This past Sunday the Beer Camp Tour wrapped up with the grand opening of Sierra Nevada’s Mills River facility. I’m not much of a festival goer, but I was excited to check out this moment in craft beer history. I was not disappointed.
The festival ran from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., and shuttles were offered from downtown and from the WNC Agricultural Center across the street from Sierra Nevada’s property. There was no on-site parking available, so you had to make use of the shuttles regardless of where you were coming from. As I drove to the Ag center, I anticipated long lines for a few old school buses and waiting around forever for them to return to pick up more people. I decided to let the first wave of people get settled before I left my house. Getting to the Ag center at 2pm I was surprised at what I saw. No crowd. 5,000 tickets had been sold to this event, and no one was waiting around? I knew I was late, but I wasn’t THAT late. Then I saw why. Sierra Nevada had employed a private charter company to take people back and forth and there were no fewer than six air conditioned buses waiting for stragglers like myself to show up.
As I approached, I was greeted by a festival worker who asked me for my ID and ticket. Another great way of controlling lines, Sierra Nevada didn’t wait until everyone got to the gate to do all of this. By handling ticketing while people were getting on the bus, there was a much more orderly flow and no bottleneck at the festival entrance. After a few minutes of waiting for the bus to fill up, we were on our way.
Going up the hill toward the complex was a bit like taking a drive through the country, with the occasional object that let you know this was a construction site. Then, we rounded a bend and came to a stop. In front of us was a brand new bridge with hand crafted guardrails bordered by lush landscaping. If you remember the scene from Jurassic Park when they first opened the gate you’d understand the music playing in my head. As we continued our drive across the property, people on the bus commented that it reminded them of the drive into the Biltmore Estate, or the Arboretum, or Disney World. This was not a service road into a factory, this was a first impression.
Finally, the facility itself came into view. After passing little landscaping details, like a set of Bigfoot footprints cast in copper heading off into the woods, we reached our drop-off point. Though construction delays have kept the complex from being finished, the main building that houses the brewery is beautiful. When I say that I don’t mean that in a beer nerd, “Oh my god look at that beer making place” kind of way. I mean it in a, “If you like beautiful buildings, you will be able to appreciate what they’ve done” kind of way. It reminds me of a massive lake house or mountain cabin with lots of windows to take in the surrounding mountains, peaked roofs to aid in rainwater collection for irrigation and toilets, and stone and copper accents creating a feel that is both rustic and sophisticated.
Everyone on my bus was able to get our tasting glasses and maps and walk right in. No lines, no waiting. The brilliance of handling all of the ticketing off-site cannot be understated. Once inside, 110 breweries sat under tents on a huge brick lot pouring samples, and as I walked around I was instantly impressed that it was the owners and brewers who were out pouring. A lot of times, beer festival duty is given to one of the lower people on the totem pole at the brewery, as the owners and brewers are typically busy with other work. Not at this festival. This is an event that everyone wanted to be a part of, and that excitement was in the air all day.
For a crowd of 5,000 people drinking in the sun or five hours, I was amazed at how responsible everyone was. While people were definitely enjoying great beer and having a good time, I didn’t notice any stumbling or fighting or any other behavior that can happen when people are offered that much beer. In part, this was another example of Sierra Nevada’s flawless hosting. Though I can’t say how much work they had to do that day, there were official “sobriety monitors” keeping an eye on things to make sure everyone was having a good time. Also, it seemed like every food truck in Asheville was parked at the end of the sampling area keeping everyone’s food to beer ratio in line.
As the festival wound down, I headed to the after party. Walking along a narrow road through the trees I was greeted by a clearing surrounded by long picnic tables and a stage. A band was playing while brewers and other industry types ate barbecue and sipped on beers featured in the Beer Camp mixed pack. The mood was relaxed as everyone enjoyed some good music together and celebrated an amazing festival.
I can’t say enough to describe how great a day it was out at Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp. A flawlessly executed first event on the property is impressive, especially considering the size of the crowd. But, I guess 34 years of experience pays off. I’ve been anxiously awaiting their opening since they first announced they would build in Mills River, but after experiencing the quality of this event I was truly blown away. Thank you Sierra Nevada, and welcome to the neighborhood.
Cliff Mori is the owner and operator of BREW-ed, which offers brewery tours and a variety of beer training in Asheville. He was the first Certified Cicerone in Western North Carolina (the beer equivalent to the wine world’s sommelier), then began working for the Cicerone Certification Program by traveling around the U.S. proctoring exams. Cliff also teaches a variety of beer-related courses at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.