Meet-the-Author: A. F. Glenn on Asheville’s Spirited History, Rise to Brewing Mecca

Meet-the-Author: A. F. Glenn on Asheville’s Spirited History, Rise to Brewing Mecca

Drinking local harks back to the founding of Asheville in 1798. Whether it be moonshine or craft beer, the culture of local “hooch” is deeply ingrained in the mountain dwellers of Western North Carolina. Asheville’s wealth of beer-lovers earned the city the coveted Beer City, USA title year after year and prompted West Coast beer giants Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues to establish production facilities here.

There is nothing that will act like a charm, restoring new life and vigor when weary, as a bottle of our pure and wholesome beer.
—1900 Asheville saloon ad

Beer writer and educator Anne Fitten Glenn started chronicling this intoxicating history, from the suds-soaked saloons of “Hell’s Half Acre” to the region’s explosion into a beer mecca, while freelancing for Asheville newspapers. She moved to Asheville in 1997, soon after the town’s craft brewvival began (yes, it’s a double first name).

Her regular Brews News column for Asheville’s Mountain Xpress newsweekly debuted in 2009. Since then, she’s written articles for Craftbeer.com, the national Brewers Association’s online magazine. Her online alter ego, Brewgasm, blogs, tweets and Facebooks obsessively about all things beer. So we were thrilled to catch up with Anne Fitten in between her booze research to talk…well, booze.

Q: How long have you been researching Asheville’s beer history and did anything in particular inspire you? When did you first take a serious interest in craft beer?

A: I’ve written about Asheville’s beer and beer businesses for a number of years as a journalist. So in essence, I’ve been writing Asheville’s beer history already—as it happens. Some of the facts and stories in this book were first published in my Brews News column for Asheville’s newsweekly, as well as elsewhere.

I’m not very serious about craft beer—it’s beer, for goodness sake. I first became passionate about it in the 1990s, when I realized that not all beer tastes equal.

A flight of beers at Southern Appalachian Brewery’s taproom in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Photo by A.F. Glenn.

I learned about “real ale” when I lived and worked in London in the early 1990s. Afterwards, I moved to Aspen, Colorado, and worked for George Stranahan, co-founder of Flying Dog Brewery. Soon after that, I moved to Asheville, at the beginning of this city’s brewvival. Thus, I’ve been following craft beer around the world for more than twenty years!

Q: Tell us about working with Zane Lamprey of Drinking Made Easy. Any stand-out moments?

A: I met Zane Lamprey when I was invited to watch him and Steve McKenna compete in a blind taste test of nine Asheville beers. After losing to Steve, Zane mixed all the remaining beer into one pitcher and poured some into my glass. I must’ve cringed because he said, “What, is mixing beer illegal? It’s all mixed up in your stomach anyway.”

In truth, because one of the beers was Asheville Brewing Company’s Fire Escape, the mixture just tasted like jalapenos, so it wasn’t awful.

I have great respect for people who can both drink lots of beer and write about it well—which Zane does. I attempt to emulate him, although I’m not nearly as successful at it.

Q:  What makes beer history, particularly Asheville’s, an important part of understanding the bigger historical picture of an era and region? What kind of gap are you filling for history lovers with your new book?

A: The city of Asheville and its inhabitants have had a long and sometimes torturous relationship with alcoholic beverages. Ironically, the site of the city was changed at the last minute due to a cunning tavern keeper and his home brewed “mountain dew.” That was back in 1798, so basically, alcohol was the deciding factor in the actual location of the town. In the book, I trace the influence of beer (and some of its stronger brethren) throughout the city’s history and tell how Asheville evolved from a rollicking “Wild West” town to a brewing mecca.

Q: Why did beer start out as (traditionally) a woman’s job to brew in mountainous regions like Asheville? How did alcohol shape a woman’s role in society?

A: Brewing beer was part of a woman’s “home” duties for hundreds of years and in many different world cultures before beer became a commercial endeavor and was then co-opted by men. In Western North Carolina (WNC), which didn’t see white settlers until the late 1700s, women would have brewed beer in the homestead while their men were trying to grow foods and hunt to sustain the family.

A couple of chapters in this book discuss women’s relationship with alcohol, and their control of its use and abuse, particularly leading up to prohibition. There was an entire Lysistrata movement of women claiming, ‘Lips that touch liquor shall not touch ours,’ which included posters of rather stern-looking matriarchs pursing their mouths into grim lines.

