Drinkcations in Western North Carolina

Original Article: Drinkcations in Western North Carolina
By Capital at Play

In 2019 there are plenty of new options, new alternatives, and new destinations for the dedicated and adventurous drinker.

In 2019 there are plenty of new options, new alternatives, and new destinations for the dedicated and adventurous drinker.

One of the reasons Western North Carolina has exploded as a craft beverage mecca beyond beer is the same reason New York business monthly Fast Company pondered Asheville becoming the new craft beer capital of America in 2012: our 20,000-acre protected watershed. But now, the area craft beverage producers have their sights set on up-leveling Asheville’s drinkability. “Why just be Beer City USA when we could be a Craft Beverage Capital! Variety is the spice of life, and this industry is just starting to get on its feet,” says James Donaldson, owner of The Chemist in Asheville. Lindsay Dorrier, director of operations for Mills River’s Bold Rock Hard Cider, agrees. “Hard cider, hard seltzer, beer, wine, spirits—they are all locally-made and -done at a high level. We think innovation will continue at a rapid pace across all those segments of the industry and look forward to playing a big role in that regional development so that Western NC continues to be known as a craft beverage capital of the east.”

Bold Rock launched their hard seltzer line in June 2019, while over in Brevard, Oskar Blues Brewery got into the boozy water game in January 2019 as the first national craft hard seltzer, so, indeed, the area’s craft beverage scene is just getting started beyond its Beer City reputation. “I think if we all stay focused on what is important for all of us in this city, we will continue to thrive,” says Josie Miekle, owner of Urban Orchard Cider Co., which has locations in both West Asheville and downtown Asheville, adding, “The craft beverage scene here is very community-oriented. Not only do they provide a gathering place, but they also support many community members, organizations, and projects.”

So why are established breweries like Bold Rock and Oskar Blues jumping on hard seltzer? Well, for starters, the category grew from $6.1 billion in sales in 2016 to $8.5 billion in 2017, with SpikedSeltzer’s Shields valuing the industry at $500 million. For Bold Rock—located in Mills River and offering live music on weekends and yoga every Saturday—they saw an opportunity to mimic the winning recipe for regional brands that helped spur the craft beer movement. “The category is currently dominated by national hard seltzer brands,” says Dorrier, “and we thought that there was an opportunity for a regional brand like Bold Rock to dive in and eventually drive the growth of the segment in pockets, just as what has happened in beer and hard cider where regional and local brands have begun to occupy a significant proportion of both growth and overall beer and hard cider sales.”

Similarly, Oskar Blues felt launching their Wild Basin seltzers—already sold in all 50 states—was a no-brainer for their brand. “Craft drinkers are always looking for more options. Boozy water provides a lighter option for weekends filled with hiking, biking, and getting after it. I think we’ll continue to see breweries push the boundaries of what craft beer can be, including seltzers, kombucha, CBD-infused drinks, etc.,” explains the company’s marketing manager, Aaron Baker. Yet another reason why craft beverages have caught fire in Western North Carolina.

For Noble Cider, which has a cidery on the northwest side of Asheville and a downtown taproom (a second taproom is slated to open later this year in Brevard), the fact that sales of bubbly water and sparkling water have about tripled in the last 10 years prompted them to create Noble Cider Hard Spritzers, a cider version of a wine spritzer, which CEO Trevor Baker attributes to “one big food trend, and that’s the trend towards health and wellness, and essentially the demonization of sugar in drinks.” He notes that many of the boozy waters currently available on grocery shelves are made from fermented sugar water and artificial flavors—not something that flies with his company’s ethos or Western North Carolina’s farm-to-glass and -table mentality.

This huge growth also tracks in other craft beverage categories, such as kombucha, which BeverageDaily.com reported will grow 100% by 2020 and be worth $5.45 billion by 2025, according to Grandview Research. Asheville alone has two kombucheries—Buchi and Booda—as well as the biggest Junery on the East Coast, Shanti Elixirs. Shanti’s growth in its sales of Jun has increased from $50,000 in 2017 to more than $300,000 projected for 2019. “We have a wide demographic of consumers ranging from millennials looking for a healthy, non-alcoholic alternative to people looking for high quality, locally crafted beverages to people who are enjoying the benefits of the probiotics along with other health aspects of the various Jun flavors,” shares owner Shanti Volpe. An uptick in the people who are sober curious—thanks in part to growing numbers of people practicing Dry Januarys—and seeking out craft mocktails have helped her business grow, but several local businesses also utilize Shanti Elixirs as a cocktail ingredient or mixer with a local craft spirit, such as North Asheville’s Avenue M and Downtown Asheville’s Bhramari Brewing Co. Shanti has also noticed an increase in couples offering Jun at their weddings and other celebrations as a bubbly, festive alternative to alcohol. Owner of local ginnery The Chemist’s James Donaldson adds,

