Asheville has had a reputation for being a little quirky for years. Rolling Stone Magazine once called it, “The new freak capital of the U.S.” based on its residents’ reputation for celebrating individuality. That was just six years after the first post-Prohibition brewery opened its doors in 1994. A slew of world-class beer producers soon joined that first brewery, Highland Brewing Company, helping the area develop a reputation for the frothiest of industries, and further cementing Asheville’s reputation for doing things their own way. Today, beer is big business, creating a major splash to the local economy.
Quick growth gets noticed
“I think when this craft beer industry first got started in Asheville, back in the early to mid-90s, it was just a blip in the economic development sector and wasn’t taken too seriously,” says Anne Fitten Glenn. A 15-year Asheville resident, Glenn is the “Beer Communicatrix” for Oskar Blues Brewery (which added a location in the area in 2013) and author of Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing. “But as the industry has grown,” she says, “The folks who run things around here definitely have taken notice. Sales, taxes and jobs tend to do that.”
Soon even beer enthusiasts outside of North Carolina were noticing. In 2009, the relatively small community was voted “Beer City USA” in an online poll. They went on to win the next four years in a row. Glenn says the area’s love affair with beer is partly about quantity. “On any day in western North Carolina, you can try literally hundreds of different styles of locally crafted brews from more than 20 different breweries. Although I’m not recommending you do that.”
The future looks frothy
The growth of the craft beer industry shows no sign of slowing, either. In 2013, New Belgium Brewery began construction on a new facility in Asheville. New Belgium and their flagship beer Fat Tire were the third-largest craft brewery in the country as of 2013, and the eighth-largest beer producer overall. They aren’t alone in their investment in the area, either.
Wicked Weed Brewing recently opened a second location, The Funkatorium, and is planning a $5 million expansion. Hi-Wire Brewing also plans to open a new brewing facility. Green Man Brewery is planning a $4 million expansion that will include a 17,000-square-foot packaging plant with a rooftop beer garden, and Asheville Brewing is in the process of adding more tanks to meet the high demand for its beer.
The rate of growth has been so tremendous that Asheville is widely listed as having the highest number of breweries per capita in the nation. With no fewer than 17 breweries, and the latest U.S. Census Bureau listing the population of the town at 87,236, that’s an astonishing one brewery for every 5,100 people.
A history of beer
According to Glenn, Asheville’s love affair with the frothy arts is a long and fruitful one. She says, “The area of Asheville down around Barley’s Taproom and The Orange Peel was saloon central at the turn of the 20th century. There were at least 18 bars and saloons serving alcohol to thirsty citizens in what came to be known as Hell’s Half-Acre for its rowdy licentiousness.”
Since the days of dusty cowboys and tobacco farmers, Asheville has been serving its residents cold ones. And with the continued investment by some of the industry’s leading names, whether it’s official or not, the city’s place as Beer City USA is set.