Asheville Brewers Supply: The Beer Necessities

written by Bill Kopp

Asheville, North Carolina has a well-deserved reputation as "Beer City USA." But that status didn't come about overnight. As the laws changed allowing craft and home brewing, a small coterie of Asheville entrepreneurs saw the future and bet on the city welcoming a renewed interest in an ancient tradition. More than a quarter century after the pioneering Asheville Brewers Supply opened its doors, current owner Tedd Clevenger is still focusing on customer service while keeping an eye on the future.

Home Brewing History
Industrial production of alcoholic beverages was well underway in Europe by 1500. But home brewing of beer (and other alcoholic beverages) predates that large-scale production by millennia; historians believe that the first beer was made in Egypt before 5000 BCE. And its popularity has endured through the ages. In the United States, prohibition -- the 18th Amendment to the Constitution -- was in effect in from 1920 to 1933. But the 21st Amendment allowed production and sale of alcohol once again.

Yet prohibition left a hangover of sorts in its wake: all home -- and even small-scale commercial -- production of alcoholic beverages remained illegal on the Federal level until 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed a law allowing it. But it fell to each of the 50 states to make specific laws regulating home production. As a result -- though the laws weren't always strictly enforced -- as late as 1994, a home enthusiast in Carter's native Georgia couldn't make beer legally; mail-order supplies arriving via UPS in plain brown wrappers were the only option for these hobbyists branded outlaws. In Mississippi, home brewing didn't achieve legal status until July 2013.

As a result, for most of the 20th century, making beer at home took on a needlessly clandestine character, not miles away from the (very different) practice of making spirits: moonshining. But as the creative endeavor of home brewing grew in popularity, an industry grew up to support it. Companies made purpose-built brewing buckets, bottle cappers and other accessories, and grain producers packaged their products in quantities designed for home users.

In 1979, Colorado homebrewer Charlie Papazian founded a commercial group, the Association of Brewers (now the Brewers Association of America) and the American Homebrewers Association. His 1984 book, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, would become the standard for amateur (and budding professional) brewers. Now in its fourth edition -- and with more than two dozen printings -- Papazian's book has sold nearly one million copies.

While mail order would continue to be a resource for home brewers, as the practice grew in popularity, retail shops began to pop up around the country. In 1994, Andy Dahm opened Asheville Brewers supply on Merrimon Avenue in North Asheville. Almost simultaneously, Oscar Wong moved from Charlotte to Asheville and launched Highland Brewing in a downtown warehouse space. "Andy started one week before Highland opened," says Tedd Clevenger. "So, before there was even a single brewery in town, Asheville Brewers Supply was in existence." These two events planted the seeds of a gradually growing scene that in 2009 would earn Asheville the title of "Beer City USA."

Both businesses thrived. Wong's brewery expanded, moving to a larger facility in East Asheville in 2006. Today its beers are distributed across the Southeast. Meanwhile, Dahm intentionally kept his retail business -- primarily serving the needs of home makers of beer, mead and ciders -- small-scale, focusing on the personal touch. He grew the company's mail list and sustained operations even through the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Passing the Baton
Tedd Clevenger is a native of Boone. He attended school at Appalachian State University, but not for a brewing degree. "There was no brewers' school there yet," he says. "I was a dual major: English and philosophy/region."

He and his wife lived in Asheville for a few years before returning briefly to Boone; they came back and settled in Asheville in 2010. He came to work for Andy Dahm in 2012, but says that when he began, he had no thought of eventually owning the business.

After college, he though he'd become a professor, teaching "English literature or something," he says. But looking back, he doesn't view his dive into the entrepreneurial and retail world as all that different from his original plan. "I really do enjoy that idea of looking at things from [different] angles, playing with concepts and talking to people about that," he says. The goal, he believes, isn't to tell people, "This is how it is." Instead, it's more a case of, "'This is a way you can think about it: You can do this or that.' And that's exactly what I do at the shop."

Someone new to beer making shouldn't expect to walk into Clevenger's store and be told, "You should make your IPA this way." Instead, they're likely to encounter a series of questions designed to get to the heart of what they want to do. "It's about helping someone come to his or her own conclusions," he says.

Coupled with an abiding interest in combining a creative pursuit with business, Clevenger's background -- even without business training -- seemed to portend success. "I've always had an entrepreneurial drive," he says. "It drives my wife crazy sometimes, because some things don't work out."

