It's not what's brewing but who's brewing it at Black Mountain's newest brewery

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Shiny stainless steel tanks, visible to drivers along one of Black Mountain’s busiest roads, makes it hard not to wonder what’s brewing at 131 Broadway Avenue.

That answer is simply “fine craft beer,” according to the logo for Black Mountain Brewing, which will open its doors to the public in the coming weeks. However, the question that might shed the most light on what to expect from the Swannanoa Valley’s newest craft brewery is “who’s doing the brewing?”

Jeff “Puff” Irvin loves beer. He was working for a brewery in Ames, Iowa in 2013 when he found his dream job in Western North Carolina - more specifically as the brewmaster for the Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. The program was launched in 2014 to support the region’s ever-growing craft beverage industry.

Irvin became the director of the program, the only one of its kind in the country, in 2016.

Jeff "Puff" Irvin talks about his love for beer and his eagerness to open Black Mountain Brewing with partners John Richardson and Matt Schwarz.

Irvin came to the mountains with plenty of credentials. He earned his undergraduate degree in biology at Iowa State University before completing the Master Brewers Program at University of California, Davis. He then became a diploma brewer through the Institute of Brewing & Distilling in London. 

“The program at A-B Tech is the first two-year degree in brewing, distillation and fermentation in the country,” said Irvin from behind the bar in the brewery he is opening with partners John Richardson and Matt Schwarz in the coming weeks. "We've been visited by 32 programs in the last two years trying to emulate what we're doing."

John Richardson, left, Jeff "Puff" Irvin, middle, and Matt Schwarz are opening Black Mountain Brewing on Broadway Avenue in the coming weeks.

Richardson was one of the first people Irvin met when he moved to Asheville, and the two quickly began talking about one day opening a brewery together. Richardson, a longtime resident and owner of Black Mountain Ale House, has already successfully developed a concept that suits the community. 

"At the Ale House we've always just tried to have a relaxed atmosphere where everyone feels welcome," he said. "With a brewery, the idea is to make great beer and have that same kind of environment."

Irvin will use the five barrel system at Black Mountain Brewing to create beers conducive to "sitting down and spending time with friends and neighbors."

"I like the idea of sessionable beers (typically less than five percent alcohol by volume) that people can drink together while having a conversation," he said. "Imagine that, people getting together and focusing on talking to each other instead of looking at their phones."

"It's about time" Irvin opened a brewery, said Kendra Penland, the former executive director of the Asheville Brewers Alliance who stepped down in early July to launch a media management and public relations firm with a focus in the food beverage and entertainment industry. 

"The Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast and A-B Tech have been important partners and associate members of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, and Puff is training the brewers that are impacting the craft beer scene," Penland said. "He's nationally known as a consultant for start-up breweries, distilleries, wineries, you name it. He's helped a lot of businesses in that craft beverage space get started."

Jeff "Puff" Irvin adjusts a hose on a brite tank inside of Black Mountain Brewing on Broadway Avenue, which will open its doors to the public in the coming weeks.

Few people understand the craft beverage industry the way Irvin does, she said. 

"He understands everything from concept to getting the beer in a glass in front of a customer in a way that few people do," Penland said. "A lot of folks are experts in the production or the conceptualization or operations, but it's rare to find someone who understands all those vital aspects."

Executing his craft in a brewery will allow Irvin to sharpen his skills in a sophisticated beer market while staying "fresh and relevant," he said. 

"It's really a creative outlet for me," he said. "I hate the term 'brewmaster' because there are maybe only five people in the whole world who have mastered it; I learn something new every day. There's always a trick we can do better or a process we can streamline and this helps me apply that practical knowledge I'm trying to teach."

In the collaborative world of craft beer, Black Mountain Brewing will potentially give Irvin the opportunity to team up with former students. 

"Some of them have gone out west or up north, but a lot of them have stayed right here in this area," Irvin said of his students. "I've got some great students who have done very well for themselves and I hope to collaborate with some of them."

It's that willingness to work with others in the field that Black Mountain Brewing brings to the table, Penland said. 

"We have such a great craft beverage scene in Western North Carolina," she said. "What's special about this project is that they're not trying to take over anything, they just want to add to the already vibrant scene."

Richardson just hopes to create a space that captures the welcoming spirit of the town. 

"It will be the kind of place where people come in and enjoy a beer or two with the same faces they see around town," he said. "I think it will be something Black Mountain can be proud of."