How Does Lil’ Ole Asheville Keep Winning the Beer City USA Poll?

By Anne Fitten Glenn

That is the question. How has a small city with no nationally known beers won the BeerCity USA poll for three years in a row? The brainchild of National Beer Examiner and President of the Brewers Association, Charlie Papazian, the first poll took place in 2009. Though Asheville, N.C., tied with the bigger city of Portland, Ore., that year, the town of just more than 76,000 inhabitants and 9 craft breweries (plus a few more in the county and a few more on the way) won outright in 2010 and 2011.

The truth is, there are many answers. My favorite comes from Oscar Wong, president of Highland Brewing Company.

“Part of it is this community is relatively new to the craft beer world,” said Wong. “We’re like teenagers. We’re enthused, and we have lots of energy.”

Wong founded the first post-Prohibition brewery in Asheville in 1994. The city’s teenage enthusiasm may be one reason Portland, our big brother-in-beer, and rival in the poll, looks upon us with some disdain. After all, teenagers can be annoying know-it-alls.

Portlander Billy Night of It’s a Pub Night blog has written about the “silliness” of the poll for the past two years, but he does offer a caveat, “Even though I think the poll is meaningless, now that it has Asheville and Portland looking at each other, it’s a good opportunity for someone to do something that draws positive attention to both of them,” said Night. “Maybe get a contingent of Asheville beers at the Oregon Brewers Festival in 2012 and send some of our beers out Carolina way. We’ll probably both be pleasantly surprised at what the other town is up to.”

To extend the teen metaphor and offer another answer to the “how” question, I can tell you that Asheville has a well-connected beer community, most of whom communicate with each other regularly in person and via social media. There were about 14,800 votes cast in this year’s BeerCity poll, and around 7,000 went to Asheville. That’s not a whole lot of votes in the scheme of things, but to put it in perspective, only about 17,000 folks cast a vote in Asheville’s 2009 municipal elections.

“For Asheville, this is a big deal—probably a bigger deal than it would be for other bigger cities that have a lot of other stuff going on. [The BeerCity poll] has become a community focus, not just a beer focus,” said Tim Schaller, president of the Asheville Brewers Alliance and owner of Wedge Brewing Co.

And yes, Asheville can be like a big high school, everyone knows everyone else. People buy local, because by doing so, they’re supporting their friends and neighbors.

“The city is not only behind its small brewers, but behind local business,” wrote Papazian in his blog post about the poll.  “The BeerCity USA poll is about community pride. Not just beer…It’s about Main Street, grass roots, community support, not mainstream data and statistics.”

Executive Director of the Asheville Downtown Association Joe Minnicozzi agreed, “The brewers and the brewery owners are well-known in the community, and people are more likely to give their money to people they know.”

There are even beer cliques and clubs here in Asheville, and they’re all extremely savvy when it comes to social media. Twitter chatter? Yes, indeed—the #avlbeer hash tag is quite popular.

Here are a few of the craft beer-centric business, clubs, bars, and festivals in Asheville:

  • The Asheville Brewers Alliance works to promote regional brews and maintain inter-brewery peace.
  • The Asheville Beer Divas is a group of women who meet regularly to drink, talk, and learn about beer.
  • The first Asheville Beer Masters Tournament, based on the Wyncoop Beer Drinker of the Year and Philly Beer Geek competitions, is getting ready to hold a semi-final round.
  • There are multiple beer festivals held in town, from the boutique 14-year-old Brewgrass Festival, to the local beer-only Oktoberfest.
  • Brews Cruise brewery tours offers visitors and locals a great way to see the brewing sites.
  • Bruisin’ Ales is a beer-only store which sells more than 900 different beers.
  • Brewpubs galore that host regular events such as cask tappings, tap takeovers, and beer celebrity visits.

Our city’s teenage love affair with craft beer has compelled folks who aren’t from around here take notice. In the past year, a number of beer luminaries have visited the town, including Papazian, Larry Bell of Bell’s Brewery, and Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing. Next Fall, New Belgium Brewing will bring their Clips of Faith Tour to Asheville for the second time—it’s one of the smaller cities the tour will visit. “They come here because they know the event will draw 1,000 plus people because we love beer,” Minnicozzi says.

Finally, one of Asheville’s primary industries is tourism, and has been since the Vanderbilt family built the Biltmore House here in 1895. Asheville residents are smart enough to understand how important the beer industry is to our town, especially as other industries move away or shut down. Thus, the tourism branch of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce promotes polls—especially the BeerCity USA poll—because they can, in turn, attract those elusive animals known as tourists, and, in this case, beer tourists.

Asheville has some amazing locally crafted brews, and one of the highest per capita brewery ratios in the nation with one brewery for every 8,500 people. Minnicozzi notes that Portland would need 66 breweries to earn the same ratio. However, our breweries aren’t as big as those in other cities, nor do we have the same variety or selection. Only three of our breweries (though it’s about to be four) have distribution deals, and only two of those even sell beer out of state. Yet…

“We’ve come a long way, baby,” says Jimi Rentz, owner of Barley’s Taproom and founder of the Brewgrass Festival. “In truth, I have no idea how Asheville keeps winning the poll. Yes, there’s community support, but there are only so many of us. It’s amazing, really. If San Diego or Portland wanted to take it, they’d take it no problem.”

What Asheville does have is a commitment to great craft beer. “This win gives our brewers a challenge and a responsibility,” Schaller says. “When tourists come here, they better be able to drink good local beer.”

Overall, as Night noted, beer city rivalries can only help the American craft beer movement. The BeerCity USA poll stirs up interest in these communities, and a little light-hearted ribbing increases that visibility. When organizers of Philadelphia Beer Week proclaimed themselves “best beer-drinking city in America,” beer lovers in San Francisco responded by starting their own beer week to show Philly how it’s done. These little quarrels turn out to be beneficial to both cities, their breweries and beer-related businesses.

Despite the boost the BeerCity poll gives Asheville’s burgeoning beer tourist industry, it may be wise for the city to retire her jersey after this three-peat. The poll has created buzz for Asheville, brought in more beer tourists, and established some friendly inter-city rivalries. Perhaps now it’s time for some other beer cities to jump in and rally their beer communities. Although Asheville will continue to play hard for as long as we’re allowed to—or until we get through our adolescence.

Anne Fitten GlennAnne Fitten Glenn writes regular craft beer and parenting columns for Mountain Xpress newsweekly in Asheville, N.C. She’s noticed that the two topics often overlap. She’s also a mom, journalist, photographer, and homebrewer. You can find her writing on Facebook, Twitter and WordPress under the name “Brewgasm.”