An Afternoon at The GreenMansion with Dennis Thies, Owner of Green Man Brewery – March 1, 2016
The South Slope in Asheville isn’t playing games. Once sad, forgotten, and desolate, it is now it is the self proclaimed hub for Asheville’s exploding beer scene. Growing up here, no one ever went down Coxe Avenue unless you were downtown and needed to get to the hospital, and you went through it quickly. It’s wild to see the flocks of wide and slightly bloodshot-eyed tourists as they blaze around the many incredible breweries that are speckled throughout this 3 block radius, while I remember the less than savory environment that Banks, Buxton, and Collier Avenue was just a few years ago.
I graduated from Western Carolina University four years ago. It seems like yesterday, but in that time I have also graduated with a Masters in Better Beer Choices, and my beloved koozy that was once inhabited by Busch Heavy has given way to much better choices now that my wallet isn’t on a student federal loan budget. In the period of studying the quality-over-quantity model of drinking beer, I’ve been blessed with all the right circumstances to enjoy the best Asheville beer. My job is essentially the acquisition of new members and managing our current members on Dig Local, an app and website that anyone can use to find the best of only local, authentic Asheville businesses, so naturally I get to hang out in all our favorite local establishments and try their amazing products, which I do often. Somewhere along the way, my bosses expressed interest in starting a blog for Dig Local, and I figured since I love writing and want to share my experiences with everyone so they can support our local economy, I should take the reigns and share my first hand experiences. My vision was to have my weekly journal recapping the businesses I meet with throughout the week and also some list based content since the Buzzfeed generation has taken over our minds and forced us all to think in bullet points, so naturally I came out the gate swinging on the game that I know pretty well with The Top Ten Local Breweries of Asheville.
Of course, I expected this list to be met with a good deal of controversy, and even though I actually had a few more people agree than I thought, there were a lot of people upset over the exclusion of Green Man Brewery, one of our oldest and most well-known breweries in town. Before I go into more about Green Man, I will explain a bit more about why they were not included on my list. First and foremost, I had a horrible past experience with the ex-head manager that was bad enough to never want to drink Green Man again. I have since found out that it was a reoccurring event, and that personnel has wisely been let go. Good move! Second, I’m more of a hop-head. Give me a sticky, hoppy, west coast IPA and I’m happy. Green Man beers are traditionally English style ales, so not my first choice. Since I had the bad experience, I was never inclined to spend much time in “Dirty Jacks”, the small taproom accompanying Green Man where they keep all of the small batch, experimental beer that would be more up my alley. Dennis Thies, the owner of Green Man, sent a very polite message to my blog a couple of weeks ago, and invited me to a private tour of his new taproom opening soon on the South Slope. He offered to show me a side of Green Man that hadn’t been viewed yet and share his vision of this new, much expanded Green Man Brewery, in hopes that I would see a different side of his operation that the general public hadn’t gotten to see yet. So what’s a man to do? He’s to take the tour, of course. What I give you now is a never before seen look into the GreenMansion (only the parts that he permits me share of course). Be excited. Because this new facility is a game changer.
First and foremost, parking in the South Slope could be compared to parking at an outdoor festival where the ticket company really messed up and sold way more tickets than they actually had parking, and then realized they also forgot to level the land. Also they forgot that some people drive vehicles that are larger than a Corolla. Thankfully, I have a Corolla. I don’t think anyone expected the magnitude of growth of South Slope, so on a good Friday or Saturday night, you will have a grand time trying to find a decent parking space, and if you navigate into any of the old dirt lots you better not be driving a low vehicle unless you really enjoy that scratching sound on your chassis. Thankfully, a new parking deck is going in next to Twin Leaf Brewing and for the time being Green Man owns a parking lot right next to it- which makes parking way, way better than most downtown Asheville spots. When I walked up to the offices next to Dirty Jacks I was greeted by Elise, Green Man’s head Marketing and PR Director. Elise does a fantastic job with community involvement and is just an all around pleasant person to deal with. I wish I could say all of us marketing people are that way, however it’s just not the case all the time. From the offices, we walked a few feet downhill to the new taproom. The first thing you notice is the massive, English-castle inspired doors. Once inside, the first thing that is visibly different than other breweries in town is the space, complete with a stairway leading upstairs, beautiful lighting fixtures, and one of the most impressive bars I’ve seen in Asheville. I’ve seen quite a few of those, so I know a good one when I see it. With eighteen taps and a gorgeous bar that’s copper and turquoise, I imagine it’s great for sliding a beer down to a thirsty patron. I wouldn’t recommend it though, because it’s far too nice to be shattering glasses everywhere. The first level is going to be used for merchandise sales as well as the bar, and right outside the first level there are also a couple of fire pits, which is a quick way to my heart; there’s also a place for food trucks to park, a direct route to my heart. I was asked to be somewhat discreet and mysterious with my pictures, so you are only going to get a sneak peak so that you won’t just read this blog while drinking Green Man at home. Not that I’m condoning that by any means, but you must visit the GreenMansion, otherwise what is the point of me doing all this work for you?
