Breweries and taprooms have helped energize our downtowns. At last count, downtown Johnson City alone was home to four breweries and three taprooms, not to mention the nearby eateries that serve the local brews. A fifth brewery, Little Animals, is expected to open downtown later this year.
Little Jonesborough actually started the suds flowing in Northeast Tennessee in earnest when Depot Street Brewing opened way back in 2004, but once craft beer became a trendy industry across the country, our area followed suit with an explosion in the mid-2010s.
Since opening in Johnson City’s old ET&WNC Depot on Buffalo Street in 2015, Yee-Haw Brewing Company has become East Tennessee’s largest craft beer producer, sending kegs, bottles and most recently cans across Tennessee and into neighboring states.
Now Erwin is ready to roast some hops. That’s right, Erwin — the epitome of rural, small-town, Bible-belt America — is courting breweries.
As Staff Writer Sue Guinn Legg reported in Tuesday’s edition, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved on Monday an amendment to Erwin’s on-premises alcohol sales ordinance to pave the way for a craft brewer interested in doing business downtown. The town’s existing ordinances required businesses selling alcohol for onsite consumption to earn 60 percent of their gross sales from food service.
“Most of these types of places don’t have that. Some do. And some partner with food trucks,” Town Recorder Glenn Rosenoff said at the time. The amended ordinance would allow craft brewers to earn 80 percent of their gross sales from craft beer and 20 percent from other beers.
Erwin is perfectly positioned to be a stop on a regional craft brewery tour, since it sits smack dab between Johnson City and the Asheville, N.C., area, which is home to large-scale brewers like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, as well as numerous microbreweries like Blue Mountain Pizza and Brew Pub in Weaverville.
For now at least, craft beer seems to be a viable economic driver for cities and towns across the country. It has steadily eaten into the major beer-makers’ market share. The Brewers Association, a national organization supporting small and independent craft brewers, reports that craft beer had 12.7 percent of the nation’s $111.4 billion beer market in 2017. That represents a 5 percent annual sales growth compared to a 1.2 percent decline in sales for all beer.
The association also reports that Tennessee ranked 22nd among all states for craft beer production in 2016 with 250,247 barrels produced for a $1.135 billion economic impact.
Some national analyses indicate the trend could be peaking, though. Downtown Johnson City may have reached the saturation point. It’s hard to imagine a need for more watering holes after Little Animals opens.
But Erwin is right to board the brew train while it’s hot. A microbrewery or two could lead lots of tourists and craft beer enthusiasts into downtown Erwin, adding to the town’s revitalization successes.