“I would welcome another dozen massive breweries": Burial Beer Co. and the Asheville Brand

Harris King, July 28, 2015

This is the second post of what I experienced at the Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference, which took place July 17-19 in Asheville, North Carolina.

After checking into the hotel and conference on Friday around noon, my fellow attendees and I were greeted with a rousing introduction by Julia Herz of the Brewers Association. This was followed by the informative session Past, Present, and Future of Asheville Beer. I had come to the conference hoping to answer the question of what exactly Asheville beer is. That is, when people hear “Asheville beer” what do they think of.

The city was chosen for the conference because it has both the infrastructure and beer culture to be an appropriate host. We were not disappointed during our weekend there, and this first official session introduced us to Doug Reiser of Burial Beer Co.. With great enthusiasm he discussed what for him and for Burial Beer the Asheville brand is. After the session, I introduced myself and made plans to meet with him on Sunday at his brewery upon the conclusion of the conference.

The following is what I learned about Burial Beer, Asheville, Western North Carolina and the breweries big and small located therein.  

Reiser and his partners are non-natives who chose Asheville due to its welcoming nature and its viability as an exploding beer market. As Reiser, co-founder and head operations of Burial Beer Co., explained during the conference session, “we thought about the future. Everybody wants to live here. You talk to the New Belgium guys and Kim Jordan didn’t have a choice. Her employees wanted to be here. There’s a lot of reasons why. It’s not only just the quality of life. To own a brewery here is a pretty savvy business move … I think most of these guys made the decision because it makes sense from a business standpoint.”

For Burial Beer Co. it was a savvy business move indeed. The Brewery on Asheville’s South Slope, which has become to be known as the town’s brewing district, opened its doors June 15, 2013 and has gone from a “one-barrel nanobrewery” to a “ten-barrel brewhouse,” to having “a couple of 30-barrel tanks as well because we began canning a month ago.” That is impressive growth in a little over two years of being in operation.

Reiser continued by saying that “It’s pretty crazy how much has changed in just two years. We were just in half of this building, we had none of this outdoor space, we had that little one barrel and we were only open a couple of days a week. As of November of 2014, our ten barrel went on line and then April we added these 30-barrel tanks and started canning. Our first can release was Skillet Donut Stout on June 4 of this year.”

In other words, according to Reiser, “we really picked Asheville because it’s a great place to live, but it is also very strategic for us from a brewery standpoint because of its incredible speed of growth of the Asheville brand. [What] was really important to us when we were looking at markets for where we wanted to put our brewery was that name, that regional name, that viticultural name is kind of how I compare it to wine. [It] was important that it would mesh with our ideals of what type of beer we wanted to make and have value in the nationwide marketplace.”

Reiser freely admits that the Asheville Brand is not fully defined yet and is in fact “kind of diluted” because “we’re trying to do too many things. We’re wearing a lot of different hats.” He sees Asheville’s future in continuing to embrace the region’s agricultural abundance because “up until about two years ago … Belgian beer almost didn’t exist in this market. It was really just about American and English beer. English beer has pretty much died. Obviously IPAs were always there and continue to grow. And any type of hippie town that’s pretty much an important thing.”

For him he sees a time when “we can really define Asheville beer and you’re like ‘oh man,’ like you think about San Diego beer. When you see San Diego beer, you think this is certainly going to be dry and hoppy. I really hope that becomes about the local terroir, the local adjuncts, and making creative, inventive, local focus farmhouse style beers. And I think that’s where it’s going. You see Wicked Weed doing it, we do it a lot, Fonta Flora, Haw River Farmhouse Ales in Saxapahaw is an amazing example of that.”

And it is with the local adjuncts that North Carolina shines according to Reiser. With much excitement in his voiced he outlined what Burial Beer has at its resources: “We actually grow barley here. We’ve had six row here for centuries. Six row is really cool, and there is probably a dozen breweries right here in the state that make six row beers regularly. All of our Saisons here are six row focused. We also have two row barley being grown here. We have great Appalachian wheat that’s grown here. And really probably the best grain we grow here is rye. North Carolina Wrens Abruzzi rye is fantastic. I would put it up against any of the rye grown in Germany or any other place. Scythe, or Rye IPA, is made with about 20% of that North Carolina grown rye.”

And it is not just the grains that excite the Ohio raised proprietor. The local fruits are also in play for his vision of what Burial Beer can use to its advantage. He said, “we do a watermelon mint Wit. We have fantastic cucumbers and strawberries and we do cherries really well here. We do apples really well here. There’s peaches of course and nectarines. There’s a lot of fantastic … figs, I should never forget figs. Figs are amazing, and they grow really, really well here.”

By this point in the conversation, it was clear what he had in mind for his vision of what the Asheville brand could and should be. Nonetheless, the backbone for all of this had yet to be mentioned. Asheville, located in the southern part of the Appalachian Mountains is home to some of the best water in the country. Reiser said, “water is really important. There’s a reason that Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Oskar Blues and maybe Deschutes [are here]. A big element is water. If you’re in Southern California or in Florida or you’re in Louisiana the cost of making your water to where we already have it is extremely exorbitant. Putting in those RO (reverse osmosis) systems is a $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollar investment. It basically gives you clean water or zero content across the board. Asheville water is almost all zero content across the board. We have almost no sulfates. We have no chloride. We have a little bit of carbonate and a little bit of sodium, no magnesium. It’s just great, clean almost pure, pristine water. That’s a great cost element, but it’s also just good for the terroir.”

Asheville as a viticultural region is an area that Reiser defines as “west of Winston-Salem” to the Tennessee border. The city is home to 21 breweries, which means it has the most breweries per capita in the country. Because of the region’s advantages, Asheville is attractive to not only start-ups such as Burial Beer, but also to already established craft beer giants such as Oskar Blues, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada as mentioned above.

Reiser, however, does not see a disconnect in how the Asheville brand is defined by craft breweries on opposites end of the spectrum. He boldly concluded our conversation by saying that, “I would welcome another dozen massive breweries. From a business standpoint, it’s great because every new brewery that comes in spent a lot of time marketing and promoting and building the Asheville brand and bringing new consumers to Asheville …It is just expanding the consumer base, and if the breweries are expanding, it’s because they are freaking good. If the Asheville brand starts to meld with New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues and Deschutes, then, my God, that’s just improving what we all do. Those are guys that focus purely on quality, otherwise they wouldn’t be as successful as they are.”

After Reiser and I talked, I purchased a can of the Scythe Rye IPA in a 16 ounce can to take home with me. I finally opened up before I started writing this piece and discovered it had been canned two days before I bought it and eight days before I drank it. 

In keeping with the Asheville brand as outlined by Reiser, it was fresh and reflected the viticultural region of Asheville. The City in Western North Carolina, like Portland and San Diego on the other side of the country, is worth a visit and is further evidence of the golden age we are currently experiencing.

What is currently happening is being felt even beyond the borders of the United States, which I will discuss in my next BBC15 piece - the collaboration between Sierra Nevada and the Augsburg, Germany brewery Riegele.

Harris can be found on Twitter @ohkiv where he is often the ornery, old guy talking (sometimes in German) about baseball, music and beer.