When Dahm decided to get out of the business, he turned to his employee. Clevenger readily admits that to all appearances, he took over ownership of Asheville Brewers Supply at the wrong time. The home brewing market was in decline. Retail consumers whom for decades had few choices when buying beer suddenly had a panoply of brews laid out before them. He laughs and says, "When they could go to a gas station in Podunk, Mississippi and find Fat Tire, people were like,"Why should I brew my own?'"

Clevenger reflects on the changes that have taken place in the brewing industry, noting that the availability of craft and microbrewed beer today versus even two decades ago is night and day. Today, consumers can easily buy quality beer that's made regionally or locally, a choice not even dreamed of a few decades before.

As Clevenger bought Dahm's business, times were changing, and fast. "2015 was kind of the start of the decline in the homebrew industry," he explains. "Every industry ebbs and flows, and it had happened before, but that also coincided with the explosion of craft breweries and more distribution." Against that backdrop, it would have seemed reasonable to choose another path. But he forged ahead.

Even more troubling, as the economy had recovered from recession, those market forces combined to force a downturn in the fortunes of homebrew supply retailers across the country. "We were over-saturated with home brew shops locally, regionally, and nationally," Clevenger says. "So there was a market correction."

But as all that happened, Clevenger detected other, more subtle changes taking place. The rise of retail microbrews didn't always mean better beer. "You started seeing a lot more six packs in that $11 to $12 range," he says, "but some of it was really mediocre-- even bad -- beer." And those brews cost the same as really good beers. "A lot of people found themselves paying these premium prices for subpar product. And that led to them thinking, 'I can probably do this.'" And that trend led to another resurgence in home brewing.

"Andy had been doing it for 20 years, so he knew something," says Clevenger with smiling understatement. "He had a really good [business] model. So I didn't try to reinvent the wheel." He says that he worked a stipulation into the sales agreement: "Andy would be available for at least so many hours, at least once a month." The idea is that the two would meet over a few beers -- "which I would cover the cost of," Clevenger emphasizes with a good-natured laugh -- so that the new owner could ask for advice or assistance from the company's founding owner.

"I never had to do it," he says. "But it's not like he wouldn't have helped." Clevenger did call Dahm on the phone a few times, mostly with questions abut specific vendors and the like. "But as a whole, I just dove right in and started swimming," he says. "And there was a lot to learn about running the business that he did but I didn't see. I had to learn really fast."

Still, some things merely continued as they had been before. For example, Dahm had made a point of basing his stock around just-in-time inventory, a decision that was equal parts wisdom and recognition of necessity. "We're in a very small space," Clevenger emphasizes. "Sometimes too small."

Clevenger believes that the just-in-time inventory model has advantages for a business like Asheville Brewers Supply. "One, it enables us not to get over-leveraged; we're not hoarding a ton of inventory. Two, everything stays a lot fresher. And three, we've got faster turnover, so because we're placing more orders, we can get special orders more quickly."

And Clevenger says that the lease on his 1200 square foot retail space is inexpensive. Describing the business as "the Trader Joe's of the home brew industry," he says, "We're not paying a bunch of overhead for a large space or warehouse." And the proof of concept is in the numbers. "I look at the figures, and we crank out more revenue per square foot than virtually any other [home brew] shop in the country."

He did make some changes when he bought the business from Dahm, though. For one, today Asheville Brewers Supply works with commercial brewers as well as hobbyists. "Andy didn't do that as much," he says. "And I wanted to see if we could do it a little more. It's something I really enjoy." But Clevenger admits that commercial accounts still represent very small portion of the company's business.

Clevenger characterizes most of the changes he made upon assuming ownership as tweaks. "I rearranged the shop and brought in some new equipment," he says. "And I signed on with more distributors. I'm signed with virtually everybody now."

He also expanded the store's section devoted to wine making. "People like wine. I like wine," he says with a grin. But at first, the move into wine posed some challenges. "We're Asheville Brewers Supply, so people think of us as a beer shop," he says. In a move to change that narrow perception, Clevenger commissioned a new store logo, one that includes a wine bottle. "We tried to re-brand a little bit differently to help promote the wine side. Because wine making is so simple."

In fact, winemaking is even easier than making beer. There's no cooking required, and it requires very little labor time. And it's very affordable; once one has the fundamental supplies -- bottles, fermenting bucket and a few other accessories -- a tasty homemade wine can be made for less than $7 a bottle.

