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Business & Economy

The New Hub For Hops: Western NC

A picture of a bottle and a pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

In less than five years the number of craft beer breweries in North Carolina has more than doubled. From Manteo to the mountains - tasting rooms, tap houses and local seasonal drafts are pouring in. Asheville now has more breweries per capita than anywhere in the country. 

North Carolina now produces more craft beer than any state south of Pennsylvania and east of Texas. There are now almost 110 breweries and more than 10,000 industry jobs across the state. As the beer culture here has grown, some outsiders have taken notice. Three major craft breweries now call the Asheville area home; or, their home away from home.

"For us it was an issue of capacity," said Brian Simpson, with New Belgium Brewing, based in Colorado. A few weeks ago ground was broken on an East Coast brewery in West Asheville. This is the newest arrival to the region. And New Belgium is the third largest craft brewer in the U.S.

"So in Fort Collins we were bouncing up to 500,000 barrels, and if we wanted to add any more volume we would need another facility. So it made sense to go on the east coast because we’re not currently distributed north of Washington D.C. now on the eastern sea board, so this serves the purpose well for carbon footprint, shipping, all that," Simpson said.

Asheville is within a thousand miles of Chicago, Boston, Miami and Houston. Having an East Coast arm allows the breweries to reach new markets, deliver a fresher product and be more cost-efficient when it comes to logistics.

"Shipping beer across country is not the most sustainable thing," said Brian Grossman, a second-generation brewer at Sierra Nevada, founded 34 years ago in Chico, California.

"Glass is heavy, the beer is heavy and you gotta go from California across the Rockies to whatever other state you’re going to. So we said we probably should put a brewery on the East Coast," he added.

Sierra Nevada settled on a 185 acre site in Mills River just outside of Asheville. Sierra Nevada is the second biggest craft brewer in the country - it produced about a million barrels of beer in 2013. Being a craft brewer generally means you produce less than six million barrels of beer a year. A barrel of beer is the equivalent of 32 U.S. Gallons. Sierra Nevada’s new production facility will alleviate some of the strain in Chico.

"We’ve been running the equipment pretty hard, we’ve been running the teams pretty hard out there. So it’s sort of time to take a little breather and do some much needed maintenance and R&R," said Grossman.

The Sierra Nevada machines in North Carolina are also working to manipulate beer’s main ingredient, water.  

"This right here is a dosing system right here … calcium chloride right here that were dosing in-line. So, we’re just going to impregnate it in there and we’re going to get it in our mash water," Grossman explained, while walking through the expansive new production facility, using a little bit of inside brewery baseball. He’s talking about the nuances of making beer – cauldrons, mash water and chemical compounds. In layman’s terms:

"So in essence we had to mimic Chico’s water," he added.

In an effort to be consistent, Grossman says Sierra wants its water to have an almost identical chemical make-up and pH balance as it does in California.

"Not all water is equal, so it’s what’s in the water. So the water out here in western North Carolina – and the aquifers that we’re on, we actually drilled our own wells out here – is extremely soft, extraordinarily soft; which is a great thing and a bad thing," explained Grossman.

Before opening this plant Sierra Nevada took water samples from all over the region and did analysis in its lab. They wanted to make sure they could deal with the good and the bad. So brew masters add mineral content – calcium chloride, which is a salt. Grossman says consistency is the ultimate sign of a great brewer. A few miles away in Brevard Oskar Blue’s Brewery has been treating the water for about two years.

"When we first started brewing here, yeah, there was a remarkable difference, but we’ve really taken a lot of steps to match those flavors. And I would say now in a given tasting panel it’s really hard to pick out the two," said Eric Baumann,east coast Director of Fermentation and Quality Control.

Oskar Blue’s started in Colorado where the water used for production comes from Mountain run-off. In North Carolina the brewery uses local municipal water to make the well known Dale’s Pale Ale and other styles.

"It’s very similar; however, typically when you’re looking at water it’s also how the city is treating the water. And what we found here is there quite a bit more chlorine. And so we’ve had to put in a charcoal filtration to remove the chlorine," said Baumann

For years, Oskar Blues was shipping about half of the beer it made to the East Coast. Baumann says the mimicking of Colorado water was inexpensive and a minor hurdle in the process. Since expanding east the company has seen major growth and is coming off its busiest month ever.

"Having these three major expansion breweries come to North Carolina is an awfully nice compliment to the craft beer industry that already existed here," said Margo Knight Metzger, Executive Director of the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild. She’s quick to mention the success of other, smaller breweries in Durham, Wilmington and Winston-Salem; and notes that there is plenty of room for everyone.

"When people talk about a craft beer bubble I just sort of chuckle, because when you think about the grand scheme of beer sales in the country – craft makes up eight percent. Ninety-two percent is the other stuff, so we have a lot of room to grow," she added.

Some of that growth is of course taking place at new and already existing breweries. Another dozen are expected to open in the state by the end of the year. The industry is expanding elsewhere. Rockingham County Community College recently announced it will offer an associate’s degree in brewing and distilling; leaders in Rocky Mount have unveiled plans to convert an empty cotton mill into the state’s first craft beer incubator and Metzger believes the craft beer tourism possibilities are largely untapped.

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