Members of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform’s parade float in Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival in 1933. Sadly for them, it would be almost two more years before North Carolina would vote with the rest of the nation to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. E.M. Ball Photographic Collection (1918–1969), D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville.

However, it should be noted that the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, founded in 1874, took a number of important stances—from supporting women’s suffrage and prison reform to calling for world peace. It’s ironic that the movement’s most famous member, Carrie Nation, would be remembered primarily for her violence.

While, in many ways, prohibition didn’t work, it did provide a platform from which to empower women. That was particularly true in Asheville, where the women and children of the town led the fight to vote for prohibition in 1907.

Q: How did settlers get away with drinking beer at every meal? What sort of resources did the settlers draw upon to make beer in Asheville?

A: The beer that the settlers brewed typically was lower in alcohol by volume than most beer we consume today. These frontier folk also were engaged in hard manual labor, so they burned off the alcohol (and the calories) fairly quickly.

Hops grown in Weaverville, N.C.

The beer that was brewed in Western North Carolina was very different from the beer we drink today—both hops and malted grains were difficult to come by, so beer was brewed with corn, honey, molasses and even locust pods.

Q: You mention that “demon whiskey” elicited a fiery debate throughout communities in WNC. Why did beer fly under the radar for such a long time?

A:  The drink just was so ubiquitous that its existence wasn’t worth writing much about. Beer was a common household item, and because its alcohol content was typically low, it didn’t rouse the fiery rhetoric that its stronger cousin, “demon whiskey,” often did.

Q: What was the significance of “Hell’s Half Acre?” What propelled it to infamy?

A: At the turn of the twentieth century, at least eighteen saloons and bars served beer and liquor to Ashevillians. Most of these saloons were clustered in a couple of blocks on S. Main Street (now Biltmore Avenue), which came to be known as “Hell’s Half Acre” for its rowdy licentiousness.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, seventeen men died violent deaths in Hell’s Half Acre. Five of those deaths occurred one November night in 1906, when a drunken desperado, a man named Will Harris, took his Savage rifle to the streets.

Q:  Asheville was the first city in North Carolina to vote for prohibition. What kind of socio-political climate brought about this legislation? Was the “dry” versus “wet” debate ever truly settled?

A: Many of America’s wives and mothers were angry, and rightly so. It was considered unseemly for “ladies” to be in saloons. (Only certain types of women visited those establishments).

“Hotels would often have a special room where women ‘might drink to avoid the eyes of the curious,’ as one newspaper article put it.”

Hotels would often have a special room where women ‘might drink to avoid the eyes of the curious,’ as one newspaper article put it. Asheville’s Battery Park Hotel had a special room for women called the ‘Red Room.’ For the most part, back then, women drank their beer at home and had bottles delivered there directly from the saloons.

Sheriff and deputies busting a basement still in the 1940s at 166 Chatham Road in Asheville. The still’s owner is the man in the black jacket. E.M. Ball Photographic Collection (1918–1969), D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Most of the time, women were left at home while their spouses spent time and money in the saloons, then sometimes came home drunk and were little help around the house or with the children. In worse case scenarios, the drunken men were abusive. As a woman who drinks freely wherever I want, I can’t imagine how restricted women at the turn of the twentieth century must have felt. That said, some of the shenanigans they came up with to shame and hector men to voting “dry” were pretty over the top.

Today there are still a couple of dry counties and a number of dry towns in Western North Carolina, though it seems fewer with most every vote. What “local option”  has meant for North Carolina is that every municipality seems to have different blue laws governing alcohol. It’s very confusing.

Q: What happened to beer in Western North Carolina during the Civil War era?

A: The War Between the States, as Southerners like to call it, definitely disrupted trade, including the movement of beer. During the war, the southern states also restricted imported beer. While this probably didn’t affect Western North Carolina as much as it did the rest of the Old North State, the Civil War was an unmitigated disaster for this region.

There was mixed sentiment here about the war, yet a huge amount of public money and energy was diverted for the effort. (You can read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for one story of how the war tore WNC families apart). It’s likely that most people continued to get their beer from home brewing.

Q: How did Biltmore Forestry School and George Vanderbilt contribute to the rise of beer in WNC?

A: In 1895, Vanderbilt hired Dr. Carl Schenck of Germany to care for the Estate’s extensive forests. In 1898, Schenck established America’s first forestry school at Biltmore. In addition to knowledge about forest management, Schenck also brought from his homeland a traditional singing and beer drinking festival called Sangerfest…Sangerfests were Asheville’s first beer festivals.

