The year of beer
Two leading craft brewers choose the Roanoke Valley for their East Coast home
It started with a failure.
When California-based craft brewer Sierra Nevada was looking for a place to build its first East Coast brewery, Roanoke was in the running. It remained in the hunt almost until the end — one of the last three cities on the company’s potential site list. The brewer chose Asheville, N.C., instead.
Roanoke, which had been working hard to raise its cool quotient, lost out to the other big town on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the one people often think of when they think of progressive, artsy hipsters in the Appalachians. The announcement came in January 2012. That’s when the Roanoke Regional Partnership, which led the drive to woo Sierra Nevada, really went to work.
“When we started working that [Sierra Nevada] project, we didn’t know much about, not only beer, but we didn’t have an appreciation at the beginning of that project of our assets for that sector,” says Beth Doughty, the partnership’s executive director. “But we certainly did have an appreciation for what our assets were at the end of the project. We realized, ‘Hey, we need to go after this because we can be successful on this.’ So that’s what we did.”
West Coast recruitment
The partnership focused on craft brewers in the West, telling them about the water, the infrastructure and the culture waiting for them near that big neon star that shines over the Roanoke Valley. The Western Virginia Water Authority could provide an abundance of good water. The local craft beer culture was blossoming, with brewers and brewpubs popping up — and producing good beer — from Smith Mountain Lake to Narrows.
The Roanoke and New River valleys also were developing and extending hiking and biking trail systems to go along with the long-established Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Crooked Road and other venues were supporting a vibrant music scene. The New, James and Roanoke rivers offered canoeing and kayaking. Oh, and local and state governments were willing to offer incentives to close the deal.
What more could a West Coast craft brewery want?
Four months after Sierra Nevada chose Asheville, Colorado-based Oskar Blues decided to brew beer in Brevard, N.C. A year after Sierra Nevada picked Asheville, Colorado-based New Belgium picked that city, too. Two months later, Green Flash announced it was opening its East Coast brewery in Virginia Beach. When Stone Brewing Co. was looking for an East Coast home, Roanoke was on the list but not among the finalists. Stone chose Richmond.
Nearly three years had passed since the Sierra Nevada announcement and, as far as anyone outside the economic development community could tell, the region was not a bit closer to landing a West Coast brewer. In fact, representatives of Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery were just weeks away from their first visit to the area. The company had been talking with the partnership for more than two years.
Gary Fish, the brewery’s CEO, founded Deschutes in Bend, Ore., in 1988. Since then, the company had become the fifth-largest craft brewer in the country, distributing beer in 28 states and the District of Columbia. It needed a place to brew beer on the East Coast — Brew 4, to join the company’s three Oregon breweries.
There would be more visits, more discussions, meetings with the governor (in Oregon and the Executive Mansion) and a grass-roots social media campaign aimed at bringing Deschutes to Roanoke. On New Year’s Eve 2015, Deschutes representatives signed a letter of intent. On March 22, Deschutes — along with Gov. Terry McAuliffe and a host of state and local officials — announced the company was coming to Roanoke.
Deschutes President Michael LaLonde said at the announcement, “We have absolutely been blown away with how the community rallied around bringing us here and has given us such a warm welcome.”
That warm welcome included more than $11 million in incentives, with the possibility of more to come. In return, Deschutes plans to invest $85 million in a brewery that will eventually employ 108 people and produce 150,000 barrels of beer per year. Construction is still two years away, and the first beer won’t come out of the brewery until two years after that.
The Roanoke Regional Partnership expects the project to have a $209 million annual economic impact and create more than 300 additional jobs in the region. Deschutes is already having some impact on the local economy. Its beer became available through a regional distributor last August, the same month a Deschutes street pub raised $81,000 for nine regional charities.
Ballast Point in Botetourt
Two months after the Deschutes announcement, San Diego-based Ballast Point Brewing and Spirits, the 11th-largest craft brewer in the U.S., announced its plans to turn a warehouse in Botetourt County into the company’s first East Coast brewery.
While Deschutes describes itself as a “family- and employee-owned brewery,” Ballast Point is owned by Constellation, the third-largest beer company in the country. Among its operations, Constellation brews (in Mexico) and distributes (in the United States) Corona, Pacifico and Modelo beers. Constellation also distributes wine and distills and distributes spirits, including Black Velvet Canadian whiskey and Svedka vodka. Ballast Point founder Jack White left the company last July, two months after the Botetourt announcement.
Ballast Point’s courtship was a good bit shorter than Deschutes’. Just over a year passed between the first partnership contact and the announcement that the company plans to invest $47.8 million in its Botetourt facility, creating 178 jobs — 133 in the brewery and 45 in hospitality and retail. The average annual pay for the brewery jobs will be a little more than $41,000, according to the partnership. It estimates that Ballast Point will have an annual economic impact of more than $376 million on the region and lead to the creation of more than 540 additional jobs.
Botetourt Board of Supervisors Chairman Jack Leffel credits the supervisors’ decision to join the Western Virginia Water Authority in 2015 (and the leadership of fellow board member John Williamson in that decision) for landing the Ballast Point project. Without that water, Leffel says, the project would have been impossible. He sees advantages far beyond the direct benefits of jobs and investment.
“We see this particular project as key to our goals of attracting younger folks to live, work and play in Botetourt,” Leffel said at the announcement.
On the radar
Doughty sees additional benefits, too. “These are high-profile deals,” she says, “So the Roanoke region has been elevated on their radar because of deals like this.”
People and companies involved in site-selection process know about the region’s beer deals, she says, and that may open doors to more deals. But there’s more.
“Deschutes has 44,000 visitors a year that go to Bend, Ore., so we can expect a comparable impact because of the location here in Roanoke,” Doughty says. “Ballast Point is another one that becomes a destination. And then, when you combine the two, it becomes a couple of days’ destination. And then you add the already growing craft-beer community with the smaller brewers and startups, and you’ve added to the package that you can sell from a tourism perspective.”
Craft brewing is a collegial industry, and Doughty thinks that will bring yet another benefit. “Having the large brewers here is helpful to the small brewers because they bring their expertise and the great willingness to collaborate,” Doughty says. “That kind of raises the tide for everyone.”