ASHEVILLE — Inside unadorned buildings, dark basements and hollow warehouses across this mountain town, the steam rises from shiny pots carrying a sweet smell from a brew that draws thousands.
Not far removed from the copper stills that once kept moonshine flowing in these hills, this new legal brew is transforming the state into a top destination for a fast-growing segment of the beverage market: craft beer.
Made in small batches by independent, local breweries, craft beer from North Carolina is now distributed throughout the region. The states roughly 85 craft brewers are earning national recognition and drawing hordes of enthusiasts, some of whom drive hours and sleep overnight on sidewalks to taste special releases.
Asheville held the title of Beer City USA, winning an online poll four years in a row starting in 2009. And its place on the beer map and likewise the states status became ensured in the past year as three national craft brewers opened or announced new operations in North Carolina.
Weve gone from a very small handful of breweries 20 years ago, said Leah Wong Ashburn, vice president at Highland Brewing, Ashevilles first legal brewery. Dramatic doesnt even begin to explain whats happened in 20 years.
Sipping the companys flagship Gaelic Ale, Ashburn said her father never envisioned it would grow so big when he opened in the basement of a pizzeria in 1994.
Behind her a dozen people from across the country take a tour through the Scottish-themed brewerys current warehouse-sized home, where massive silver conical tanks reach toward the top of a three-story building east of town. Highland can now bottle 8,640 beers an hour and distributes to nine states and the District of Columbia.
Beer is a growing part of the areas tourism economy, one better known for its lush green peaks and the sprawling Biltmore Estate.
At national industry gatherings, Ashburn said, people are asking whats going on over here because nothing has ever gone on over here.
People are coming to the state for beer, she said. Thats a new thing.
A vibrant scene
Looking at its history, North Carolina seems like an unlikely home for a beer boom and Asheville in particular. The city became the first in the Southeast to ban alcohol in 1907. North Carolina did the same the next year, becoming the first state in the nation to join the prohibition movement.
All this helps explain why the state came to the craft beer renaissance years after other more prominent destinations such as California, Colorado and Oregon.
Anne Fitten Glenn, the resident expert on Ashevilles beer scene, said the regions frontier roots and strong buy-local mentality helped fuel the interest, not to mention its past.
This is moonshine country, said Fitten Glenn, the author of the book Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing, who now works for Oskar Blues Brewery. People have been making their own alcohol beverages for a long time, legally and illegally. It seems like a pretty easy move to people making beer here.
A century removed from prohibition, the city of 85,000 now boasts a dozen craft breweries and a dozen others within a short drive.
Walt Dickinson at Wicked Weed Brewing is one of many artisanal brewers pushing the states still young beer scene into the national light. Named for a King Henry VIII quote describing hops as a wicked weed, the brewery is redefining what people expect in beer, brewing traditional Belgian styles and incorporating ingredients such as cucumbers.
The brewpubs most popular beer, dubbed Freak, is a double India pale ale loaded with hops that provide a pleasantly bitter bite and burst with floral aromas a far cry from the still dominant light-flavored lagers from mega-brewers such as Anheuser-Busch.
We do all these fun and zany beers, said Dickinson, 31. Our consumers come here and thats what they are expecting, just as we love to go to a brewery ... and try new things.
A booming industry
The adventurous palates he describes are driving craft beers current popularity.
The total beer market grew 1 percent in 2012, but craft beer jumped 17 percent in sales the same year, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group that tracks trends in the industry. The craft beer market remains just 6.5 percent of overall sales and the MillerCoors plant in Eden is still the states biggest brewer. But the smaller, locally owned operations are growing.
Three of North Carolinas craft brewers Foothills in Winston-Salem, Natty Greenes in Greensboro and Lonerider in Raleigh were among the 50 fastest growing in the nation out of more than 2,000 brewers.
In 2012, North Carolina ranked No. 10 in the nation with 70 craft breweries and No. 19 in terms of production at 159,033 barrels. (A barrel is 31 gallons.)
The industrys footprint is only expected to grow. The state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission permitted an additional 26 breweries so far in 2013, nearly as many as the previous two years combined.
No native North Carolina brewery reaches a national audience yet, but industry experts say its only a matter of time.
The craft beer culture is clearly here, and the state is ready to support a brewery that is ready to grow, said Sean Wilson, founder of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham and president of the N.C. Brewers Guild.
Ashevilles status as North Carolinas hub for craft beer crystallized with the announcement that Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, the nations No. 2 and No. 3 largest craft brewers, respectively, would open breweries in the area.
Its as if Asheville landed two major league baseball teams in the same season, as if the Yankees and Braves both relocated here, a columnist in the Asheville Citizen-Times wrote of the announcements.
A third national brewer opened at the beginning in the year in nearby Brevard. Oskar Blues Brewery is now producing its canned craft beer for the East Coast market stamped prominently as coming from Brevard, NC.
The implications are broader than the direct jobs created by the projects, said Clark Duncan, an economic development official from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
An Asheville company that malts North Carolina-grown barley for craft brewers saw business jump 150 percent in the past year, and a half dozen farms in the area are growing hops to flavor the beers. At an even broader level, the large craft brewers are drawing other like-minded industries who embrace the citys casual culture and craftsman mentality, Duncan said, helping the local employment picture outpace the state and national averages.
The Beer City USA (title) was a tremendous calling card for us as far as reputation goes, said Dodie Stephens with the citys visitors bureau. With the growth of Ashevilles beer scene, I think weve arrived, so to speak. Its something that we are known for.
Next week: Hand-crafted guitars