Biltmore Forestry School students carrying kegs of beer to prepare for the monthly Sangerfest, a traditional German singing and beer drinking celebration, circa 1910. Although Asheville had voted in prohibition at this time, kegs of beer could be ordered from other states for personal consumption. E.M. Ball Photographic Collection (1918–1969), D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Q: Which was your favorite character to write about and why? Were there any standout research moments or surprises along the way?

A: I’ve heard about the Will Harris murders of 1906 for years, but delving into some of the source documents describing what happened was fascinating. Both the extreme violence of the murders and the response to them was striking (the posse riddled Harris’s body with more than one hundred gunshots). I was also intrigued to learn that the man who was killed by the posse was never identified positively as Harris.

“Dixieland” was author Thomas Wolfe’s fictional name for his childhood home, the boardinghouse Old Kentucky Home, while “Altamont” was his name for Asheville. Wolfe’s mother once slammed the front door in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s face when the drunken Fitzgerald asked to stay there. North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, N.C.

I also loved learning about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Asheville, downing up to thirty beers a day while trying to write in a suite at the Grove Park Inn.

Q: How have artists in the Paris of the South and beer been intertwined throughout history?

Author Thomas Wolfe stands in the doorway of his childhood home in 1937. N.C. Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, N.C.

A: For one, Asheville’s most famous native, Thomas Wolfe, whose boyhood home draws tourists from all over the world, penned some scintillating prose about beer. Plus, one of most famous tourists to visit, F. Scott Fitzgerald, spent most of his time here drinking massive amounts of beer. Then there’s the River Arts District, currently the working home to a couple of hundred artists as well as one brewery.

It’s soon to be the locale of another brewery—and a biggie—New Belgium Brewing. Affectionately called the RAD by locals, this part of town includes Depot Street, where Asheville’s main train passenger station once stood. The nineteenth-century warehouses that stored the beer (as well as other goods) that arrived on the railroad now house artists’ studios and Wedge Brewing Company.

Q: Asheville’s first professional baseball team, founded in 1897, was called the Asheville Moonshiners. How does this speak to the region’s affinity for the drink? How did the city transition to being a beercentric one, after forty years of officially being dry (and having had such a long love affair with moonshine)?

A: Certainly, having a culture where “making your own hooch” is a way of life has supported the culture of drinking locally, whether it be white lightning or Highland Gaelic Ale. Also, Asheville is a town where supporting small local businesses comes naturally. Drinking local here has evolved from a niche to a way of life. And beer tourists help too.

Q: Did the Pop the Cap legislation help catalyze Asheville’s “Beer City USA” nomination four years in a row? If so, how?

A: I think Pop the Cap in 2005 catalyzed the opening of more craft breweries in and around Asheville, which probably helped the town win the Beer City, USA, poll four years in a row (don’t forget we tied two of those years though—once with Portland, Oregon, and most recently with Grand Rapids, Michigan). But the poll is a bit of an unscientific popularity contest that tells more about Asheville’s craft beer community cohesion and small business support than our great beer. Although our beer IS great.

Part of downtown Asheville, looking over the Beer City Festival, which celebrates the city’s status as Beer City, USA. The obelisk in the background, the Vance Monument, was built in 1897 in honor of North Carolina’s Civil War–era governor, Zebulon B. Vance. Photo by A.F. Glenn.

Q: What kind of affect has the three big brewery announcements of 2012 had on local craft hype?

A: When Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, New Belgium Brewing Company and Oskar Blues Brewery all decided, within about four months of each other in early 2012, to open second breweries in or near Asheville, the whole craft beer world kind of went nuts.

As I note in the book, “In three fell swoops, these companies will effectively produce more than fifteen times the volume of beer currently being produced by the breweries currently operating in Western North Carolina.” Pretty much every single person who likes craft beer and lives within a two-hundred-mile radius of Asheville is excited about visiting and drinking super-fresh, locally crafted beer at these breweries.

Ken Grossman, CEO and founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing, North Carolina governor Bev Perdue, and Brian Grossman, co-manager of the North Carolina Sierra Brewery, at Sierra Nevada Brewing’s formal announcement that the company will build a second brewery in Mills River, North Carolina. Photo by Max Cooper.

Q: You’ve noted that the country still hasn’t caught up to the peak of American brewing in 1873 when there were 4,131 breweries, in spite of the booming modern craft business. How do you contribute to community efforts to help spread awareness and continue the “brewvival?”