People are willing to spend money on just the experience of craft even without the need to get tipsy, which means the craft beverages are more a communal experience that brings people together and not just a passing fad.
— James Donaldson

Speaking of craft distilleries, the United States market as a whole has seen a 30% rise in sales between 2017 and 2018, totaling $3.7 billion in sales, and an increase in retail cases sold by 24%, according to Craft Spirits Data Project, an annual report released by the American Craft Spirits Association. Dave Angel, owner of Elevated Mountain Distillery in Maggie Valley, has seen visitors double since 2017, with an expected 30,000+ guests stopping in by the end of 2019. “There is a movement against big brands, where people are seeking out smaller, unique, and local alternatives. Distilleries are following the path already established by wineries and breweries,” he says.

This craft movement can be attributed to many factors, notably millennial buying habits, interest in hyperlocal products, and seeking out authentic, smaller brands like Angel pointed out. As writer Elizabeth Green states in “From Hop to Hip: Craft Moves to the Mainstream,” published last year at FoodIngredientsFirst.com, “In times of an increasingly fast-moving, modern society, growing globalization and the universal availability of consumer goods, consumers often are drawn to points of the past. The past is associated with authenticity and reliable quality and creates a feeling of familiarity and security. Origin, nostalgia, and trust nowadays count as a seal of quality and form an emotional bond between consumers and products or brands. This becomes visible in the continuing vintage/retro trend and above all in the craft movement, which is now spreading from the beverage category towards other food sectors, such as sauces or snacks.”

And if local ginger beer maker Ginger’s Revenge is any indication, hard ginger beer will continue to grow in popularity, too. In just three years, the River Arts District business will go from selling 200 barrels in 2017 to tracking to surpass 1,400 barrels sold in 2019. This category is virtually untapped in America, with only a few dedicated ginger breweries in existence—although some breweries are coming out with their own ginger beers—this segment of the craft beverage market has the opportunity to explode. “With the gluten-free market really taking off, we felt the time was right for getting our product to market,” explains owner David Ackley of Ginger’s Revenge, adding, “Consumers are increasingly looking for lighter, and what they perceive as healthier, alcohol options. That may be low sugar, low alcohol, gluten-free, or functional beverages.” And while most people have never enjoyed a hard ginger beer, Ackley points out that like his craft colleagues, ginger beer also has a rich history to glean from. “One of the things that inspired us early on was finding out that at one point in American history, there were hundreds of ginger beer producers. I certainly think it’s possible that we’ll see more and more ginger beers come on the scene,” says Ackley.

Consumers will raise a toast to how archaic blue laws are gradually being replaced by common-sense ones…

As noted in our annual state-of-the-regional-alcohol-industry report elsewhere in this issue of Capital at Play, come September 1, North Carolina’s craft distilling industry hits a huge milestone thanks to Governor Roy Cooper signing Senate bill 290 into law on July 29. This bill accomplishes several objectives:

• Distilleries can now serve cocktails on-site and sell more alcohol directly to consumers.

• Pets can now visit distilleries and breweries that do not have a kitchen.

• Less restrictions are in place related to doing business with bars and restaurants.

You can almost hear the lips smacking of local distillers when they discuss what this important change will mean to the craft industry as a whole and their bottom lines specifically. “Now, we’ll be offering classes, events, and doing cocktails at the Distillery (located downtown near the Grove Arcade). We’re excited to get started!” says Cultivated Cocktails owner Leah Howard, who recently rebranded (formerly H&H Distillery, profiled in the September 2017 issue of this magazine). To further capitalize on the growing craft trend, they will also be releasing a line of cocktails-in-a-can and seeking out more collaborations with local businesses.

Copper Barrel, located in North Wilkesboro, aka the Moonshine Capital of America, and located at the far-eastern edge of Western North Carolina, also plans to take full advantage of the new law, kicking off with a double-elimination competition where the winner will be hired as their new head mixologist for their cocktail lounge. They’ve also collaborated with several businesses to create a line of spirited snacks including cigars, chocolate truffles, ice cream, peanuts, and meat jerkies, as well as a line of moonshine soaps. Their spirit dinner series, dubbed Shine and Dines, and happening across the state, “have been phenomenally successful,” says Copper Barrel CEO George Smith, emphasizing that craft beverages and craft food pairings will become increasingly popular. In the neighboring town of Moravian Falls, Holman Distillery offers vodka and gin and serves as “the only commercial producer of traditional Applejack on the planet,” says Holman’s distiller, John Holman. He’s actually on a mission to grow all his own fruit within five years, and he bought the old cattle farm he operates on in Movarian Falls because he “wanted to grow my own sugars to distill,” capitalizing on the ground to glass desires of craft consumers.

