Brittney Burns — Staff Writer

From the mountains to the coast, more than 100 breweries across North Carolina will be celebrating NC Beer Month this April. Asheville, Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Hickory — all celebrate regional beer culture with festivals, beer weeks and other events. In April 2017, Visit North Carolina and the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild will join forces to host NC Beer Month for its fifth year.

While the state can boast nearly 200 breweries, the western part of the state is staying on pace as a brewery Mecca, not just helping to build the state’s identity as a craft beer powerhouse, but helping to revitalize the state’s agriculture industry, create jobs, and grow beer tourism in Western North Carolina.

Agriculture has stood as one of the primary occupations for North Carolinians for centuries and while cotton and tobacco remain staples in the Old North State, North Carolina’s agriculture industry, which at $77 billion stands as the largest industry in the state, is being revitalized. Over the last few years, North Carolina’s craft beer industry was exploded, with the state being recognized nationally as a leader in the industry.

“Craft brewers are committed to using local ingredients like hops, barley, wheat and rye as well as unique Southern ingredients like persimmons, pecans and even peppers,” said Margo Knight Metzger, Executive Director of the NC Craft Brewers Guild. “I think we have a great potential in North Carolina for growing more grains for brewing, and we are working with North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Science to meet that goal.”

The North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild is a not-for-profit 501(c)6 tax-exempt organization comprised of brewers, vendors, retailers and craft beer enthusiasts focused on promoting North Carolina beer. North Carolina boasts the largest number of craft breweries in the American South, with more than 185 breweries and brewpubs. While the entire state of North Carolina is leading the industry in growth and production, Western North Carolina is taking advantage of the industry and keeping up with demands.

Asheville has become nationally known for boasting more than 20 breweries, and based on population, is one of the top Beer Cities in the U.S. While the industry has found a home in Asheville, from Asheville west the craft beer and beer tourism industry is exploding. Over the last three years, the industry has spread to include breweries in 16 of the state’s 17 far westernmost counties. From Asheville west, there are about 55 breweries, a number that is growing nearly every day. Congressman Mark Meadows, who represents the state’s far western most 17 counties, has been in office since 2013 and has seen the industry expand under his tenure.

“Since 2013, the growth of the brewery industry in Western North Carolina has been a key asset to our district’s economy,” said Congressman Mark Meadows. “It’s truly been a part of the signal that WNC is open for business.”

In the same time period Congressman Meadows has been in office, the state’s western counties, which have historically had higher than state unemployment averages, have seen opportunity in the craft beer industry and have taken full advantage.

“That’s the year [2013] Andrews Brewing opened in Andrews. As a very small brewery, they still started the presence of craft beer in the most western part of the state,” said Glenn Cutler with NC Beer Guys, a pair of industry pundits devoted to promoting the craft beer statewide. “Last year Hoppy Trout opened in the same town and Andrews Brewing purchased an old A&P to have a much larger presence in the area. Satulah Brewing opened in Highlands to have a craft beer scene in a very tourist area in the mountains. Innovation opened in 2013 as the second brewery in Sylva just up the street from Heinzelmannchen and a couple years later Sneak E Squirrel, a brew pub, opened on the other side of town in an old car dealership. All these are contributing to the local economies, as you can see when you visit and see the crowds there and the people they employ. Later this year we’re looking at the opening of Mountain Layers Brewing in Bryson City, right in the middle of town. Nantahala Brewing has expanded their brewery along with a large restaurant down the block from their current location. Boojum Brewery opened in Waynesville, joining the other three breweries in the area. BearWaters Brewing is growing and moving from Waynesville to be the first brewery in Canton at a great location on the river.”

Brandon Hintz, co-owner of Currahee Brewing Company located in Franklin, North Carolina.

Macon County’s brush with the craft beer industry continues to grow, with Satulah Mountain Brewing in Highlands, and Lazy Hiker Brewing and Currahee Brewing Company in Franklin.

Currahee Brewing is Macon County’s most recently opened brewery, opening its doors in July 2016. The brewery has nine employees and due to demand, are in the process of hiring two additional ones.

“We’ve experienced significant growth and are expecting expansion into 2017,” said Brandon Hintz, co-owner of Currahee. “In January 2017 we started distributing into Georgia. We now send about half the beer we make down there and have had to bring new tanks to accommodate the growth. We are currently in talks with distributors in the central part of NC and Tennessee, which we are hoping to get signed with and beer in those areas by beginning of summer. We also have plans to start bottling within the next month to add to our cans. We brewed a quite a few beers back in 2016 that we put in barrels to age and/or sour, these beers will be what we’ll be bottling. We are hoping to break into a couple new locations with these beers.”

According to Hintz, breweries are more than just serving up a crafty beverage. Its bolsters the economy and fosters an identity.

