The number of member breweries in the Asheville Brewers Alliance has more than doubled over the past 18 months, according to Kendra Penland, Director of the local brewery trade association. That number includes breweries throughout Western North Carolina who have decided to join the ABA, illustrating the fact that craft beer isn’t only centered in downtown Asheville anymore. Every time a new brewery opens there is the inevitable question, where’s the saturation point?
I’ve been hearing that question since I moved to town in 2006, when Asheville was home to five breweries. Since that time, the number has risen to more than 30 and only one has gone out of business. But, how long can it last?
The short answer is… awhile. Over that same eleven year period Asheville became a major tourism destination. Ten million visitors chose to spend time in Asheville last year, and 14% of them reported that visiting breweries was the major reason for their vacation. Craft beer drinkers are known for their love of variety, so it can be expected that most of these beer tourists are hitting as many of our local breweries as they can before going home. From tourist traffic alone, many of the smaller breweries can support themselves. Combine tourist traffic with a growing local population and the number of breweries Asheville can support continues to grow.
Is There A Beer Bubble In Asheville?
I think this is the better question. A saturation point means that the city can’t support another brewery. If the local and visitor populations continue to increase as they have, that point is far in the future. A bubble burst simply means a correction point where breweries aren’t a failure-free guarantee. I think the bubble is actually a lot closer than many think. Asheville’s breweries are known for making world class beer, so the bar is set pretty high for breweries entering the market. So far, only one brewery has failed. That streak simply cannot continue. Asheville’s locals tend to have pretty good palates and know quality beer. The breweries making subpar product aren’t going to make it in an increasingly crowded landscape. To be clear, this isn’t a bad thing. Brewers will either improve the quality of their product, helping the Asheville beer brand remain strong, or they will be outcompeted. Without naming names, I think there are several breweries currently in operation that will not last another 18 months under current conditions.
Asheville Beer Will Continue To Thrive
I don’t believe a saturation point is on the horizon. Asheville has become a destination for craft beer in the Southeast. The city has a growing population and a tremendous number of beer drinking visitors. However, the density of breweries in our area requires brewers to produce outstanding products. While some breweries might have no problem succeeding in another market with fewer options, those making subpar beer in Asheville will find it increasingly difficult to survive.