Craft brewery boom requires more than just a tasty beverage

Noah McIntee (left) and Kevin Sandefur (right) flash a smile while enjoying local beers at the AVL Beer Expo Saturday night. Photo by John Mallow.
Noah McIntee (left) and Kevin Sandefur (right) flash a smile while enjoying local beers at the AVL Beer Expo Saturday night. Photo by John Mallow.

A brewery boom ferments in Asheville, but without finesse, brewery owners in Western North Carolina say the industry will suffer.
“Right now, there’s still a lot of breweries opening up that don’t have a clue what they’re doing. And, no offense to home brewers, but it’s home brewers goin’ pro. It’s investors trying to make a quick buck and trying to hire anyone with a pulse. That will not last,” said Noah McIntee, head brewer and general manager at Lazy Hiker Brewing Company of Franklin, North Carolina.
Big business buying into craft beer harms the industry, according to Kevin Sandefur, founder and president of BearWaters Brewing Co. of Waynesville, North Carolina.
“What’s happening in the craft beer industry is what happens to everything that is cool and trendy; money comes in and ruins it, and that’s what’s happening now,” Sandefur said. “Venture capitalist firms are looking at this industry and saying, ‘I can make money here.’”
Injecting massive amounts of money into a brewery does not guarantee a quality product, Sandefur said.
“It has no soul, no story. It just has a bunch of money behind it and not a lot of know-how,” Sandefur said.
Running a successful brewery requires consistency, and quality also plays a large role, McIntee said.
“You cannot keep turning out crappy beers, infected beers, inconsistent beers and thinking you’re gonna build a consistent, solid brand,” McIntee said. “That will go away, and breweries that haven’t learned a lesson, they will go away. Breweries that don’t know that when they go into the market won’t last long.”
Maintaining quality across the board remains an important component of brewing great beer said Claude Matkin, manager of Green Man Brewery’s taproom, Dirty Jack’s, in Asheville, North Carolina.
“It’s consistency, completely and utterly,” Matkin said. “The fact that we can consistently provide that quality of the same beer is what allows breweries to grow.”
The beer scene in Asheville allows for experimentation with different styles, rather than sticking to the standards, Matkin said.
“What’s kind of fun with Asheville is, you have all these new breweries doing smaller production of different types of styles of ales or saisons or things of that nature,” Matkin said. “It’s kind of crazy to watch. Before, it’s been traditional lagers and things of that nature. Just to see beer take this huge explosion and experimental path, it’s been fun.”
Success depends on creating a quality product, but a market saturated with breweries presents another set of problems. The beer industry could support an influx of craft breweries, according to Jeff Irvin, brewing, distillation and fermentation director at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
“The way I view it is, before Prohibition, we had roughly 12 million people in the United States of America. We had somewhere over 2,000 breweries,” Irvin said. “We have roughly 3,500 breweries now and close to, what, 300 million people. If we do the math, we should be able to sustain 12,000 breweries. That being said, that’s a little bit, I think, gratuitous.”
Asheville breweries, and fermented beverages in general, show no signs of slowing down, according to Irvin.
You have all this interest and all this excitement in the fermentation industry,” Irvin said. “There’s nine hard cideries in the area. There’s someone making sake. There’s some great wineries.”
Kirstin Russ, solutions specialist at Congruent Concepts & Solutions, said the beer boom in Asheville allowed Congruent to diversify the services it offers, catering to breweries that require special welding techniques on their equipment in order to meet food safety standards.
“We joined the alliance about two to three weeks ago, and this was sort of an opportunity to kind of test the waters and see what kind of demand there was,” Russ said. “I understand that for sanitary welding in particular there aren’t that many welders in town, so brewers have to have that, so we thought that might be an opportunity.”
Congruent also has ties to the beverage industry, Russ said, which prompted them to test out the brewing industry.
“Our owner has a really good background in the distribution side of beverages and automation related to that. Those were the leading reasons to get involved,” Russ said.
White Labs, a yeast provider out of San Diego, ventured east in order to expand the market for their services, Sabrina LoPiccolo, marketing manager, said.
“I don’t think we would be coming in and investing if we didn’t think it was going to work. I think that craft beer is growing, and it’s because people are coming into the industry that are producing really amazing beers,” LoPiccolo said. “If you can continue to do that and be loyal to your customers and your brand and your beers, I think you’re going to be successful.”
Alcohol retailers have experienced an increase in beer sales due to the beer boom, something Geoff Alexander, who co-owns Appalachian Vintner with his brother Charles, said contributes to the majority of their sales.
“We opened in 2008 before any of the Beer City trends, November 2008. We’ve seen, since then, beer has moved over 50 percent of our sales. It used to be 20, 30 percent and now we’re selling more beer than wine,” Alexander said. “It’s closer to 60, 65 percent.”
Quality products made in the same area in which they are sold are in demand, Alexander said. Asheville provides the opportunity for consumers to choose from a variety of locally-made consumables.
“There’s a specialty market. I think people in general, as a population, are wanting more craft-based things, whether it’s food or bar goods or anything you can think of. People want a better, higher quality, more craft-oriented product,” Alexander said.
Breweries lacking authenticity, according to Sandefur, don’t stand a chance in a community that values conviction.
“Those are the operations, I think, that the consumers are gonna see through and say, ‘These are transparent, and they’re bull-crap,’” Sandefur said. “They’re here for the wrong reasons, they’re not people who absolutely love the industry and love the art of making beer.”