Stop 7: Mills River, North Carolina

Stop 7: Mills River, North Carolina

"If I never see another bottle of beer, I'll be alright," says Sierra Nevada's Brian Grossman. As the denizens of the Beer Camp Across America bus travel to the final destination of this seven-stop tour, hungover and awkwardly sleeping on seats that smell of beer and bodies, the sentiment seems universal. While there are no Bloody Marys or beers this morning — you'll have to forgive the folks who have been at this for 16 days — the party continues at the festival in Mills River, North Carolina, home to Sierra Nevada's newest brewery. But not before one final wrench is thrown into this tightly-scheduled trip and the front wheel bearings break, leaking oil across the parking lot of a Lowes in North Carolina.

While waiting for a mechanic, cans of Pale Ale are opened, Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson tosses a Frisbee across the asphalt, Ballast Point brewer Colby Chandler starts up a game of bocce on the lawn, and, with that, the party starts back up. "It was the dancing that broke it," offers Chandler. The group pauses to consider. It's a definite possibility given last night's festivities: the founders and brewers of Russian River, Firestone Walker, Bell's, Ballast Point, Allagash, Victory, a few members from the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild, and Sierra Nevada swaying and jumping around under a pulsing disco light in the back of the bus, in what could only be seen as an uproarious celebration of craft beer camaraderie. "No, I think then it would have been the rear wheel," says Allagash brewmaster Jason Perkins.

There's a sense that all of these brewers are celebrating Sierra Nevada's successes as part of their own, and there's no better evidence of the community — and money — now in the craft beer industry than the 190-acre Sierra Nevada brewery recently opened. The facility is majestic, with copper finishing on the main building, a rainwater collection system composed of giant barrels built from salvaged wood, solar panels clustered on a lush green lawn, and craftsmanship apparent everywhere, like in the bronze lights along the road fashioned to resemble hops.

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The brewers of North Carolina are celebrating too. Asheville, which is about 19 miles away, is one of the fastest rising craft beer cities in the country and its residents have welcomed Sierra Nevada's facility with open arms. "Asheville in general is a real artisan community," says Doug Riley of Asheville Brewing Company — one that was just waiting for a communal craft to center around. "I moved to Boulder in 1990," says Riley. "It blew up. I moved to Portland in 1991 and the same there. In 1997, I moved to Asheville. We were the third brewery to open. And now it blew up. But this time I'm staying."

North Carolina has quietly become a new great American beer hub, with over 100 breweries, 27 of which are clustered in the west, where Asheville is located. If the sheer number of breweries doesn't cement this region as a craft beer tourism destination, look to the big three who have decided to make a second home here — Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and, next year, New Belgium. All together, it's a regional beer industry that will draw an estimated 800,000 new tourists a year.

As the final stop on Beer Camp Across America, Mills River, North Carolina tells a story that, on this cross-country road trip, sounds familiar. A mountain town, known for music, outdoor activities, and quality of life attracts small-time breweries, embraces the industry, and puts itself on the map as a craft beer destination. What's not to celebrate?

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