How the bible belt got down with craft beer – the washington post gas jet


The arrival of California brewery Sierra Nevada, which opened outside Asheville in 2014, and Colorado’s New Belgium, which will start offering tours on Monday, opens a final geographic frontier for one of the rare American industries where small business is booming. Their mammoth production facilities cement Asheville’s status as a power-player in the craft world — but also give their homegrown brewers some big new neighbors to worry about.

New business creation is slowing across the country and in most industries, but not in the world of beer. The industry is dominated by a few big players, led by the soon-to-be-merged SAB Miller and Anheuser-Busch InBev. But smaller competitors, peddling wide varieties of stronger and more flavorful beer, are popping up everywhere to steal market share.

There were 2,347 craft breweries in the United States in 2012, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group, and they combined for 12 percent of the country’s beer sales in dollar terms. The sales share grew to 21 percent in 2015. By year’s end, if trends hold, there will be 5,000 craft breweries nationwide.

Four Western states house more than a quarter of those breweries: California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado, which have long been havens for the hoppy India pale ales that form the liquid foundation of the craft industry. The Midwest and Northeast also boast strong craft scenes.

The Mid-Atlantic is finally on its way. From 2005 to 2012, North Carolina lawmakers steadily repealed laws — Bible Belt leftovers from the end of Prohibition nearly a century earlier — that had stifled brewers from making and selling craft beer.

They lifted restrictions on how much alcohol a beer could include by volume, which had effectively banned many of the most popular craft styles. They began allowing larger craft breweries to sell their products on site, opening the way for small-volume brew houses. And they made it easier for some smaller breweries to distribute beer to stores and bars.

Until the restrictions were lifted, it took enormous quantities of money and patience to start a brewery in the state. Oscar Wong had both, which was why he had no competition when he began selling beer from an Asheville basement two decades ago. He had plenty of critics, though. They wrote the local newspaper regularly, complaining that he was doing the devil’s work with his pale ale.

Wong had sold an engineering business in his 40s and was bored in retirement. He hired a brewmaster and was content to build Highland Brewing slowly, from a few converted dairy tanks in 1994 to a leafy campus with its own bottling plant today. He brewed Scottish ale that was low enough in alcohol content to avoid violating state law, and he waited eight years to finally turn a profit.

Its brew tanks are cooking up batches of Fat Tire, New Belgium’s signature amber ale, and Ranger, its IPA. Last month, its tasting room was packing in visitors to watch the Tour de France on a projector screen and sip varietals at reclaimed-wood tables fashioned from the remnants of the livestock yard that once occupied part of the 18-acre site. On a recent weekday, landscapers were tilling the grounds and blue masking tape held temporary paper signs on conference rooms.