"And it doesn't taste like a $7 bottle," Clevenger points out. (Having made several hundred bottles of wine using supplies bought at Asheville Brewers Supply, this author can corroborate that assertion.) "You can make quality wine from all over the world, too," he points out. "For example, if you want Spanish Tempranillo, you can get that" in kit form.

What's Brewing in the Back Office
Clevenger says that keeping a close eye on the books is key to his way of running things. "I do bookkeeping daily," he says. "That's keeping my finger on the pulse; I constantly know what's happening: 'Are things starting to level out? Do I need to slow down on ordering?' It becomes a lot more intuitive when you're really in it every day. You can feel the cash flow movement and the pulse of the sales."

He watches his advertising and promotions budget closely, too. "Everybody's calling you; they're all going to make you a million dollars next year, right?" He says that deciding where to put marketing dollars is an ongoing learning process. "But as long as you don't invest too heavily into any particular idea, you can cut your losses and move on. And you'll have learned something."

While he doesn't claim to possess supernatural prognostication skills, Clevenger admits that he does maintain a good sense of where things are heading in his industry. A few years ago, he observed the debut of a new product, the Grainfather. Created in New Zealand, the Grainfather is an all-in-one electric brewing system that combines all of the steps in the beer brewing process -- mashing, sparging, boiling and chilling -- into a single apparatus.

"A couple of years ago, I predicted, 'This is going to go somewhere,'" Clevenger says. He made sure to let his customer base know that they could get the Grainfather from his shop. He also predicted that other vendors would soon enter the market with similar products, driving down the cost to consumers. That happened, too.

Know Your Products
Hop-forward India Pale Ales -- IPAs, as they're widely known -- still represent a large percentage of what home brewers are making. But their share of the market isn't quite what it was a few years ago. "People seem to be starting to discover that there are other styles out there," Clevenger says. He notes that the palate of beer aficionados in the U.S. was for many years centered around a particular flavor profile: "American hops and a pine resin sort of character." Today that's beginning to change. "Now people want this bright, tropical, zesty, fruity impression."

A niche trend is reduced-gluten brewing. For those with celiac disease or even gluten sensitivity, beer is best avoided. But even those without medical reasons for reducing their intake of gluten can enjoy homemade beer by incorporating a gluten-reducing enzyme. Keenly responsive to his market, Clevenger stocks that product.

Clevenger has identified more recent major trends in the world of home brewing. One is the increased interest in kveiks. Farmhouse yeasts developed for use in brewing, kveiks offer uncommon versatility. Most yeasts used in brewing are a bit on the temperamental side: they require temperatures to be held constant within a fairly narrow range. Let the brew outside that range and the yeast can die, stopping the process in its tracks.

But kveiks -- from frigid Norway, of all places -- are far more forgiving. "In summertime, it gets hot here in Asheville," he notes. "A lot of people aren't keeping the house at 68°," which is often the ideal temperature for fermenting. "With kveik yeast, you can ferment anywhere from 65°F to 100°F," Clevenger says. That's of great benefit for the home brewer who may not wish to heat or cool their entire home 24/7 during the fermentation process.

Yet kveiks have more than that going for them. "It used to be that if you had hot temperatures, you pretty much had to ferment Belgian beers," Clevenger explains. The thing is, distinctively Belgian style beers are not to most drinkers' liking. Those beers employ phenolic yeasts, which impart what Clevenger describes as "clovey, spicy stuff going on, or maybe a lot of fruit and bubblegum [notes]."

Kveiks, on the other hand, have a more neutral or ester character. That combines with the hops in beer recipes to create what Clevenger describes as "citrusy, honey, mango or orange characteristics." He really could go on all day discussing the intricacies of the components used to make beer. And his customers value that user-friendly sharing of expertise.

Knowing what to stock is key to meeting the needs of shoppers. And Clevenger believes there's no substitute for paying attention to what actual customers want. National trends can only predict so much. "It doesn't matter what the rest of the country is doing," he emphasizes. "You have to be very particular about what you bring in: 'Is this market going to buy it?'"