As we went upstairs I noted that it was the first brewery in Asheville to have an elevator. WE ARE GOING PLACES ASHEVILLE! MOSTLY UP! The hallway is filled with some great black-and-white photography of beer and other brew related photography. On the way up to the third level we bypassed the second level, which encompasses the production facility plus two large, fancy restrooms. The third level, however, is what is truly impressive about the GreenMansion. When I first saw it, I instantly envisioned myself having some good times up here. It’s going to happen. It’s an open air third level, and you can look directly into the production facility, where they encourage you to shout your non-validated opinions of what you think should be going into the beer and wave signs on what they should brew next. Now you can be a backseat driver for the brewers! (The crew is going to love this.) If you haven’t picked up on my sarcasm, I will clarify that I highly doubt they encourage this, and if you really want to homebrew I suggest you test your opinions out on a Mr. Beer kit or something before you go yelling at seasoned brewers (or even express them on Yelp for that matter.)
The bar upstairs is huge, and features 18 taps, just like the downstairs. The decor and lighting is supremely impressive, and even features a really cool aquatic/rock display. While being able to look out onto the production facility is pretty snazzy, the best part of the third level by far is the outdoor balcony. It’s a deck complete with tables, chairs, access to the bar so that the servers can pour on both the inside and outside of the bar, and comes complete with an amazing view southbound, where you can see all the way to Mount Pisgah. What I’m saying is, if offered the opportunity (not likely), I would like to live on the third level of the GreenMansion. This outdoor space is going to be a huge hit for tourists and locals alike, and it is clear that Dennis spared no expense to bring the Asheville Brewery scene to a new level. Now that I had seen everything, it was time to get to the bottom of some beers and business. Dennis, Elise, and I had already went through the usual chit chat so this interview began with the big questions.
So Dennis, tell me a little bit about where you’re from and how you got into the beer business. You said you were from Florida originally?
I was born and raised in the beer business on the distribution side, my father owned a company called W.M. Thies and Sons. My passion for craft beer started a long time ago with Sierra Nevada in college. Well, I could never afford it but, uh, it’s f**cking good, you know? And then Sam Adams, we sold Sam Adams, so that was one of my mentors. I mean, he wouldn’t pick up the phone if I called him right now. Well…maybe he would. So I got into beer as a craft beer distributor. I was one of the early beer guys; I was the only guy in the whole Southeast to go to Craft Beer Conference in San Diego in 2006. I was the only distributor from the entire Southeast in San Diego for the Craft Brewers Conference. It was our industry trade show. I walked the floor and I was like, “F**k, look at all this.” And I’m not a technical guy, I was like “what is all this”? I mean, I was a sales guy. And then my passion turned away from Miller and all that crap, and we traveled out to Rogue and Jack Joyce gave me a personal tour of the brewery in Oregon before he died. I just had some key relationships with Larry Bell and others in the early days before they were big rock stars and they wanted to be friends with me because I was principal in a big beer distributor before. So I became friends with a lot of these guys, brought a lot of them into Florida and then our company was sold in 2008.
I want to ask you some questions about the taproom, but first let’s dig deeper into the topics we talked about a few minutes ago. When you purchased this facility starting out, what was your vision for The GreenMansion?
We have a unique structure here now. My wife and I are the owners, but I mean, it was a struggle for a long time, for years. And, that’s what I was always focused on. Building a brand, getting the beer delivered, making more beer.
Well you come from a distributing background.
Exactly. I’m a sales guy.
I can appreciate that. My original profession as well.