Black Mountain’s Oak & Grist owner William Goldberg agrees that the passage of this bill is “a game changer. Cocktails will provide us the opportunity to showcase our products in the format that most folks consume them. Particularly with gin, people are not used to drinking it straight, so to be able to mix a cocktail for folks will change the way that individuals are able to experience our spirits.” In 2019 alone, they’ve enjoyed a 288% increase in sales, and tout themselves as the only 100% grain-to-glass distillery in Buncombe County. Beyond what Goldberg deems to be “restrictive, outdated” laws, he says another battle they’ve faced is that “most people do not realize that much of the craft spirits that they are drinking are either partially or entirely made at large distilleries and then purchased and labeled as ‘craft’ by smaller distilleries. Our projected growth looks promising, and for us, that means that we are able to buy more local grain and botanicals—which translates to a higher dollar-value staying local.” He’s also excited to do more events related to how to pair spirits with food since the law up to this point has made that extremely difficult.

For The Chemist, unlimited sales now being permissible means they can release, according to James Donaldson,

more limited/small batched products… without having to depend on the state to sell it if we just wanted it to be a tasting room release. We would be able to sample at local ABC stores, meaning more opportunities to educate consumers about this industry and our brand, and we would also have a more direct route to selling to accounts in the state that previously had a clogged ordering pipeline that would prevent that account from carrying our product, which would mean more locally crafted beverages out on bar shelves!

Although this law marks an important milestone, Western North Carolina distillers aren’t done fighting for more freedom when it comes to operating their businesses. Elevated Mountain’s Angel argues, “The new law is a giant step forward. But it’s one of many we need to take to remain competitive with surrounding states. The inability to sell on Sundays takes away one of the biggest tourist days of the week. The inability to ship to out of state customers means we lose repeat sales. Forcing NC distilleries to sell all of our products in the NC ABC system is troubling for both distilleries and the ABC system. What sells in-house is often very different from what the ABC Stores want to carry, due to the differences in locals going to ABC Stores and tourists going to distilleries.” For his part, Donaldson agrees that more must be done to support craft distillers:

If a distillery desires to grow beyond its four walls and be regional, then they better be ready to play with the big boys; there is a lot of money behind those major brands, and there still needs to be more loosening of liquor laws for distilleries to be more financially successful and on a more equal playing ground.

Not to be forgotten in this craft craze is craft cider, which Statista.com predicts will generate a $1.6 billion valuation by 2023. Again, millennials serve as the driving force behind hard cider’s growth. In fact, cider’s 8.4% off-premise sales growth significantly outpaced other categories, as beer actually dropped .2% with wine growing 2.1% and spirits growing 3.6% according to BeverageDaily.com. America is home to more than 900 cideries, and Asheville claims three of those within city limits, with several others operating in the region. For Daidala Ciders cidermaker Chris Heagney, one of the biggest challenges is educating consumers that “I’m not serving them a sugary sweet drink they’ve come across in the past.” He’s certainly seen millennials more willing to trying ciders with funky ingredients, like maple syrup or chai spice, but adds that “older generations are definitely curious” about checking out new options as well. And like many craft beverage makers, thinking outside the box extended to crafting his taproom, which actually co-exists as part of Herod Gallery in the River Arts District.

Another craft cider trend—pairing cider and food—made Noble Cider’s decision to open a second location of sorts, The Greenhouse, a wise one. This new restaurant, located smack in the middle of downtown next to the U.S. Cellular Center, focuses on cider cocktails and offers flights of brandies and calvados and small plates that pair well with cider and often feature the apple-based drink as an ingredient. They also emphasize their sustainability philosophy with their “mid-century, tropical garden-room ambiance [that’s] warm and inviting, creating a full sensory experience,” says Baker.

Black Mountain Ciderworks owner Jessica Bowman attributes the increase in cider love to “craft beverage drinkers finally taking a chance on drier beverages, which has always been our focus. We hope that consumers continue to seek out and support drier, minimal intervention craft beverages that are made with a nod to tradition.” She also hopes to continue to see an “ungendering” of craft beverages, a/k/a letting go of outdated concepts that guys drink beer and girls drink wine and cider.

“So often, we meet people who only drink cider, or who only drink stouts, or who only drink IPAs—that’s boring,” she says. “We hope to see people drinking an IPA and then ordering a cider for the next round, understanding that they can be both beer and cider/mead drinkers—that their identity doesn’t have to be loyal to just one.”

Okay, you know what’s available—now it’s time to plot out those drinkcations!

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