He offers an example that illustrates his fiscally conservative yet customer-oriented approach. "I'll bring in maybe one item that kind of illustrates that 'we can get this,'" he says. "So instead of carrying every size conical fermenter from SS Brewtech, I'll get the less expensive conical-bottomed brew bucket to have on display. People see that and realize, 'Oh, you can get SS Brewtech.'" Thanks to its wide network of suppliers, Clevenger says that Asheville Brewers Supply can order anything. "I can even drop ship it to you," he says. "I can save you a little bit of money. We can have that conversation."

Clevenger makes the point that home brewers can take a beginner's approach -- working with all-in-one kits that include malt syrup, extracts and dried hop plugs -- or go full grain and use fresh hops. The same is true with regard to winemaking; some kits even include grape skins, a key component in creating a wine with pleasing mouth feel.

"You can make really good beer with extract or all-grain," Clevenger emphasizes. "And you can make really bad beer with extract or all-grain. The difference is kind of like Pillsbury biscuits. All-grain is your grandmother's made-from-scratch biscuit recipe. You can still screw it up, but you're going to notice that difference between the two.

"Still," he insists, "you can make a good biscuit both ways."

A Foamy Head is a Silver Lining
Tedd Clevenger says that it takes a certain market size to support a home brewing supply retail store. "You have to have a population of at least 100,000 people to sustain a single shop," he says. "So when I see all these shops opening in various places, I think, 'You're not going to make it unless [home brewing] is a small portion of your business.' And people who haven't spent time in the industry just don't know that."

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for many businesses, Clevenger says that it has so far had little negative effect upon the home brewing supply business. "Any time there's economic hardship, it's good for our industry," he says with a shrug. "Alcohol consumption does go up anytime there's a recession."

Coupled with the economic downturn, the pandemic forced bars and breweries to close; many are just now beginning to reopen in scaled-down fashion, and because of the pandemic's unpredictability, nobody knows if that can be sustained. That, too, has helped fuel greater interest in making beer (as well as wine, mead and cider) at home. Moreover, self-quarantine equals more time spent at home, and that, too, has led many toward a renewed interest in endeavors like cooking, arts and crafts ... and home brewing.

Know Your Customers
Today Asheville Brewing Supply remains a very small business, with only Clevenger and two employees. The company's annual revenue is between $350-400,000. and the store's business is primarily regional. "People might come from Marion, Morganton or Hendersonville," he says. "For the most part it's locals." The store -- which only has room for a few customers at any time, anyway -- has been able to remain open throughout the crisis of 2020. The pandemic has spurred an increase in online ordering, but Clevenger says that was on the increase even pre-COVID-19.

Asheville Brewers Supply is not just for those into making beer, Clevenger emphasizes. The store offers supplies, ingredients, kits and accessories for making wine, cider and mead as well. The shop also provides the tools for those into what Clevenger calls "alternative fermentation: stuff like cheese and kombucha."

In a region historically known for moonshine, home distilling -- the making of higher-alcohol beverages -- has a market segment of its own, and Clevenger's store is a resource for that demographic as well. "If they're new customers, we're going to hear their story," Clevenger says with a hearty laugh. "Their story about how their grandfather used to make 'shine' in the woods, or that they're [notorious bootlegging legend] Popcorn Sutton's nephew." He emphasizes that he's definitely not poking fun at those customers, though. "It's just a distinct demographic."

And although home brewing was once thought of as a man's hobby, Clevenger says that he sees quite a few female customers. That parallels changes on the commercial side of brewing as well. "We're seeing more and more women taking brewing up as a hobby, working at breweries and going to school for it at A-B Tech," he says. He notes that more even more female customers express interest in wine making.

Science Meets Art
Science and creativity combine harmoniously in beer making; there's plenty of latitude for those who lean strongly in one or the other direction. "Making your own beer at home is two things: it's an art, but it is also a science. So, it doesn't really matter where your personality is," Clevenger says. It appeals to the methodically-inclined. "Maybe you're very much into the nitty gritty details, you want to tweak all the variables, you want to look at the water chemistry," he says. But making beer is a creative pursuit as well. "Maybe you're just like, 'What kind of fun things can I do?'"

Home brewing appeals to both sides of Clevenger's own personality. "I'm neither outrageously creative or artistic nor insanely scientific," he says with a laugh. "But I'm a little bit of both, so it works." His customers land on various points of that continuum.

