The name of one city pops up repeatedly in conversations about microbreweries and market saturation.
Asheville, North Carolina.
“People use the word saturation, and I think that really depends on how good of a product you put out. You look at someplace like Asheville, North Carolina. There’s over 16 breweries in the downtown area … and they thrive,” said Mike Moll of Molly Pitcher Brewing.
A retired engineer and homebrewer lit the spark for Asheville’s brewing scene in 1994 when Oscar Wong opened Highland Brewery.
“He kind of paved the way with a very high quality product,” said Dodie Stephens, director of communications for Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
When Stephens came to Asheville 10 years ago, there were only a handful of breweries in the metro area. Since then, the number has grown to 35 as the industry grew hand in hand with the growth and increasing notoriety of the town’s independent restaurant scene.
Over those years, only one has closed to Stephens’ knowledge.
A study from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Coalition for Asheville-Buncombe County showed a 754 percent growth in the brewing industry.
Stephens credits that growth to a number of factors, the most important of which is the breweries themselves and the experiences they are creating as well as the promotional efforts of groups like the Asheville Brewers Alliance and the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association.
Explore Asheville launched a culinary branding campaign 10 years ago that offered additional support in marketing and promotions.
“The craft beer scene has very much been layered into that campaign, which had significant investment over the years,” Stephens said.
“One of the things that has been very important to the evolution and support is the infrastructure that has grown along with it,” Stephens said. “Those supporting players are an important part and should be supported as much as the breweries.”
The ancillary businesses include retail stores as well as businesses that provide directly to the brewing such as malt and hops growers. Much of the economic growth surrounding the beer scene is actually in these supporting businesses, Stephens said.
Early on, businesses were launched to guide visitors through the brewery offerings. Asheville Brews Cruise has been in business for 10 years, taking visitors to breweries to enjoy samples and tours of the operation. The Amazing Pubcycle is essentially a bar on wheels that moves with the power of 10 people pedaling all at once. Walking tours are also available.
“They offer wonderful enriching experiences that add a new layer to the brewery scene,” Stephens said.
The work to build businesses around the brewing industry and to market the town as a destination for craft beer fans has paid off.
“We’re now finding that beer is actually motivating travel to Asheville, which is really exciting to us,” Stephens said.
Craft beer has crept into the top segment of reasons people come to Asheville. Stephens said more than 25 percent of visitors stop by breweries during their visit, and 14 percent say the breweries were their primary reason for coming to town.
“They really are a great way to explore the destination, if they are built and conceived as a way to connect your destination,” Stephens said.
Bringing it to Carlisle
With one-quarter of the population of Asheville, is it realistic to think that Carlisle could become a sort of mini-Asheville of the north?
“If that was the direction the borough wanted to go, and came up with some creative ways to entice people to do it, Carlisle could easily be a beer destination town,” Moll said.
“I’ve seen Carlisle moving in the right direction as far as investment of local businesses and catering to current market tastes in the sense of restaurants and craft alcohol,” said Chad Kimmel of Grand Illusion Cider.
Downtowns are coming back from the demise that accompanied the rapid construction of malls in the 1970s and ‘80s, Kimmel said. People are starting to find strip malls and suburban shopping experiences unenlightening, and are more interested in experiences.
“Businesses and experiences that cater to the unordinary are going to win in time,” he said.
Part of a downtown rebound includes filling in empty buildings, and Dave Hamilton from Burd’s Nest Brewing believes there’s room to add more breweries to the mix.
“Any place in Carlisle that’s empty, you want to get something in there. So having four or five different breweries isn’t a bad thing because it’s taking over an empty space,” he said.
As the number of breweries grows, so does the opportunity for new business, said Kristin Rowe, communications manager for the Cumberland Valley Visitors Bureau. More foot traffic offers more opportunity for restaurants and shops, which helps to grow a downtown vibe and make it all more visitor friendly.
“We’re in this boom of getting all these breweries right now. That’s phase one. Phase two would be other businesses seeing that more people are in town at different hours than they’re used to, and increasing their hours,” she said.
Stretching the business community into phase two could be what sets Carlisle apart from other potential destination communities, but it can be a challenge.
“You can go to some of these downtowns and they have the restaurants. They have the breweries, but they don’t have the retail. I think we do have those unique shopping experiences. It’s just getting them integrated into this whole concept,” Rowe said.
The redevelopment underway on three former industrial sites in the borough will result in more opportunities for businesses to bring employees to Carlisle for meetings, said Valerie Copenhaver director of marketing for the bureau.
The breweries add another element to the town for people who are coming in for those meetings as well as other events, though Rowe said it has been proven in the industry that people will travel solely to visit the breweries themselves.
That’s particularly true among those with a “millennial mindset,” Rowe said. That demographic typically prefers weekend getaways to weeklong cruises.
A weekend hike on Waggoner’s Gap helped Copenhaver realize how ripe the region is for such tourism. In addition to the attractions in town, visitors don’t have to go far to get an outdoor, recreational experience that pays off with views from the mountaintop.
That brings the whole region into play as a potential beer destination rather than relying solely on downtown Carlisle. The Cumberland Valley Beer Trail includes 23 breweries in a growing market, as compared to 35 throughout the Asheville metro area.
“From our perspective, we know that visitors don’t care where the county starts and ends so, for us, we’re promoting opportunities to come a couple of times and experience the beer trail,” Rowe said.
It’s possible, though, that the key to making Carlisle a destination town is more basic than building retail or drawing visitors to the outdoor opportunities in the area.
“The trend, obviously, is people like breweries. Right there is the attraction. People want to go have one or two beers and relax,” Hamilton said.