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MILLS RIVER — After the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. made the decision to build a second brewery in the eastern U.S., company owner Ken Grossman sent Stan Cooper to search for a site.
A consultant's report "kept pointing from a distribution model that we needed to be near Harrisburg, Pa., the distribution capital of the eastern United States," Cooper told the Mills River Town Council last week. "So I went there, met with the economic development person, looked at a site which was right at 40 acres, nice little site, had rail, thought, 'Wow, this is pretty easy. First time out, had everything the boss wanted, right?'"
"Went back to the hotel, got ready to go to dinner, walked up to the desk and I said, 'Where can I get dinner? Can I get a beer with dinner?' And she said, 'You're not from here, are you?' She said, 'You can't get beer here. Closest place you can get a beer is about 5 miles down the road.'
"So I thought, well, better clarify that, so I called Ken. 'Is that a problem? Can't get beer here.'"
Grossman's response: "'I think that is a problem. I think you better grab a flight and get out of there.'"
Some weeks later, Cooper landed in the North Carolina mountains.
"I'm happy to say on one of our last trips, on the final site location search before we brought the Grossmans out, I brought my wife with me," he said. "I figured, make it kind of a vacation, we stayed in Asheville and we said, 'Wow this area is phenomenal.'
"We got down here. We thought we were way far south of Asheville, we went up by this lake, we went up into the mountains, we told the Grossmans, 'You've got to see this, this is really great.'"
The rest, of course, is history — the first chapter of the nationally known craft brewer's decision to build its East Coast plant in Mills River on the banks of the French Broad River. Mills River finished first among 200 sites the company looked at.
In an update for the Mills River Town Council on Thursday, Cooper also made the following points:
• The company will use a huge cistern instead of holding ponds to meet stormwater runoff requirements. "Originally were told we were going to have to build four ponds on the property, the smallest being 5 acres, to handle the stormwater from a 100-year flood. Of course that freaked Ken out. He said, 'Can you imagine how many trees we're going to have to cut down to build that many ponds.'" Instead, the company is building an underground cistern that holds 300,000 gallons of water. It will use the stored water to flush toilets and for irrigation.
• The visitors center and pub in the second phase will be a tourist attraction. How many people, Mayor Roger Snyder asked, will it attract? "That's something we've been struggling with through this whole design process," Cooper said. "The brewery was pretty easy to figure out. We knew how much we wanted to put out, we knew what our growth is in the market, so we knew what we needed to meet that growth. We don't have a clue how many people are going to show up here. I do know in Chico we have just been voted as the no. 1 brewery attraction in the entire state. With the amount of people in the Asheville area and at the Biltmore and up in Pisgah National Forest, I think it's going to be huge."
• Sierra Nevada will exceed its originally announced investment of $107 million. (It originally planned to buy 20-40 acres; instead it bought 104.) Except for a core group of about six people from Chico and a manager it hired away from a Miller brewery in Eden, the company plans to hire locally. "So when will we open? The first phase is to get beer out the door," he said. "We really would like to get the brewhouse done this summer. That's out goal. It's a pretty aggressive goal. When will we make beer? Probably sometime in the fall." Although the visitors center construction won't start until 2014, the company knows people want to see the operation before then. "Once we get the brewery up and running and it's safe, we'll have some sort of tours going on," he said. Work is proceeding at a fast pace. "We currently have right at about 46 contractors on site; we exceed 100 to 180 employees at the site working right now."
• The Grossman family was happy that the local craft brewers were open to having one of the nation's craft leaders here, Cooper said. But Asheville's claim as Beer City USA was not a decisive factor. "It wasn't the craft presence that's going on here," he said. "It's the culture that's going on here. It's the mountains, it's the people, it's the family aspect. That was the big driver."
Ken Grossman spends about every other week in Mills River and has appointed his son, Brian, to be co-manager of the brewery with Cooper. Cooper promised quality.
Ken Grossman "pioneered the craft industry about 30 years ago. He's the only founder of the craft industry still really in business," Cooper said. "He has such a passion for beer, such a passion for doing it right. It will be a showcase brewery for the world, I know that for a fact already. This is really going to be his legacy."