Few things pair with local craft beer better than good live music. In Western North Carolina, we are spoiled with an abundance of both. It’s no wonder that more breweries are expanding to include live music venues and others are building them into their floor plans from the beginning. Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain has an outdoor concert venue as well as an indoor stage. Asheville Brewing Company added the Millroom to accommodate private parties, concerts, and other live performances. Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are both planning to host live music in their East Coast expansions. Oskar Blues in Brevard has teamed up with The Steep Canyon Rangers to create Candaid, a non-profit music festival. Whether you love rock and porters, blue grass and saisons, or reggae and pale ales there’s never a shortage of entertainment and refreshment options. As I began scratching under the surface to see what makes this marriage of libation and orchestration so harmonious I began to realize that the two are more connected than I had ever imagined, and at times even inseparable.
Music and drink both weave people together. While imbibing can break down the invisible walls that separate us, singing along with a much loved tune gives us a joyous shared experience with friends and strangers that is hard to duplicate. It is no wonder that singing and nipping have crossed cultural boundaries hand-in-hand to be a part of a variety of religious traditions. We find it in Ancient Greece and Rome in the form of Dionysus and Bacchus, respectively. We see it in Judaism as the Kiddush and Christianity as Communion. The list goes on, and I won’t bore you with it here, but rest assured almost every tradition around the world has at one time or another included music and drink as important community building activities. As I spoke with brewery representatives from around the area, it was clear that this phenomena of community building was exactly what they hoped to achieve with their space.
Leah Wong Ashburn of Highland Brewing Company was very deliberate in explaining that their expansion, which includes an event space with a stage and a mezzanine, is not intended to be a concert space alone. Rather, this space would allow Highland to keep their tasting room open to the public while also accommodating private functions like weddings, conferences, trade shows, and yes, concerts. What she and others had observed is that the social thread that they so intently desired to stitch was forcing their hand to pick and choose which patches of community they could incorporate into their tartan on any given day. When the expansion is complete later this year, Highland will be able to participate more fully with the community than ever before.
This notion of community is echoed over and over in the brewing industry. It’s rare to find a brewery in a shiny new building. More often than not, breweries are repurposing older buildings that have lost their meaning as other industries have moved out of the area or shut their doors for good. Riverbend Malt, Asheville’s very own malt house, and the only maltster in the Southeast, is in high demand as more brewers are seeking out locally grown and malted barley, wheat, and rye for their beers. All of Riverbend’s grains are sourced from North Carolina. If you watch the tap lists of your favorite brewery closely, you will see that many of them are collaborating with local farmers and seemingly un-beer-related businesses to create new flavors and exciting combinations. For instance, Burial Brewing’s Skillet Doughnut Stout, which has as its garnish a Vortex doughnut hole. Or Pisgah Brewing’s Chocolatized that uses French Broad Chocolate’s cocoa nibs to impart all the richness of a decadent torte. In essence, breweries are leading the way in stewardship of their local communities. They are striving to employ as many local people as possible, not only in their facilities, but throughout the supply chain. Along the way, they are helping support other businesses that are able to grow and thrive because of each other. This doesn’t happen by accident. It is the result of many small decisions to support one another.
When Jordan Boinest set out to start Newgrass Brewing in Shelby, NC, supporting the local community was first and foremost on her mind. Having grown up in Cleveland County, she has a familial bond to her surroundings. She isn’t simply starting a business. She is perpetuating the livelihood of her town. Newgrass chose a facility on the city square that is over one hundred years old and once housed a Hudson’s Department Store for their brewery. They worked with local contractors on the renovation, local designers to create their logo, and local printers for their business cards and banners. The fabric for their t-shirts is made out of recycled plastic bottles, and the yarn is spun in a mill in Cleveland County. “I think it’ll bring a sense of community and it’ll help tie in all the businesses in town to help create a lively experience in uptown [Shelby],” Jordan says. From inception, Newgrass is as much a music venue as it is a brewery. Steel tanks flank the stage that will soon be home to the area’s surplus of musical artists. As Jordan describes it, Shelby is inseparable from music. As the home town of such notable musicians as Earl Scruggs, Don Gibson, and Patty Loveless, it would be impossible for a Shelby gathering place not to include a stage. Live music brings a crowd to the door, no question. But the breweries aren’t simply looking out for their own interests by hosting such events. They are doing something far bigger with the instruments they possess. They are creating a harmony and a rhythm that is audible in the community, if only we will take the time to listen for it.
First published in WNC Woman Magazine