Known for its world-class workforce and friendly regulatory environment, North Carolina has long been an agricultural and food manufacturing behemoth. But as the craft beer industry continues to gain steam, the state’s reputation has shifted to include high-volume, quality beer production in its already impressive offering.
So, why has beer taken off in the Tar Heel State? A combination of relaxed legislation, clean waterways and easy access to major transportation arteries has led the way, experts say. In 2005, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley signed “Pop the Cap,” a bill to raise the alcohol limit on beer sold in the state from 6 percent to 15 percent. It also allowed the sale and creation of a fuller range of beer styles. This legislation, in combination with adjustments to the distribution laws that enabled local breweries to thrive, has allowed North Carolina to lead the charge toward trendier, artfully crafted suds.
Within the past few years, breweries have been popping up across the western side of the state, as well as in densely populated cities like Charlotte and Raleigh. While supporters of the bill thought it would create a few hundred jobs, the reality has been far greater — more than 3,000 people now are employed by North Carolina’s 260 craft breweries.
This rapid growth attracted the attention of Chico, Calif.-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. After considering more than 200 sites in several states, the brewer selected Mills River, a small town just outside of craft brew mecca, Asheville, for its $100 million East Coast headquarters.
“Everything just felt right,” said Brian Grossman, second-generation brewer and son of Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman. “From the site, to the partnerships, to the people we found here, we recognized Western North Carolina offered the opportunity we were looking for. It allowed us to grow in an environmentally responsible way and meet increasing demand for our beer.”
Few sites could match Western North Carolina’s beauty and outdoor culture, Grossman adds. It felt like home in Chico, Calif., the small town near the Sierra Nevada mountains, where his father started the business in 1979 and has since grown to capacity.
Beauty and outdoor culture are among the factors that make North Carolina a go-to state for craft brewing. However, there also are practical matters to consider. North Carolina offers good proximity to the eastern half of the United States, putting over 150 million people within a day’s drive. Five interstate highways, four international airports, two deep-water seaports and the nation’s largest consolidated rail system meant that barley shipments to the site, as well as product distribution, could be much easier.
A readily available manufacturing workforce, tax incentive, and a dependable source of clean water all helped tip the scales. And then there was this: a momentum in the air, a vitality that Grossman and his site selection team couldn’t deny. While there were other states that offered more aggressive financial packages, nowhere else provided the total package that North Carolina did.
“We really looked at everything,” Grossman said. “The location, the workers, the lifestyle all played a role, but what really stood out was the willingness of North Carolina’s official and unofficial leadership to partner with us on every step.”
Sierra Nevada has enjoyed record sales since the North Carolina brewery came online in 2015, helping to produce the company’s flagship Pale Ale and dozens of other beers. The brewery employs 400 people and runs one of the busiest restaurants in the state, serving as many as 4,000 plates on a Saturday. Its popular taproom, brewery tours and natural setting drew more than 60,000 visitors in 2016.
Sierra Nevada is the second of three major U.S. craft brewers to choose Western North Carolina for new breweries dedicated to serving fast-growing Eastern markets. Colorado-based Oskar Blues got things started in 2012 with a brewery located in Brevard, which is located southwest of Asheville. Sierra Nevada’s brewery opened three years later as North Carolina became to beer what California is to wine. And in 2016, New Belgium Brewing Co., the fourth-largest craft brewer in the country, opened its $140 million Asheville facility. Meanwhile, smaller breweries continue to spring up across the state.
While some industry experts have questioned craft beer’s longevity, North Carolina has yet to experience a slowdown in the boom. The number of craft breweries in North Carolina has more than tripled since 2010, and the state now has more breweries than any other in the South. BI
By the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina