A special agent for the N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement’s Asheville office, Cox has found herself in a recent controversy between local breweries, the ALE and N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (ABC). With the explosion of the craft beer industry in WNC, you have a growing business sector that is pushing ahead at full throttle, many-a-time faster than state regulations can keep up or evolve.
“The craft beer industry has just boomed here over the last several years — it’s great for tourism, it’s great for business,” Cox said. “And we enforce these rules for big companies and small in the state. We deal the same with everyone — we don’t play favorites.”
Cox’s comments come after a handful of incidents over the last few months that have left a bad taste in the mouths of beer drinkers and brewery owners. This past spring, ALE agents had an issue with potential brewery violations during the popular “Race to the Taps” running series (which connects nine WNC breweries). The ALE felt the breweries involved weren’t correctly following the state laws, although no warnings were issued. This initial interaction should have been a red flag for the Asheville Brewers Alliance (ABA) — which is the overseeing body for the dozens of breweries now operating in WNC — that their members need to cover all their bases when hosting or participating in events.
During the Beer City Festival on May 30 in Pack Square in downtown Asheville, ALE agents witnessed several breweries and their employees drinking beer while serving to attendees — a clear violation of any ABC permit holders, who cannot consume alcohol while on duty. The ALE issued 10 violations to 10 local breweries (including Boojum Brewing in Waynesville, which denies any wrongdoing). The violators could have been hit with ALE criminal charges, but the ALE only issued ABC violations, which can result in fines, suspensions or even having their ABC permit revoked.
“This is a public safety issue,” Cox said. “Once you start drinking you’re awareness goes down, and we need to try to do our best, to work together and minimize the amount of drunk drivers and drunk pedestrians.”
And just three weeks ago, on July 17, the highly anticipated (and attended) Burning Can Festival in Brevard found itself in ALE hot water. Hosted by mega-microbrewery Oskar Blues, the festival didn’t have proper permits for out-of-state breweries that flew from around the country to pour their product at the event. In a last minute move to save the festival, Oskar Blues refunded all ticketholders and made Burning Can free to avoid any state violations.
“When it came to Burning Can, I wish we had known about it sooner because we could have hashed out the details,” Cox said. “So many festivals happen in Western North Carolina on a weekly basis that we couldn’t possibly go and check them all out.”
So, what does the ABA have to say about it?
“It’s a mystery to us how Burning Can went down,” said Joe Rowland, president of the Asheville Brewers Alliance and co-owner of Nantahala Brewing in Bryson City. “The ALE is just trying to do their job. Our industry went from this tiny little industry no one was really paying attention to, to a gigantic one, especially in Western North Carolina.”
By “mystery,” Rowland is referring to how some of the state laws were either overlooked or not properly followed, where those in the craft beer business should be “all hands on deck” when it comes to staying in line, all the while trying to expand an industry that’s a moving target. In the booming Western North Carolina craft beer industry, you also have an influx of folks from other parts of the country that may assume rules in their previous state are the same as in this one.
“Sometimes communication between groups isn’t the greatest,” Rowland said.
“A lot of time, with any business, sometimes people hear things that could come from another state of business that they think is the truth, that they then tell their comrades, eventually finding out it’s not true — it’s human nature,” Cox added.
Immediately following Burning Can, the ABA and ALE held a four-hour meeting, where issues were discussed and lines of communication strengthened.
“We are establishing a clear path as we evolve and they evolve,” Rowland said. “They make the rules and enforce the rules, and, hopefully at our request, will change the rules.”
Originally, if a brewery wanted to serve its product away from the business location, they’d take out a special one-time permit through a nonprofit, which would then serve and sell the beer. In recent years, a new malt beverage special event permit has been issued to breweries (and restaurants and bars) that acts as a license for the breweries to directly serve their product at events like beer festivals and in public spaces (wineries receive a different permit). And with this license comes more responsibility and consequences faced by the craft beer industry in North Carolina.
“It’s a one-size-fits-all permit, where it doesn’t work as well for a brewery compared to a restaurant or bar down the street that gets issued the same permit,” Rowland said. “Whether you’re a small brewery making one barrel a day or Sierra Nevada brewing a million barrels a year, we all have a vested interest in our companies, where many of us have millions of dollars wrapped into our business. It’s a vested interest that will make sure we’re abiding by the rules.”
And though public opinion and misinformation has vilified the ALE and their tactics, the organization and the ABA have made great, positive strides in avoiding any future altercations or incidents.
“The best thing that has resulted from all of this is that it seems to opened up communication between all of us tenfold,” Cox said. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls I’ve received from people being pro-active, trying to make sure their ducks are in a row. I’d rather help someone on the front end of an event and get it right than come in on the back end when there’s a problem.”
The ABA also has set up a regulatory committee to act as another layer of information and resources for breweries and other sides of the craft beer industry to use not only for their own safety and liability, but also for the public’s peace of mind, too.
“We’re responsible for knowing more about the rules than those who are in charge of enforcing them,” Rowland said.
Waynesville Craft Beer Faire
The Waynesville Craft Beer Faire will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 15, on the baseball field at American Legion Post 47 on Legion Drive.
Among the 25 breweries onsite, there will be selections served by BearWaters, Frog Level Brewing, Tipping Point, Boojum, Oskar Blues, Double Barley, Catawba, Innovation, Nantahala, Hi-Wire, Blind Squirrel, Sierra Nevada, Lazy Hiker, Foothills, French Broad and more. Naked Apple and Angry Orchard cideries will also be present.
Live music will be provided by Bohemian Jean (singer/songwriter) from noon to 12:45 p.m., Through the Hills (Americana/bluegrass) 1 to 2:15 p.m., Stone Crazy (classic rock/pop) 2:20 to 3:20 p.m. and MindFrame (classic rock) 3:30 to 5 p.m.
VIP tickets are $45, which includes early admission at noon. General admission tickets are $35. This is a 21-and-over event.