Local brew means big business in WNC

The local draft market has seen a surge over the last two decades. Photo courtesy of Innovation Brewery.

The local draft market has seen a surge over the last two decades. Photo courtesy of Innovation Brewery.

Brewing business is seeing a boom in industry, especially in the area of Western North Carolina. Twenty years ago, it was merely a hiccup in the draft market and today, according to The Asheville Citizen Times, it is a multi-million dollar business.

The NC Brewers Guild estimates that there are around 100 breweries and brewpubs — “the most of any state south of Pennsylvania and east of Texas. We are the State of Southern Beer.” WCJ counted 36 breweries in Western North Carolina only (see below the map). Asheville has been named “Beer City, USA” for four years in a row and is the prime destination for beer lovers on the East Coast.

Why the surge? Why all of a sudden? What is it that makes a local brewery stand out against the domestic taps that has dominated (and continues to dominate) the draft industry in the last two decades?

Dieter Kuhn, owner of Heinzelmannchen Brewery of Sylva, says that it’s the sense of community that keeps people coming back. He started Heinzelmannchen in 2004 and since then has seen his business expand and continue to expand. On Thursday, April 24, they will be celebrating their 10th anniversary in their new bigger space at the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad Train Depot in Dillsboro, NC.

Dieter Kuhn, owner of Heinzelmannchen Brewery of Sylva

Dieter Kuhn, owner of Heinzelmannchen Brewery of Sylva. Photo courtesy of Heinzelmannchen Brewery.

“We try to create a desire for people to come and experience our beer,” Kuhn says. “We like to reach out to them through Facebook and other types of social media and just create this very engaging and home-like atmosphere that keeps them comfortable, that keeps them excited. When they get here, we come up to them and we talk with them. We include them in our process. It makes them feel special and important, because they are. It’s what keeps them coming back.”

And when they like it, they certainly keep coming back. Susan and Steve Fullinton vacation to the Carolinas and visiting micro-breweries is one of their prime destinations and were visited with in Heinzelmannchen brewery.

“I’m a wine drinker, but the kind of beer they are making is so diverse,” Susan said while enjoying the beer from Heinzelmannchen. “There’s really a flavor for everybody. Local breweries are a best kept secret that people are finally starting to hear of.”

The brewery boom, according to local brewers, is the result of a community that loves a sense of community. “People don’t like to feel like numbers and dollar signs,” Kuhn says. “People want to feel included and special. People love a sense of belonging and that’s what we are giving them here.”

Kuhn’s main competitor, Nicole Dexter, owner of recently opened brewery in Sylva, Innovations Brewery, agrees with him.

“I think anywhere there is a community willing to support what we do you will see a brewery pop up,” says  Dexter. “We kind of lucked out and are in a community hot spot here in Western North Carolina.”

Steve Fullinton sips his beer and explains why he likes the experience of a local brewery.

“With trying each individual brewer, it’s like going to a chef’s house so he can prepare your food,” Fullington shares. “You get a special ingredient with these places. It’s more home-like. A lot of these brewers will even pair your draft with your food, so in a sense, it’s as if these beers are becoming the new wine of our culture. But the difference is, with wine, you get this snooty attitude a lot of the time, but with beer, it’s homey. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar and nice. It’s a great thing. And at least they’re bringing jobs in, right?”

Heinzelmannchen Brewery, Sylva, NC

Heinzelmannchen Brewery, Sylva, NC. Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor.

He is absolutely right. When Highland Brewing Company opened in Asheville in 1994, it employed a whopping three people. Today, the company employs a total of 50, reports Asheville Citizen times. As the paper reports the workers are not getting reach, for even unskilled brewery workers the pay is in the range of $9-$12 an hour. Some highly skilled brewers are earning up $50,000 a year. as the number of breweries is growing so is the employment and investments.

Heinzelmannchen and Innovations Breweries, the two main local breweries of Sylva can attest to that. Heinzelmannchen employs 5 part-time employees, up from the two that started the company 10 years ago. Innovations, a newer company, employs up to 10 employees including owners. As they grow they will employ more and the education is there to follow.

The Asheville Citizen Times reported that Asheville-Buncombe Technical College is helping students capitalize on this brewery boom by offering a Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation course. With those kinds of numbers in this economy, there’s money to be made with this popular and valuable skill. Over 35 hopefuls camped out, lined up, and filled the 24 seat course, some having to be turned away. The growing need for a trained workforce in a blooming industry now has its answer in the form of this Associate in Applied Science degree.

Dexter, along with Chip Allen, opened Innovation Brewing Company in Sylva just down the street from Heinzelmannchen on October 18 and is still in her company’s first year.

“We’ve been very well received by the community,” Dexter explains. “We see our sales spike by the month. People like to support a locally crafted product. There’s always a variety of tastes with us and the constant changing of our products keeps people interested and coming back for new things as well being able to stick with their favorites.”

Nicole Dexter, right, owner of Innovations Brewing Company

Nicole Dexter, right, owner of Innovations Brewing Company. Photo courtesy of Innovations Brewing Company.

What’s interesting is the cohesion between the two brewing companies. While Budweiser and Michelob locating across the street from each other could lead to some pretty drastic sales wars and advertising campaigns, Innovations and Heinzelmannchen actually work together to elevate their industry to levels that would benefit them both and more importantly, the ones doing the drinking.

“They’ve come to me to ask for my advice,” Kuhn says. “When they moved in, they were aware of my business being here for ten years and knew I had knowledge of the area and industry. Sure, we’re competitors, but it’s not this ugly thing. We make them better. They make us better. And we’re both actually combining our flavors for a new beer that’s going to come out later this year.” Kuhn was very hush-hush about the details of their new crossover experiment.

Nicole Dexter is thrilled to have a neighboring mentor so close to her business.

“We’re friends,” Dexter explains.  “We have a mutual friendship. They [Heinzelmannchen] are a great resource. The brewing community is very friendly and we’re like a family. It feels like a community within itself because we help each other a lot. And people like to have more than one destination when they try local breweries. They are more likely to stop through a town if there are more options on where they can try these locally crafted beers.”

With the business on the rise, there’s much hope for more brewers to come out swinging with their degrees in hand. These hometown breweries are now able to gauge the experience levels of their new hires based on their course completion. “It won’t be a so much a gamble to get a brewery off the ground,” Dexter shares. “There’s a lot of science that goes into brewing. There’s no reason that shouldn’t be taught. It’s a great thing.”

It’s interesting to see how these ‘little engines that could’ will keep bringing the fight to the global corporations that dominate the beer industry. Remember to tweet your local brewery experiences by using #drinklocal.

Here is a video from Heinzelmannchen’s ninth birthday bash from last year. Be sure to subscribe to NCBeerGuys on YouTube for all their reviews of local crafted beer brewed exclusively in NC.

Enjoy this video, Craft Beer: A Hop-umentary courtesy of Jeremy Williams.


Related stories:

Top 40 Asheville Beer City Guide

Asheville Beer City Festival (coming Saturday, May 31, 2014)