"Creative people love to create something, but I think that even people who are more on the scientific side enjoy that act of doing, of creating," he says. "Having nothing and then having something new come out of it is very rewarding, especially when it's something so tangible as beer. And it is such a social, human thing." He concurs with the view that in the post-pandemic future, society might just see a higher emphasis placed on the kind of social interaction that comes with sharing a glass of one's own homemade beverage.

Even before Clevenger bought Asheville Brewers Supply, Andy Dahm was offering all-grain brewing classes for free on a monthly basis. "the idea was to show people -- who already knew how to brew -- how to take it further," Clevenger says. Once he took over, Clevenger added a beginner class. "We showed people how to get started brewing, with extracts," he says. "A lot of people, including me, are visual learners, so it was a great way to show them how it's done."

Those classes also offered a good way to meet new people, and to cultivate new potential customers. "And it was a good way to further a relationship with someone who has been in a few times," Clevenger says. And they remained free to all. "If [brewing beer] is one of those things you're just considering doing, and you're not sure that you're even interested in it, why pay for a class?" In the end, Clevenger believes that offering those classes -- which are on hold for now but will return once the pandemic is behind us -- is "just good business."

Life and Work Overlap
When he's not at work, Clevenger spends time with his wife and three-year-old son; the couple has a second child on the way, due right around the time this story goes to print. In his spare time, Clevenger pursues his passion for mountain biking. "I've actually got a side hustle going now, he admits. "Bikes and Brews: I guide people on some routes in Pisgah [National Forest], and then we hit some breweries. I give them all of my local knowledge and insight on everything bike, beer and food related, and I let them pick my brain. I give them advice on places to go, things to do."

But biking isn't something he has to do apart from his family. "My son is already an excellent mountain biker," says the proud dad.

A typical work day for Tedd Clevenger starts early. "It tends to be emails in the morning. Then it's running some errands, maybe picking up some supplies at a distributor, delivering something, getting to the shop, working on the books, more emails, and starting to get things ready," he says. Once the shop is open, his focus is squarely on customer service and engagement. "I'm filling orders and talking to people about their problems or their ideas," he says. "Oh, and getting really dusty. I spend my day covered in grain dust."

But he's not complaining; Clevenger loves his work. "It's great, because I am meeting so many different people," he says. "And it's dynamic. People have different needs, different questions. So even though the day-to-day is the same, no two days are actually alike." He still brews his own beer when time allows, but in between batches, he gets vicarious enjoyment from the experiences of his customers.

"That's a little bit of voyeurism on my part," he jokes. "People come in with all kinds of different ideas, and it's very inspiring. It's like, 'Oh, wow. I never would have thought about that. That's really cool.' It's a hobby people love; it's often their escape from work. They enjoy the process, and they enjoy the product."

If a customer comes in with a problem -- maybe their recent batch of beer didn't come out right -- Clevenger does what he can to help. "If we screwed something up, we'll do whatever it takes to fix that," he says. "Or if something didn't go right for that person, and they're really disappointed, if there is anything I can do to try to make it better, I want to."

Generally, though, he comes into contact with people at or close to their best. "I'm generally not dealing with a bunch of angry individuals," Clevenger says. "People come in happy." And he does his best to make sure that they leave that way, too.

It's far from a radical concept, but Clevenger believes that with regard to Asheville Brewers Supply, the strongest focus should be on customer service and expertise. He knows that in a world full of online information, real interaction and the personal touch can set a business apart. "The internet is only a click away," he says.

Clevenger's store does have an online presence, but it's a small part of his business. "If you're online, you're just another link, so the only thing you're competing on is price," he says. "Now you're trying to compete with Anheuser Busch; they own [retail suppliers] Midwest and Northern Brewer. You're competing with these ginormous enterprises that are operating on such huge volumes that they can [succeed on] very slim margins."

That's not how Asheville Brewers Supply does business. "We do customer service well," Clevenger says. "That's our brand. It's all built on that."

In that same world in which one can visit a beer store -- or a supermarket, for that matter -- and come away with a broad and eclectic selection of beers, Tedd Clevenger believes there's still an important place for home brewing. When it's suggested that one can't find a true Berliner Weisse -- a cloudy, extremely sour wheat beer -- in Asheville, Clevenger seizes on that idea to make his point. "You can't get that really great example locally, right? You've got to go to Germany? Well, you could brew it yourself!" He says that's what's special about home brewing. "The ability to make exactly what you want -- something that you can't buy elsewhere -- is really, really rewarding. And that's a wonderful reason to do it."

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