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WNC Business

Local brewing community encourages addition of major players

May 07, 2024 07:11AM ● By Randee Brown

Started in 1980 in Chico, California, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company was a small startup craft brewery before there were craft breweries, according to second-generation owner Brian Grossman.

As the craft brewing trend grew over 25 years, leaders of Sierra Nevada’s family-owned operation realized around 2009 that their Chico facility would soon be unable to keep up with demand. Shipping products became a logistical challenge, and the environmental impact of shipping more and more product to the East Coast became larger.

The family realized they had three options — do nothing, expand their Chico facility, or add a facility somewhere along the East Coast. Wanting to keep up with demand, improve logistics, and minimize environmental impacts of shipping, the conclusion was to expand the company’s operation eastward. 

Deciding where to relocate the business was a challenge for the family, according to Grossman. Understanding no location is perfect, they began by looking at what they loved about Chico and what they wanted to avoid in their new location. Desirable characteristics of a new brewery location included proximity to suppliers, nearby cows for the spent grain, community-forward thinking in regards to environmental initiatives, and proximity to product shipping routes. 

The company submitted requests for proposals across cities and states that fit their criteria; one original requirement was to not be near other small craft breweries, which cut out WNC as an early option. 

After eliminating some of the 250 participants from their requests, the family completed a few site visits without finding a perfect match. They then received a call encouraging them to come look at the Asheville area.

“We were at a local bar asking questions about the area, and someone recognized me,” Grossman said. “It was evident there was some excitement about the craft brewing scene, and we began to realize how this place had some really good merits.”

Sierra Nevada’s expansion to WNC brought lots of excitement, according to Grossman. The local brewing community seemed to like what they could bring to the table, and were very supportive of the company’s decision to build in WNC, though logistically it wasn’t the very best spot. 

“There was something about Western North Carolina, and when we walked this site in particular, that is so drawing, it's probably worth us leaving some of the business opportunities on the table for such a great community and pretty amazing spot,” Grossman said.

Sierra Nevada announced Mills River as its new location choice on January 26, 2012, and began brewing their products by the end of 2013. In 2014 they opened their restaurant, and were fully opened and operational in 2015.

Tour programs maintain high guest counts, and the increased brand awareness created a significant consumption jump in the Southeast. Visitors to WNC comprise about 90% of Sierra Nevada’s guests, which total about one million each year to the restaurant.

The Mills River facility is responsible for producing approximately 500,000 barrels of beer each year. Between production, guest relations, and other staff, this location is home to approximately 500 employees. 

Having a significant impact on the local economy, Sierra Nevada also impacts the local brewing community. Members of the NC Craft Brewers Guild as well as the Asheville Brewers Alliance, Sierra Nevada leadership strives to support others in the craft beverage business. Grossman said they work with each other to minimize supply chain impacts and exchange or repair parts, share working industry knowledge, and offer words of support.

With a low barrier to entry during the “craft brewery explosion” around 2016, Grossman saw brewers easily start new craft beer businesses. Now, due to inflation and product shortages, there are far fewer new breweries and a number of brewery closings in the area. 

With a wider variety of products on the market, brewers also must maintain creativity in their products to match industry trends. Brewing low-alcohol or non-alcoholic beers, seltzers, ready-to-drink cocktails, and kombuchas are some ways to offer alternative options to consumers, but Grossman said there will always be a market for beer. 

“The creativity side of brewing right now is sort of endless so we can really innovate, which is really fun for us and for the drinker,” Grossman said. “Craft beer is still a small percentage of the beer consumed in America, smaller than some of the larger domestics or import brands. If we can do a better job still at elevating craft brewers as a whole industry, I think it can help us all.”