Black Mountain floats in the rising tide of beer tourism

Fred McCormick

As it has been throughout the Western North Carolina mountain, beer is a powerful - and growing - engine driving the Swannanoa Valley economy.

For 11 years Pisgah Brewing Co. has produced its flagship beer, Pisgah Pale Ale, one of the most recognized beers in a region known for quality brews. The brewery’s status as a pioneer in the industry makes it a prime destination for beer lovers, according to events director Benton Wharton.

“Seven days a week during the busy season we have people come to the area just to visit our brewery,” he said. “And it’s been like that for some time.”

Across town, on May 1 Lookout Brewing Co. celebrated three years of bringing beer tourism to Black Mountain’s central business district with bluegrass and dancing. General manager Sonya Wormsbecher said the nano-brewery has experienced significant growth in that time.

“We started off with a 10-gallon system, but they would pretty much have to be brewing around-the-clock to meet demands,” she said. “We are on our second brewing system now, which is a three-barrel system.”

John Garcia and the Lookout team have grown the brewery from under 100 barrels in its first year to around 1,000 barrels this year, The Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

Lookout’s expansion has been accelerated, in part, its beers’ distribution by Skyland Distributing, which exports kegs of the brewery’s Alison’s Front Porch Pale Ale and Dark Town Brown as far east as Charlotte. But tourism is responsible for a good deal of Lookout’s success as well.

“Once the summer hits our numbers double at least,” Wormsbecher said. “The best thing about tourism is that it gives our brand a chance to be recognized outside of the local market.”

Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce executive director Bob McMurray for the last 20 years has witnessed the impact that the growth of the industry has had on the Swannanoa Valley.

“More and more visitors come to Black Mountain from Asheville every year,” McMurray said. “And they’re looking for that craft beer experience in our breweries as well.”

Wharton credits the region’s ability to attract larger breweries for creating more interest in the area’s beers.

“We are asked all of the time how we feel about these larger breweries, like New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, coming into town,” he said. “As far as beer tourism is concerned, a rising tide floats all boats.”

The analogy is fitting in the sense that both Black Mountain breweries enjoy steady waves of visitors through Asheville-based tours.

“The majority of our tours come from Asheville Brews Cruise and Asheville Brewery Tours, which are both bus tours,” Wharton said. “And most of the time those buses are full, which is around 32-35 folks.”

“Beer absolutely matters” to local tourism, said Sue Conlon, who owns The Monte Vista Hotel with her husband Barney Fitzpatrick. “The area is already known for its craft beer because of Asheville,” she said. “And we get plenty of people who come here eager to taste the beers made in the area.”

Conlon said it is not at all uncommon for guests of her historic hotel in Black Mountain to come to town specifically to visit Pisgah Brewing Co. before heading into Asheville.

“So many of the people that come into town are already aware that the area is a center for craft brews,” she said. “And they are always happy to learn that there are two breweries that are even closer than Asheville.”

Lookout also receives tours from Asheville Brewery Tours, as well as from Black Mountain-based Creative Mountain Food Tours, according to Wormsbecher. And it is often through these tours that visitors get their first impression of the town.

“We have very good relationships with our partners,” Wormsbecher. “We use hops from Hop’n Blueberry Farm for our wet hop beer every year. Becki Janes from Becki’s Bounty provided us with the cilantro we used in The Squeeze, a sour beer we made a little while back.”

In addition to beer, music has been another significant part of Pisgah Brewing’s identity in recent years. The brewery’s outdoor stage been the site of performances by regionally and nationally recognized artists.

That tradition will continue this summer when Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby perform with Kentucky Thunder on June 21 as part of the venue’s 2016 outdoor concert series.

“The stage has been instrumental in our growth,” Wharton said. “The venue and the artists it attracts are becoming a huge part of our identity.”