ASHEVILLE Some 15 years ago, an upstart brewery owner from Asheville made a trek – a beer pilgrimage, you might say – across the country to see firsthand the work of a group of Colorado beer-makers already established in a a nascent craft brewing industry. The Asheville brewer was Oscar Wong, who had about five years under his belt with Highland Brewing. The Colorado brewery was New Belgium, which wasn’t that much older, but had sprouted in fertile craft beer territory. In the relatively friendly (at least on the beer-making front) world of small beer operations, a connection was made.
On Thursday, that connection came full circle on a former livestock market lot stretched along the French Broad River just west of downtown Asheville. On a bright, cool spring day, it was Wong, the elder statesman of Asheville beer now celebrating his brewery’s 20th anniversary this year, welcoming the newbie on the block, New Belgium, which was celebrating a major expansion with the construction of its first East Coast brewery.
About 200 local officials, brewery workers from Asheville’s 16 beer-making operations, New Belgium employees and others came out to celebrate New Belgium’s groundbreaking event. The ceremony marked a milestone in both place and time, New Belgium officials said, for their company and for the craft beer industry.
Falling in love all over again
One New Belgium official after another stood to talk, expressing gratitude to colleagues, Asheville officials and nearby West Asheville neighbors. Their message was clear: more than ever, they felt right about their decision to come to Asheville. It’s been two years since New Belgium announced that they had chosen a brownfield site across the river from the city’s haven for artists known as the River Arts District, and it wasn’t always clear that New Belgium was comfortable with its decision. Two other big national players in the craft beer world had, or would, announce their own plans to open East Coast brewing operations in and around Asheville about the same time. Controversy was heating up regarding the politics and control of Asheville’s water system, with water being a key component of the beer-making process. And the lingering affects of a national recession, as well as increased competition in the craft beer world, had New Belgium folks second-guessing the decision to open a second big brewery.
In the end, New Belgium delayed its construction schedule by a good seven months. It also downsized the design of its new brewery. New Belgium, which initially planned to make 700,000 barrels of beer a year in Asheville, decided on a manufacturing facility that would pump out 500,000 barrels a year at full capacity. It made other modifications, as well.
If the deal can be described as a marriage, it appeared Thursday that New Belgium folks, who had perhaps fallen for Asheville a little too quickly, were now fully comfortable with the partnership. They’ve always expressed gratitude for the working relationship with city officials and residents. In their talks, a couple of New Belgium officials neared tears, with New Belgium CEO Kim Jordan even noting that one thing locals will learn is that “we’re cryers.” For their part, Asheville officials have, from day one, fallen over themselves to woo the new brewery, its $140 million investment, its 140 jobs paying a wage of about $50,000 and the promise of drawing thousands more tourists to a town already dependent on catering to visitors.
It was easy to note the change in the weather from the the date of the site announcement two years ago – stormy rain – to the weather Thursday for groundbreaking – breezy bright sun. The night before the site announcement two years ago, a group of New Belgium officials were dining at The Admiral restaurant on Haywood Road when a fight outside led to three brutal deaths. On Thursday, there was a feeling of springing forward toward a new horizon. About 3 p.m., the crowd lifted glasses of RyePA, a beer that New Belgium made with in conjunction with ingredients from Asheville’s Riverbend Malt House, and drank to the marriage.
After all that, the emotion on Thursday was real and the commitment was clear. New Belgium is coming to Asheville.
With the ceremony over, it’s worth it once again to take another look at the myriad impacts that New Belgium will have, or is already having, on Asheville:
The neighborhood: A small but vocal contingent of residents in the immediate neighborhood of New Belgium’s West Asheville site have made company officials stand up and take notice. The first issue has focused on the routing of trucks, which will transport beer to and from the site. More immediate concerns about the safety of the site, as well as construction noise and disruption, are constantly being addressed. As one company official said, the site is a dirty mess and it’s going to stay that way for awhile. Meantime, with the pace of new business development on the nearby Haywood Road corridor can be easily described as a boom. New home construction in the area has also taken off. It’s mostly in-fill development, and much of it is green building.
Tourism: New Belgium officials say they don’t know for sure how many tourists will come to visit its new brewery and tasting room on Craven Street. Most estimates come in at about 100,000 tourists a year. (The Biltmore House, for comparison’s sake, sees about 1 million tourists a year.) It’s likely the number of New Belgium visitors will be higher. That’s good news for a city that counts tourism as a top industry, alongside healthcare, manufacturing and business services sectors. It’s also good news for Asheville’s craft brewing scene, which continues to grow and expand.
Competition for sponsorships and tap handles: New Belgium beer is already distributed in Asheville, with company reps competing for tap handles and shelf space and looking at various event sponsorships. That competition will get stiffer once New Belgium gets fully up and running in Asheville. That fight can become pretty fierce, with event sponsorship one of the main ways larger craft breweries extend their marketing and branding.
Impact on the RAD: In the two years since New Belgium announced it was planning to build on Craven Street, just across the river from Asheville’s River Arts District, the pace of change in the RAD has sped up. A host of new restaurants have already opened. Several buildings have changed hands, and there’s a plan for a major new residential development that is on track to begin construction later this year. For locals who treasure the RAD’s humble roots, it’s change that can be difficult. Others see the growth as positive (and inevitable.)
A new model for corporate citizenship: The arrival of New Belgium brings a new level of corporate citizenship to Asheville, a town that has long talked the talked but had few, and mostly small, examples of companies walking the walk. New Belgium is employee-owned. New Belgium, in example after example, takes environmentally sustainable measures into the consideration of its business model. New Belgium brings its national branding to Asheville.
The biking community: Asheville has long had an active, if slightly marginalized, biking community. That’s about to change with the arrival of New Belgium, which gives all its employees a bicycle after a year of employment and actively encourages bicycling to and from work. It also fosters the biking culture in general. One of New Belgium’s signature events is the Tour de Fat, a bike ride that’s staged in various cities across the U.S. The event supports the biking community and eco-friendly travel. Jay Richardson, the general manager of New Belgium’s Asheville facility, lit up when asked if Asheville can expect to see the Tour de Fat. New Belgium is working on it, he said.