“Breweries are having a significant impact, between tourism, jobs, and new industry,” said Hintz. “Besides the jobs breweries are adding to the state, there are a lot of secondary jobs coming from it. From companies who supply breweries with ingredients and supplies, to marketing companies they are all coming to the area to take part in the economic boom breweries are producing. The economic impact of tourism due to breweries is another factor. We see this daily, thenumber of people who come to our brewery and Franklin due to us and Lazy Hiker is staggering. Especially once the weather gets a little warmer. We see people in from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and other parts of N.C. daily.”

Agricultural Advantage

Lazy Hiker Brewing Company, located in Franklin, North Carolina.

According to a report by the Beer Institute, there are 1,303 agriculture related jobs that can be credited to the craft beer industry.

“When I ran for Congress in 2012, the number one topic that always came up was job growth—and much of that issue ties directly back to the agriculture industry,” said Rep. Meadows. “This is an area with a rich agriculture history that is ripe for job creation, and the brewery industry has certainly capitalized.”

North Carolina’s craft beer industry reflects the state’s rich agricultural heritage by sourcing local ingredients, a fact reflected by the State Fair’s addition of the North Carolina Brewers’ Cup to its competitions. The state’s creative brewers have received national recognition for brews that use a range of locally produced ingredients from barley, wheat and hops to sweet potatoes, blueberries, blackberries, kumquats, sorghum and even persimmons. With the significant impact on the agricultural industry, for the last five years, NC breweries and home brewers have entered into the state competition. Last year, the competition had 477 professional entries and 174 home-brew entries.

“I believe the natural abundance of a wide variety of agricultural products that are available in North Carolina that are used or can be used in the making of beer in addition to the geography of the state that offers distinct regions and community traditions make this State fertile ground for unique flavors and a certain freshness in our beer,” said Cutler.

North Carolina produces about 15,000 acres of barley. In fact, the yield was so low that the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service stopped recording barley production estimates in 2016.

Wheat is a preferred small grain because it has been adapted to the Southeast and has higher yields than feed barley. But, the state’s growing craft beer industry and operations such as Epiphany Craft Malt could help revitalize barley production in North Carolina.

Riverbend Malt, located in Asheville, provides regionally sourced locally malted small grains for breweries across Western North Carolina. Riverbend’s heritage malt is a 6-row malt produced from Thoroughbred barley grown in  Salisbury, NC. It makes the perfect base malt for a variety of styles, including traditional lagers and pale ales. Their mission is to provide the area’s craft brewers locally farmed, artisan malts that bring depth and character to your passion, while greatly lessening their impact on the earth. They too have seen a growth in business over the last few years

“The growth has been robust to say the least, both in the brewpub space and for distributing brewers,” said business owner Brian Simpson. “We have been able to supply a lot of malted products to both of those markets.”

According to Simpson, Riverbend Malt exists because of the state’s rich tradition in agriculture and how the beer industry has been instrumental in revitalizing the industry.

“The beer industry is why we exist,” said Simpson. “An opportunity for our growers in NC to have a niche in the craft beer boom. Our mission is partially driven to simply provide an opportunity for growers to supply ag products to brewers so that they can provide a “truly” local product to the market.”

Today, more than 80 small hop farms call North Carolina home, with a growing demand due to the craft beer industry, that can continue to grow. In Black Mountain, North Carolina, where Pisgah and Lookout Brewing are located, Van Brunette’s owns a hop farm in the North Fork Valley. While the farm has been in the region for nearly 170 years, thanks to a grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, Burnette transitioned into hops and blueberries in 2009 and has been supplying WNC breweries such as Pisgah and Lookout with wet hops since 2013.

“Riverbend continues to provide a premium product to brewers to make a high quality craft product to their consumer,” said Simpson. “At the same time offering incentives to our farmers to continue the great agricultural traditions we have in the South. The character of the products that are made with our malts is a taste of the South.”

Macon County’s own Currahee purchases their products from Riverbend and plans to soon craft a beer using nothing but North Carolina ingredients, something Riverbend will help with.

“We are planning on making a 100 percent North Carolina beer,” said Hintz. “As of now we’ll be using hops grown on our farm in Macon County, malt from Riverbend Malt who’s farmers grow grain throughout the state and we are experimenting with using natural yeast from around the brewery.”

Economic Advantages

The annual economic impact of craft brewers in North Carolina is right at $1.2 billion. According to the Brewers Association, across the state, breweries account for 10,000 jobs. A 2015 study prepared for the National Beer Wholesalers Association showed the overall economic impact of breweries, and businesses related to craft beer and beer tourism actually accounts for nearly 48,000 jobs and $7.8 billion statewide.