A: In addition to writing Brews News for Mountain Xpress, I teach Beer 101 classes for both servers and the beer-loving public with support from the Asheville Brewers Alliance. The server classes are, I think, particularly important because beer tourism has definitely increased in the area. It’s important that servers know which beers are local and can talk a little about the breweries and beer styles when folks ask.

Q: Baltimore’s first manufacturing industry was a brewery, and in Houston quirky names like “Sympathy for the Lager” and “Rodeo Clown” appeal to local crowds. How important are traditions, place and loyalty in beer marketing?

A: Craft beer drinkers don’t tend to be particularly brand loyal or traditional. We like to try new beers from new breweries all the time. That’s why the most successful craft breweries continue to innovate and create new beers often. Even so, most craft beer drinkers have a few “fallback” local craft beers that they drink loyally and often.

Q: If you could pick three local beers to drink right now, what would they be? (Spiced Cold Mountain sounds good to us…)

A: That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child. There are so many WNC-brewed beers that I love. Right at this very moment, however, I’d be happy to quaff a French Broad Brewing IPA or a Pisgah Brewing Red Devil (a Belgian brewed with cherries and raspberries). Or I’d like to drink any one of several delicious porters, such as the ones brewed by Asheville Brewing, Green Man Brewing and Wedge Brewing. I think porter is one of the versatile styles, especially for beer and food pairings, because it complements almost any dish without overwhelming your palate.

Q: What is your favorite title on your bookshelf and/or what are you reading? Do certain books call for certain beers?

A: Since I finished writing Asheville Beer, I’ve stopped reading beer books for a while. That said, I probably consult The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver, every day. I’ve also been spending a lot of time perusing The Brewers Association’s Draught Quality Manual for my Beer 101 teaching. For escapism, I’m currently reading The Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin. The characters do drink a good bit of ale, although it’s not described in detail.

Q: What’s your most memorable craft beer experience?

I first learned about craft beer when I worked for George Stranahan, the founder of Flying Dog Brewery, in Woody Creek, Colorado, in the early 90s. My most memorable beer experience was having writer Hunter S. Thompson yell at me in the middle of the night because I’d left the cover off the Stranahans’ hot tub. He was naked, and I was holding a beer. Because my friends and I had previously imbibed a half keg of Doggie Style Pale Ale, I was not as scared as I should have been.

“Good people drink good beer.”

Thompson’s Owl Farm was down the road from the Stranahans’ home, and the writer was a frequent late night visitor to their indoors swimming pool and hot tub. He had, of course, penned the now well-known line, “Good people drink good beer,” which adorns the Doggie Style label.

Hunter S. Thompson clearly didn’t respond well to young women not taking proper care of the place. Thank the beer goddesses for that Doggie Style Pale, though, which provided me with enough liquid courage to replace the hot tub cover while the legendary man glowered at me.

Q: What’s next?

Welcome to Asheville’s annual Oktoberfest. Courtesy of Asheville Downtown Association.

A: Other than selling thousands of copies of Asheville Beer? I’ll continue writing my regular Brews News column as well as other articles on craft beer and the beer business. I’m also ramping up my teaching of Beer 101 courses. I love teaching folks about beer—how to serve it, how it’s brewed, how to pair different styles with different foods and more.

I’d also like to write a guide to craft beer specifically for women, which I’ve actually been working on for a couple of years. It’s tentatively titled: Tapping into your Brewgasms: The Womanly Art of Drinking, Understanding, and Buying Beer.

Anne Fitten has been the trusted source for reliable information about brewing in the western part of the state for as long as I can remember. This piece of literature will be a significant contribution to the North Carolina beer community.

–Win Bassett, executive director, North Carolina Brewers Guild, social media and beer education director, All About Beer magazine

The story of Western North Carolina’s brew scene is a rich and colorful tale that needs to be told. This book brings it all together in one place.

–Tony Kiss, Asheville Citizen-Times entertainment editor and beer columnist

Anne Fitten is as involved in her subject matter as one can be—which isn’t to say she’s deep in her cups. Rather, she has managed to be both on the ground floor and backstage as the brewery scene in North Carolina has exploded. Having worked with Anne Fitten in various capacities in my career, I know that there are few people that can match her knowledge and wit in the arena of brews news.

–Mackensy Lunsford, food editor, Asheville Scene

The depths to which Anne Fitten has gone to get the background story on beer history has me convinced that this will be a page turner for beer aficionados, curious Asheville locals, newcomers, wannabe residents and regular history buffs.

–Oscar Wong, president and founder, Highland Brewing Company

 

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