It was a sparkling spring day, and the festival-goers who paid $45 for a ticket got a small cup that entitled them to samples all afternoon from the 30-plus breweries in attendance. The event was sponsored by the Asheville Brewers Alliance.
A party atmosphere permeated the park as attendees drank, munched pretzels and danced to the tunes of local bands, including Lyric and Empire Strikes Brass, knowing that they were also helping a good cause: proceeds of the event went to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western North Carolina.
But the N.C. ALE agents, including Stacy J. Cox, the special agent in charge of the state’s Western District, also reported seeing numerous alcohol law violations. After arriving at about 2:30 p.m., the agents swooped into action about 4:45 p.m., notifying brewery owners and employees of alleged wrong-doing, ordering some to close their booths immediately an asking others to submit to on-the-spot “alco-sensor” tests.
ALE agents alleged that many craft brewers and their employees were consuming beer while working. In one instance, an ALE agent reported seeing Oscar Wong, the revered founder of Asheville’s oldest craft brewery, Highland Brewery, and the brewery’s head brewer Hollie Stephenson, consuming beer and then serving beer to festival attendees. ALE agents also alleged witnessing drug use by attendees (two people were charged with smoking marijuana at the event) and seeing intoxicated alcohol permit-holders.
Nearly two months after Beer City, ALE agents wrote 10 violation reports (Beer_City_2015_violation_reports_b)which they submitted to the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission for possible action. (The ALE noted that it could have made written criminal violations that would be handled by state courts and not the ABC Commission, but decided to submit only the ABC violations.) That action could have potentially serious consequences, ranging from a simple written notice to a fine, a suspension or a revocation of an ABC-issued permit.
The 10 breweries cited are a veritable who’s-who of Western North Carolina’s nationally recognized craft beer makers: Oskar Blues, Southern Appalachian Brewery, Boojum Brewing Company, Foothills Brewing, Green Man Brewing, Oyster House Brewing, Pisgah Brewing, Nantahala Brewing, Altamont Brewing and Highland.
The crackdown by N.C. ALE agents was one the most high-profile actions taken in recent years in the Asheville area, but it was not the only action this year.
Earlier this year, N.C. ALE agents had discussions with nine local breweries about potential violations of alcohol law governing cooperative advertising around the much advertised Race to the Taps running series. Produced by the Asheville Radio Group and Kick It Events, the running series started and ended at Highland Brewing, Asheville Pizza and Brewing on Coxe Avenue and Merrimon Avenue, Pisgah Brewing, Catwaba Brewing, Oskar Blues Brewery and Sierra Nevada Brewing, Green Man Brewery, Twin Leaf Brewery and Wicked Weed Brewing.
The breweries called on their Asheville-based beer law experts at Ward and Smith, including nationally recognized alcoholic beverage law attorney Derek Allen. After back-and-forth discussions, N.C. ALE issued only verbal warnings regarding the alleged advertising violations.
Then, on Friday, N.C. ALE agents alerted Oskar Blues Brewery that approximately two dozen of the out-of-state breweries that they had invited to participate in Oskar Blues’ second annual Burning Can beer festival at its REEB Ranch location near its Brevard brewery didn’t have the proper permits to serve alcohol. The notification came just hours before the event was set to start.
Oskar Blues officials decided to refund all ticket-holders their money and turn their event into a free beer festival, which included outdoor activities like mountain biking and river paddling, as well as top musical entertainment by Trombone Shorty. Brewery spokeswoman Anne Fitten Glenn said the brewery accepted full responsibility for the failure to secure the property paperwork. (Glenn declined to comment on ALE’s violation report citing Oskar Blues at the Beer City Festival.)
The stepped-up N.C. ALE enforcement action has rattled the Western North Carolina craft beer industry, which has grown dramatically over the past decade and now encompasses some 50 breweries (and counting), hundreds of jobs, an estimated $791 million economic impact and a powerful year-round tourism draw.
Many craft brewery owners and employees have been reluctant to talk openly about what’s been happening. Privately, some question why N.C. ALE is stepping up enforcement activity now. Others express exasperation at ALE’s perceived “gotcha” tactics, as well frustration at differing interpretations of state alcohol law coming from ALE and ABC.
The N.C. ALE’s actions have also resulted in a meeting of N.C. ALE agents, area craft brewery owners and two top administrator from North Carolina’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. The June 10 meeting included Bob Hamilton, the ABC’s chief administrator and its chief legal counsel, Renee Cowick, as well as Cox, Allen and his colleague attorney Haley Wells, and some 50 or 60 craft brewery owners and/or their representatives. The group met at the Mill Room in downtown Asheville for more than three hours. (The Asheville Brewers Alliance declined my request to attend the meeting.)
Allen called the meeting an unprecedented gathering of industry officials. He said brewery owners and employees got a chance to see the interplay between the N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement – the state’s alcohol law enforcement arm – and the ABC Commission – the state’s alcohol law rules-writing arm. State ALE agents got the chance to stress that their focus was on maintaining the safety and welfare of the public, Allen said. And brewery owners and employees had the opportunity to ask for clarification on the often arcane Tar Heel alcohol law, he added.
“What we took away was that (breweries) need to be responsible, observe health, safety and welfare regulations and show ALE and ABC that we will self-police” so that those agencies can focus on other priorities, Allen said.
In answering questions about how the ABC Commission is responding to the rapid growth of WNC’s craft beer industry, commission spokeswoman Agnes Stevens reiterated via an email response that the board provides free online and in-person trainings around the state, and that ALE provides training, as do many local retailers.
Leah Wong Ashburn, who has taken over as president of Highland Brewing for her father, Oscar, said she understands that “ALE and ABC have an important job to do that goes back to safety, and I know that we can have successful events while working within the rules.”
She added that it’s often the case that rules writers and the enforcement of those rules can often lag when an industry grows as quickly as the region’s craft beer industry has in recent years. Wong declined to comment on the ALE’s Beer City violation report, noting that she was not aware that a violation report had been written.
This weekend, Highland will host one of its biggest beer festival and fundraising events, Ale Share. She said Highland works closely with its festival volunteers to reinforce safe practices. The event, featuring some 20 craft breweries (and once cidery) will benefit the Asheville Parks and Greenways Foundation.
In a phone interview following Beer City, Cox stressed that her agents wanted to work to educate craft brewery owners and their employees. Cox has led ALE’s District VIII for about a year. Her office has approximately five agents who enforce alcohol law in 16 Western North Carolina counties: Buncombe, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania and Yancey counties. The agency looks over the shoulders of a host of permit-holders, from brewers who manufacturer to wholesalers to retailers to special event organizers.
“The biggest thing were doing is looking out for the public’s safety,” Cox said. When brewery owners and/or their employees are drinking beer, and then serving beer to patrons, that safety can be severely compromised, she said.
“I would hope the brewers don’t think we’re picking on them,” she added.