When an area rife with protected forests, wild rivers and smoky, layered peaks is also home to thousands of enthusiastic craft beer drinkers and an unusually high number of craft breweries, amazing things can happen – like when Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, New Belgium Brewing Company and Oskar Blues Brewery all decided, within about four months of one another in early 2012, to open second breweries in or near Asheville. Holy hops.
As Anne Fitten Glenn recalls in her history, Asheville Beer, when the funky capital of craft beer in Western North Carolina attracted the second, third, and twenty-ninth best-selling craft brewers in the nation, it elevated “Beer City USA” to a status like that of the ’27 Yankees. The high quality but mostly low-production hometown breweries would now be joined by behemoths with national cachet. The three newcomers projected first-year brewing of 40,000 barrels (Oskar Blues in Brevard, about thirty miles away), 300,000 (Sierra Nevada in Mills River, twelve miles south of the city) and 400,000 (New Belgium, which will brew in Asheville’s River Arts District). “In three fell swoops, these companies will effectively produce more than fifteen times the volume of beer being made by the breweries currently operating in Western North Carolina.”
Most of this new production is sold throughout the eastern part of the country, cheaper distribution costs and a lighter environmental footprint being two of the incentives to open these breweries in the first place. The California and Colorado-based “big boys” of craft brewing had outgrown their original facilities and wanted to ensure their continued growth and East Coast presence by joining the wider Asheville beer family. The arrival of Sierra, New Belgium and Oskar cements Asheville’s national reputation while raising hopes for substantial job creation and the enhancement of the area’s already flourishing beer tourism. While other cities – including Atlanta – seek to emulate Asheville’s success, the mountains, progressive politics, and thriving arts scene give Beer City USA tremendous advantages in attracting these kinds of established western breweries.
When the newcomers chose Asheville, they also cited another inducement: the local water. “There’s great water,” Sierra told locals. Since in even the most high gravity product “Water is 90 and 95 percent of beer,” the craft brewers had to build with this environmental factor in mind. The founder and owner of Oskar Blues called the water in Brevard “spectacular,” and speculated, “It doesn’t even look like we’re going to need to do anything to it.”
A new story by NPR reveals a more complex reality. Oskar and Sierra have indeed had to treat the water so that its taste does not prevent the all-important consistency sought by national brewers. You might celebrate terroir in local beer as in local wine and food, but the western breweries discovered “a remarkable difference” in the taste of municipal water in Brevard vs. the Rocky Mountain run-off they were accustomed to. The brewery has used a filtration system to reduce the chlorine in the local water and, after two years, they claim that in terms of taste, “overall the changes are subtle” when you compare their N.C.-made beer with the product from the original brewery out west.
Whether consumers will notice any difference in taste remains to be seen. It is surprising that the taste of North Carolina water surprised the newly arrived brewers. NPR reported on this issue two years ago. That story predicted that Sierra, Oskar and New Belgium would have “to adjust their recipes and even chemically ‘tweak’ the water at their new breweries.”
Water is an essential part of beer. But its flavor is only part of the equation. Water also supports yeast, which then eats sugar and turns it into alcohol. Those are two reasons why a town’s water supply has long determined what the local beer tastes like.
While the “tweaking” of the water is inconsequential when compared with the adulteration committed by the likes of InBev, it is a reminder that the rightly celebrated renaissance in craft beer (like its counterpart, farm to table), can never be an exercise in purity. Then again, our sense of taste is nothing if not complex. That’s why Oskar’s brain trust converges daily in its “tasting area” to note the degree to which any sample of beer is “buttery” or tastes of “green apples.” As Americans try to catch up to that level of sophistication in palette and nomenclature, it is reassuring to know that the barrels keep coming.