“We see breweries as travel destinations and an economic boom for the towns where they are located,” said Cutler. “They have added so much to the economy by helping the growth of food trucks that they use on a constant basis, the events and festivals that help local vendors, the health benefits of having weekly run and yoga meetups, and the employment of local people and that number increases as the brewery grows.”

Since 2013, the number of craft breweries in NC have nearly doubled, and in 2016 accounted for $300 million in annual wages.

“When you see figures like these come in, it goes to show the impact this industry can have,” said Rep. Meadows. “The production and results have been tremendous, and I hope that we can continue creating a business climate that allows the success to continue.”

With 675,469 barrels produced in 2015, North Carolina ranked 2nd in terms of the largest increased in barrels produced in the United States, showing the significant economic growth of the industry.

A random poll of 14 of the WNC’s 55 breweries showed those 14 breweries alone employed around 250 people. The size of WNC’s breweries ranges from small production operations such as Andrew’s Brewing which employees one full-time person and three part-time people, to Oskar Blues Brewery, whose North Carolina operation in Brevard employees 60 people. Sierra Nevada, another of the region’s largest breweries has more than 1,000 employees nationwide and although they opened their Asheville location in July 2014, have been in operation in California since 1980.

Sierra Nevada’s Asheville location is a prime example of the economic impact the breweries have on the region by being far more than just a brewery.  In the months that followed Sierra Nevada’s July 2014 opening, they opened a Gift Shop, Taproom, a Back Porch bar and patio, an amphitheater, bocce ball court, and more.

“Breweries in Western North Carolina have a major impact on the economics of the region,” said Robin Gregory with Sierra Nevada. “First of all, the brewing industry employs lots of people in the area and much of that income stays here and contributes to the overall tax base, as well as the consumer spending in areas outside of the brewery scope. Secondly, the craft brewing industry typically has a laser focus on a sense of place, meaning that brewers, and associated restaurants and businesses, like to support others in the community by purchasing locally-sourced ingredients, and utilizing services and skills of other like-minded individuals throughout the region. Lastly, Western North Carolina, and the Asheville-area specifically have garnered a reputation all across the country for being the home to great brewers and a unique beer culture. This reputation has led to countless individuals and groups coming into the region for the Asheville brewery experience, and patronizing other businesses and services connected with the idea of beer tourism. Specifically, in Sierra Nevada’s case, tens-of-thousands of visitors have come to the brewery, and many, if not most, will make at least one other stop at another business while making the trip. The overall impact of the beer culture is truly hard to overestimate.”

In comparison to Sierra Nevada’s large scale operation, for Andrews, Andrews Brewing’s economic impact is just as significant.

“As far as local impact, I would put it on par with a new restaurant opening,” said Eric Carlson of Andrews Brewing. “Or certainly a new winery.  More breweries have a positive impact on other restaurants and breweries too.  Here in Andrews, we have two breweries and I wish we had more.  Many more actually.”

In terms of economic growth since 2013, Innovation Brewing in Sylva stands as a testament to the potential available. When Innovation opened their doors on October 18. 2013, the brewery head two employees. Since then, Innovation has increased their brewhouse size and have grown to employee 12 people today.

“Breweries are a huge driver of tourism to WNC and they help to keep local dollars in the local economy,” said Nicole Dexter of Innovation. “The industry in constantly growing and creating new jobs in the community as well.”

Jackson County announced in February that a fourth brewery would soon be opening on main street, revitalizing an old building and filing the storefront of a vacant shop.

For Franklin specifically, there are two breweries within a mile of each other that combined employee 15 people.

Economic ripple effect 

With the growth of craft beer and beer tourism, additional businesses and events have been created that bring an equally important economic boost to the state’s economy. From businesses such as Outdoor 76 in Franklin, which added an 18 tap bar in the back of their outdoor equipment store a few years ago, to craft beer festivals that draw thousands to any region, the ripple effect of the industry creates a sub category of economic incentives for the state.

“Any geographical area has to have enough breweries to warrant having a festival worth attending and it’s getting easier as the brewery numbers grow,” said Cutler with NC Beer Guys. “During prime seasons in the spring and fall, there are festivals every week around the state. Festivals have grown in attendance where some are actually having to cut back the number of tickets to allow attendees to speak with the breweries and getting to know them instead of just lining up, getting a sample and moving on. The festivals grow the local economy for food trucks, local vendors as well as the charities they support. Last year in Raleigh, Brewgaloo had 30,000 attendees for a festival that brings in breweries and cideries from all over the state and only allowing ones that were started in North Carolina. As the number of North Carolina breweries grow, the less the festivals look for breweries from out of the state.”

