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LIGHTNING PHOTOS: Cross-USA beer festival ends in Mills River

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MILLS RIVER — More than 4,000 people swarmed the grounds of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. here on a sun-splashed Sunday afternoon for the finale of the craft brewery's cross-country beer tour and the public debut of its first East Coast plant.


The event went smoothly and festival organizers reported no problems. Although a big crowd filled the parking lot outside the glass-enclosed brewhouse, lines were short or non-existence at the craft beer sampling booths that filled either side of three lanes. Arranged in alphabetical order, the craft brewers from micro to regional to big had the same space — half a tent. That included the host, Sierra Nevada, which, as the alphabet ordered, was next to Hendersonville's Southern Appalachian Brewery, pouring its two biggest sellers — Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA.

"The vibe feels good," Sierra Nevada communications manager Ryan Arnold said midway through the event. "The ease of moving through the festival and navigating around the grounds is great. We're pleased."

At the Nantahala Brewing Co. booth, Greg Geiger said his small brewery in Bryson City produces about 1,000 barrels of beer a year — about a tenth of 1 percent of what Sierra Nevada makes. Nantahala owner Joe Rowland was one of only five brewers to join the entire seven-city tour aboard the Beer Camp Across America bus.

"They've included us in everything," Geiger said. "They bring a lot of resources we wouldn't have access to if they weren't here. From Day 1 they've said (to the area's large craft brewery industry) if you don't want us here we don't want to come. We said 'you guys are the ones that started it all.' They said, 'If you guys need access to any of our lab services, just let us know. Anything at our disposal is at your disposal.' It's just wonderful how open they've been."


Lowdown barbecue truck owner Nate Kelly said around 4 p.m. that he and his crew had served "probably 250 to 270 plates before I went to the store" for bread. After restocking, "we're ready for another 200."

Food trucks were busy throughout the afternoon and shuttle buses carried festivalgoers from the brewery campus to the WNC Ag Center.

The brewery is not open for public tours and tastings yet. That is on track to open in early September, with the restaurant and tap room scheduled to open around the first of the year. The Chico, Calif. company has estimated that its $110 million brewery, tasting room, restaurant and tap room may attract up to 500,000 visitors a year.