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Asheville Brewing Company
Photo by Kaitlyn Speer
Asheville Brewing Company

The joy of competition

Labor Day | Brewer Mike Rangel appreciates bigger operations moving into his territory because they keep him on his toes

This week through Labor Day we are publishing six brief pieces on people working hard and enjoying their labor. Some are Christians and some not, because through God’s common grace people of many faiths can enjoy meeting challenges. Three of the stories come from Rob Holmes, who lives with his family in Chad. Three others come from World Journalism Institute students who wrote and rewrote them during this year’s Asheville course. —Marvin Olasky

ASHEVILLE, N.C.—Asheville Brewing Company (ABC) owner Mike Rangel leans back in his office chair with a slight smile as he talks about his relationship with other local breweries. Rangel’s business is the third-oldest brewery in town, founded in 1995, but his profits may fall when bigger breweries like New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, and Oskar Blues come to town. 

New Belgium has 424 employees in 29 states. ABC has 144 employees in three locations in one state. Now, Sierra Nevada is opening in Hendersonville—just 15 minutes from Rangel’s shop. While the number of breweries is increasing in Asheville, its population is not. 

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Nevertheless, Rangel—wearing a black t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and bright, lime green socks—seems downright cheerful about larger competitors moving in on his home turf: “When three of the top ten businesses move within 20 miles of each other in one year, it just kicks up the hip factor. I think the competition absolutely keeps us on our toes—but it’s also fun.” 

Rangel acknowledges complications: “When we come up with a new beer or something new, it’s tough to get noticed anymore when you have 18 other businesses sort of doing the same thing.” To deal with what Rangel calls the “growing pains” of the craft beer business, he says, competitors will have to cooperate to survive—and he tells stories about others helping him.

When he first started, Rangel’s business did not face a lot of competition. “We were fortunate in that the first brewing company here, Highland Brewing Company, has always been what’s called the ‘Gentleman’s Brewers,’” he said. “They were the biggest in town until the other guys got here. They’ve supported every little brewery … they’ve helped other breweries with equipment, knowledge, and just raw man power.” 

Once when ABC’s brewmaster, Doug Riley, went away on vacation, a lightning storm hit Asheville, causing the company to lose electricity and leaving everyone in a panic. Out of desperation, the company called Highland Brewery, and within 20 minutes, the company’s refrigeration manager, head brewer, and store owner came over to assess the situation. They fixed the problem within an hour.

“They saved [us] 5,000 to 6,000 pints of beer, which would’ve crushed us,” Rangel said. “They absolutely saved our bacon, and have done it for other people.” He now says if a brewer from Chicago came to his brewery and wanted to see it, he wouldn’t turn him away: “We would give him a tour, a couple of beers, and a free T-shirt. When we go places … everyone shares recipes, shares experiences. It’s a very open, cool community.”

Rangel views Asheville newcomers Sierra Nevada and New Belgium as “big brothers” because of their reputation in helping local businesses. Before, ABC would have to take a sample of beer out, wrap it up, and FedEx it to Canada to get a reading on it—a process that could  take three weeks to get results. When the “big brothers” come to town, this will change: Sierra Nevada has offered ABC free use of its $12 million lab. 

“With the labs New Belgium and Sierra Nevada are bringing in, we’ll know in about 10 minutes,” Rangel said. “So we’ll actually be able to check it out at any point in the process.”

Despite “growing pains” in Asheville’s beer business, Rangel remains optimistic: “Everybody’s expanding, so [everyone] has doubled the amount of beer they’ve made over the past two years. But, other than that, we’ve got distributors in Charlotte and Knoxville and all over who want us to take our beer outside of here. That’s going to be the trend.”

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