In WNC, Waynesville worked to capitalize on Haywood County’s growing craft beer scene by hosting the Waynesville Craft Beer Faire, which will celebrate its fourth year this year. The Faire features great local music, fine foods, home-brew and educational displays. Informative classes are presented by area craft and home brew experts. The event is held at the American Legion Post 47, strategically walking distance from Historic Downtown Waynesville’s restaurants and shops.

Haywood County’s beer scene is amongst the largest in WNC, next to Asheville. While Waynesville is leading the charge, Canton will be getting their first brewery in 2017 when the already established Bear Waters Brewing will be moving to the Paper Town, bringing a new life into the already  up and coming town. Canton’s Southern Porch Restaurant opened last year, and takes pride in featuring locally brewed NC beer on tap in the restaurant’s bar.

The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce will be hosting the inaugural Hook, Line & Drinker festival on May 20 which will feature local craft breweries, food trucks, and fishing guides and fishing industry vendors. The event is planned to be hosted at the Bridge Park Pavillion from noon to 4 p.m.

Currahee takes advantage of the culture around craft brewing enthusiasts and hosts events for the community, outside of just serving up beer.

“We built Currahee with the thought of not only brewing beer, but being a destination,” said Hintz. “We built our tasting room on the Little Tennessee River, which is great if you want to sit down and relax enjoying the views of the river with the mountains in the back round. But for people who want more, we bring in live music, once a month we do Yoga in the brewery, which is a huge success, we’ve had comedy shows, races, and we also host festivals. Luckily we’ve got a big facility with a decent amount of property to work with, which has helped us do events like that.”

In Asheville, pub cycles have been successful, allowing beer drinkers an opportunity to tour the city… different. A pub cycle is a BYO (Beer or Wine) pedal powered trolley on wheels, with a certified Tour Driver. Participants can enjoy beer, while touring the city.

Tim Weber, owner and head brewer of Twin Leaf Brewery, which opened on March 8, 2014 and employees eight people, credits the brewery with revitalizing the neighborhood it now calls home.

“I think the economic impact of the brewery scene is western North Carolina is a lot bigger than many folks understand,” said Weber. “Not only the direct jobs we provide, but the tourists that come here to sample our beers are spending money at hotels, restaurants and retailers. There is a large number of businesses that we support as well. Farmers, malt suppliers, tour groups, specialty ingredients, new startups (we work with multiple startups who produce, pretzels, salsa, mustard, teas, spices, humus, cider, and soda), food trucks. My brewery is located in the South Slope of Asheville. Just a few years ago it was full of drugs and prostitution. Since I opened my doors the area has seen incredible growth. 7 new breweries, new restaurants, a coffee shop, an art studio and art center, and new construction for apartments and condo. Beer made it happen.  Additionally we focus a lot of attention on giving back to the community and supporting local charities and club sports. We are a very small and not nearly as well funded as other breweries, but I was very proud to be able to donate around $15,000 to local charities last year.”

Not only has Twin Leaf made a significant contribution to their community since inception, they continue to grow. Starting with two employees and now having eight to expanding their facility by 1,000 square feet to their tap room and another 2,500 square feet of outdoor beer garden space last year, Twin Leaf is planning to continue growth into 2017 by adding an additional fermenter and adding special release bottling.

Speed bumps on the road to expansion 

With about 70 new breweries in North Carolina since 2013, the fear of over saturation and diluting the market is a concern for many.

Sara Maya, Manager of Fonta Flora Brewery in Morganton, noted that while her brewery, which opened in 2013, will be expanding in 2017 and the industry as a whole is growing to provide additional jobs, too much of a good thing may be bad for the region.

“I will say that at some point I think WNC could experience an over-saturation of breweries,” said Maya. “Making it hard for for the ones located in out of the way places, and for breweries that aren’t bringing new/exciting things into the market.”

Cutler with NC Beer Guys says while over saturation is a worry, like with any industry, those who are putting out a good product, will thrive.

“Growth is always a challenge because of the possible potential of saturation but if the beer and service are good, they’ll succeed,” he said.

From a legislation standpoint, there are things that Congressman Meadows and state officials can do to help the industry continue to thrive.

“Legislation can be an issue whether in the local laws/restrictions or in the larger scale with the current laws regarding distribution,” said Cutler. “The current excise tax is also a huge burden on all breweries – taking excess money away from the brewery that can be used for growth.”

Metzger with the NC Craft Brewers Guild also cited the tax as a roadblock.

“We have the eighth-highest excise tax in the nation which is burdensome on our state’s small breweries,” she said. “North Carolina also has a self-distribution cap arbitrarily set at 25,000 barrels that impede small brewers.”

“I’m always in favor of minimizing federal roadblocks on businesses where we can, be it on taxes or over-reaching regulations,” said Meadows. “I’ve often found that when you get government out of the way and allow Western North Carolinians to take ownership of themselves, they find a way to succeed. This industry is no different.”