To Brew or Not to Brew?
Sean Spiegelman and Nathan Kelischek want to build a brewery in
They’ve got the financing in place. They’ve got the site, a former welding shop next door to the Boone Mall. And they’ve got a vision for the North Carolina mountains as “a Disney World for microbrewers,” a favored destination for lovers of crafted beers from all over the Southeast.
Spiegelman, who represents the business side of the proposed Appalachian Mountain Brewery, and Kelischek, who will concoct the brews, would love to see Boone on that map. But first they have to make a positive impression on Boone officials by convincing them that their new brewery will be good for the town.
The Boone Area Planning Commission is examining their request for a conditional zoning permit that would change the zoning on their Boone Creek Drive property from B-3 (allows for businesses that provide general goods and services) to CB-3, a conditional designation allowing light industrial enterprises like the brewery and tasting room Spiegelman and Kelischek would like to create.
The planning commission will hold a public hearing on the zoning permit on Monday, Dec. 12, at 5 p.m. Members of the public will be allowed to voice their views before the commission and the town council at the meeting. “So, anyone can sign their name and come up and state whether they support it or not,” Kelischek said.
At 6 p.m., the town council will leave the hearing, and the planning commission will continue the discussion at its regular meeting, though no further public comment will be allowed.
About 24 hours later, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, the five town council members will reconvene to decide the fate of the brewery. They will consider the planning commission’s recommendation – yes or no – though the council is not obliged to follow the commission’s advice.
The council’s decision is not subject to appeal. “We only get one shot at this,” Spiegelman said.
Currently in Boone, beer, wine and liquor by the glass are allowed only in specified establishments, including bars, restaurants, hotels, motels and private clubs. There is nothing currently in the town’s ordinances addressing breweries.
Spiegelman worried that if the town council denies his request for on-site consumption, their business will never brew its first batch – at least not in Boone.
“Why would anybody want to come up to Boone to have just a production facility, and then have to turn around and ship (the product) back down the mountain?” he said. “To survive you’d have to have enormous production – enormous production.”
With no language in its Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) addressing the establishment of breweries, Appalachian Mountain Brewery has been forced to seek special permission. Town officials have been reworking the entire UDO for months with the brewery issue representing just a small part of that gargantuan task. Spiegelman said they had hoped it would be completed by January 2012, but the time line has been pushed back to March at the earliest.
Spiegelman said the delay – and the unbending realities of contract law – have complicated their quest for approval and, to an extent, helped drive the need for a special hearing and a quick decision from the town council.
Appalachian Mountain Brewery’s investors are under contract to purchase the land within a specified period. If they have to wait until March or later, they might forfeit their chance to purchase the Boone Creek Road property before they even have a chance to get started.
“In real estate, it doesn’t work that way if you’re in a contract. You can’t just say, ‘Let’s just push it back.’ Potentially I could go back to the owner and say we need more time and, he could say, ‘That’s your problem, not mine.’”
Because it will not be serving food, the brewery’s public area will more resemble a tasting room than a traditional restaurant. And Spiegelman said the environment will cater more to families than to the inveterate bar hopper. “I want this to be the kind of place where a person could come with their husband or wife and kids and hang out.”
The brewery will be as much a showplace as a drinking establishment. The beer is brewed in full view of the public. A mezzanine will serve as a storage area. The finished brew will be canned in an area adjacent to the bar.
“You can sit right at the bar, we can pull the tap and you can sit right there and watch everything going on while you have your beer,” Spiegelman said. “They can see that it’s a marvel. I mean, look at this production, this is amazing, this is so cool.”
Boone has a history of resisting attempts to bring alcohol sales into the town limits, and Spiegelman said he expects most objections will come from those who oppose alcohol consumption in general.
“How many places (in Boone) can you go to drink? If you’d like to, you can get rid of all those places, and the economic impact of that will crush the town of Boone,” he said. “But you know what? When people in the 21st century go out, they don’t demonize the No. 3 consumed beverage in the world – water is No. 1, and tea is No. 2, then it’s beer.”
Asheville, meanwhile, has been ahead of the curve, with city officials working to foster a homegrown brewery movement even before the state legislature got on board. The result: In about 10 years, Asheville has established itself as one of the nation’s top destinations for craft brew enthusiasts.
Of North Carolina’s 50 or so microbreweries, more than a dozen are in and around Asheville, and at least two Watauga County entrepreneurs would like to see some portion of that success flow Boone’s way.
Spiegelman said the worries about the effects of excessive alcohol consumption are not lost to him. During one discussion with a fellow business owner, Spiegelman said he had a realization.
“It’s not about the individual,” he said. “It’s about us as business owners taking the responsibility to not allow somebody to drink more than they’re supposed to. And if we don’t do that, we failed as people.
“If I say to myself I’m going to put economics before health, and I’m going to keep serving you just because you want to keep drinking, that’s not responsible, that’s on me. If somebody comes in and they appear to be already intoxicated, this is not the place for you to be. I’m sorry, there are other places to go, but this is not going to be that kind of place.”
The partners will attend an invitation-only meeting at the Mellow Mushroom on Thursday night (Dec. 8) to help build awareness among the business community. Spiegelman said he’s hoping other businesses – particularly eating establishments – will see the potential benefit a thriving microbrew industry can bring to their own businesses.
“We’re going to have a lot of local business owners in the community who will have the opportunity (at the public hearing) to say, ‘Wait a minute, this is great. You can’t eat at the brewery; it’s not a restaurant. So, that’s awesome.
“This is going to become a destination for people who go to Asheville and say, ‘Hey, let’s extend our trip and come up the mountain to Boone. It’s a gorgeous place. Let’s hang out and go on the (Blue Ridge) Parkway. Let’s go to the brewery and check it out. And let’s go downtown, let’s go eat somewhere, let’s go have a good time, let’s go to the movies, let’s stay in a hotel.”
Lawmakers bullish on beer
It began in earnest in 2005 with a stroke of then N.C. Gov. Mike Easley’s pen. His signature on House Bill 392 raised the allowable alcohol content in malt beverages from 6 to 15 percent, thus opening the state as the newest frontier for the burgeoning craft brewing industry.
The law allowed North Carolina brewers to include traditional brews, such as bocks, ales and stouts, with naturally higher alcohol content, giving a hand up to an industry that has already brought hundreds of jobs to the state, and promises to create a lot more.
Those jobs are likely to multiply in the wake of a number of laws passed recently by the N.C. Legislature, making it possible for midsize craft brewers, such as Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, to open brewery/tasting rooms in North Carolina.
At the end of November, House Bill 796, a measure that would allow all breweries in the state, regardless of size, to offer tastings and sell beer on site, even beers they produce outside North Carolina, was ratified and sent to the governor’s desk for a signature. Gov. Bev Perdue is expected to sign the bill into law this month.
House Bill 98 passed the N.C. Legislature earlier this year. The bill permits breweries to sell their products on the premises in any area that already allows the sale of alcoholic drinks. Since Boone already allows such sales at restaurants, hotels, bars and private clubs, the law will supersede any restrictions to onsite consumption the town of Boone attempts to place on qualifying breweries.
At the federal level, the U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that would cut the excise tax on beer from $7 per barrel to $3.50 for brewers that produce no more than 60,000 barrels a year. Larger brewers would also see reductions in their per-barrel excise taxes, though nothing as steep as 50 percent. Dubbed the Small BREW Act, every one of North Carolina’s existing microbreweries would qualify for its lower rate.