery.
Though they hadn’t intended to move anywhere with a regional brewing operation, like Asheville, the Sierra Nevada owners found an ideal piece of land and the approval they wanted from the Asheville Brewers Alliance.
“It’s really cool to have this kind of community of likeminded people who are around all the time that you can kind of bounce ideas off of and get advice back and forth and really kind of share that collective love of beer,” Manley said. “As such, you can go into any bar or gas
station, frankly, in town and find great craft beer available from local breweries.”
The location has everything to do with it.
The ABC Commission counts a total of 125 brewing permits currently issued in the state – the largest number of which have been issued in Buncombe County, home to Asheville, a former Beer City USA whose reputation for beer precedes it.
“You really feel like it’s woven into the fabric of what it’s like to live in Asheville,” Manley said.
And the water in the area is ideal – it’s soft and it keeps a relatively constant temperature year-round.
“In other words, off the shelf, without doing any treatment, you can brew with it and make really good beer,” Manley said.
Metzger isn’t surprised by the interest in moving brewing operations to North Carolina.
“It makes sense, if they’re going to expand, to expand east. And when you look at North Carolina, it’s in a pretty sweet spot — about halfway between New York and Florida. The water’s good. It’s progressive at least in terms of the south, so it’s an attractive spot,” Metzger
said. “And it’s an awfully nice compliment to North Carolina to have these big craft brewers moving in, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a few more set up shop here, and we’re happy to have them.”
A New Culture
Nancy Williams, an Asheville resident of 38 years, doesn’t drink beer.
“I don’t like it all. I really tried to like it,” she said. “I just don’t like the taste.”
She said she was originally skeptical of the growing interest in bars and beer around her. It was her son, a craft beer enthusiast, who introduced her to a culture she now appreciates.
“It’s just very, very different from going to a darkened bar with one TV and a neon sign in the back that says some beer name,” she said. “It’s a hobbyist kind of thing — a lot of people get together and drink. And I think also the lines are blurring between bar and restaurant; a lot of breweries often have pretty decent food here.”
Williams describes Asheville as two cities in one: home to longtime residents as much as young transplants, beer enthusiasts and abstainers alike.
“I think it’s a turnoff to some of the people who are from here and have always lived here and, now, what our city’s known for is beer,” she said. “Just a lot of folks who live in western North Carolina feel like they don’t understand it, and some of them just think, ‘Gosh, isn’t there
something we can be known for other than beer?”
It has the tendency to overshadow other attractive things about the town, she said.
“Based on years ago, growing up in dry counties, I thought bars are kind of where people get together to drink,” Williams said. “But I think here, people get together to socialize, and the beer is kind of part of it.”
Williams recently attended a birthday party for a 1-year-old at Asheville’s Bywater Bar – a location she found to be surprisingly appropriate for the occasion. And she said she’s doing her part to bring friends to breweries to test out what she thinks is a positive atmosphere.
“You’d have to be under a rock to not notice the rise of craft beer in this state, and you’d be remiss if you didn’t recognize the positive impact that it has in so many ways on jobs, on tourism, on quality of life, on North Carolina’s image around this country,” Metzger said. “We’re part of North Carolina’s image, and it gives us some credibility. We’ve already got a great culinary scene here, and adding some of the best craft brewing in the country to that, it makes people want to come here.”