The old building enabled us to put the brew-house in there, get that, but it wasn’t big enough. And so we were getting that going, started getting into bottles, thought we were big boys, quietly scooped up this land that the GreenMansion is on now. And it was brilliant, because nobody wanted it. It was for sale, but nobody wanted it.
And when was that?
Oh yeah, that was right before the big boom on the South Slope. So.. good timing.
Well, my father wanted to help me out but he wasn’t sure what to do, so he asked, “What about that lot?” and I would say, “How about more kegs man, can you help me out?” He actually has never given us money. Wait…is that true? I gotta make sure that’s true…
You know he might be reading this…
*laughs* No, he hasn’t! Not for the brewery. I’ve suggested things. But he helped us with the land, that was his deal.
But you said it took him a while to be convinced on brewing?
Oh, he thought it was all a horrible idea. Absolutely horrible idea. But I got lucky. I had to work really hard, and had to overcome a lot of bullshit stuff downtown. Competition, like Andy over at French Broad, he was busting my chops pretty hard for a few years- you can ask him that.
That’s what I heard. I think he’s told me this story.
*Laughs* He’s actually one of my favorite guys now. And then fella’s like New Belgium, Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, Wicked Weed (or Sharknado as you refer to them)- they came to town too. Old daddy Green Man has been able to stay singular; I don’t have many partners.
That’s huge. I’ve seen many great Asheville establishments fail because of having way too many owners.
In the beginning I felt like people really wanted to discover Green Man. Then we found ourselves falling behind the competition, just like, not being with downtown after five or at the ball field, or the Civic Center, because I was too busy telling people no. We are changing all of that.
So how do plan on catering more to the local community once the new taproom opens? Not necessarily to tourists, who are inevitably going to be here, but the people who reside here in Asheville?
We think our locals, who we adore, will be very pleased because there will be a lot less traffic than the original place. They’re gonna come have a here at the GreenMansion then maybe go back over there (Dirty Jacks). Um, this place is going to be cool if you want to bring your wife or your husband, but the old place is still for locals and their soccer. And it will be until it falls over. As far as this place, our first night is for charity, for local inner city youth. That’s a big deal.
So charity involvement, is that something you plan on doing consistently?
Well, we do a lot of it, we just need to do a better job of talking about it. I think Green Man is really important to Asheville, I really do. I’ve tried many years to stay in the back of everything. “Dennis of Green Man”, you just don’t see that a lot of that. You will see some now, because I’ve got to come out of my shell. This is a big deal. For years, I’ve just been like “nope”. And, I’ve sincerely tried to make Green Man as good as I possibly can. Don’t cut any corners. Just don’t cut any corners. The ingredients, machinery, everything- we could get cheaper stuff, but that compromises your experience. We don’t cut any corners. We really don’t. *turns to Elise* Do we?
Elise: I mean, that’s the most top of the line packaging equipment that you can buy.
Dennis: And it’s going to be really cool to not only see the finished product of this production floor, but see it being built, you know? You will get to sit here and drink and see a lot of clanking and this shit being put in. You will have a few months of that. But the importance of this brand to Asheville is big. We aren’t sucking the money up, trust me on that one. I haven’t taken a paycheck yet.
Dig Local just got past the point of being a start up, so trust me, I know what you mean there.
I’m sure we could get liquor, wine, and food, and really make money, but I don’t want to do that.
Elise: The food truck model works really well for us, we don’t charge them anything to set up here, so it’s a win-win situation. We can provide food and not have to worry about the hassle, and let them do what they are best at and us do what we are best at.
Dennis: I’ve always hated the brewpub model. Always.
Elise: It’s like either the food gets talked about, or the beer gets talked about. You’ve got to do three things very well; food, beer, and service. Usually the beer is always the one we get the highest marks on, and sometimes the other ones tend to get forgotten in the mix.
So what styles of beer are you going to be introducing that we haven’t seen before in the Green Man rotation? Are you going to be upgrading any of the small batches?
Well, on draft, we always have something interesting in my opinion. I’ve challenged my guys to explore this tropical, citrus IPA thing I’m a big fan of…
Catering to specific people, huh?
We always have something interesting on draft. In terms of bottles and cans, the Wayfarer can is going to be big.
You know, I don’t recall drinking Green Man in a can…
We haven’t had cans yet, but it’s happening soon. It will be out during our opening night on March 17th.
Just in time for floating season. Love my Asheville beers in a can when I’m on the water.
Now the sours, that’s a whole other thing. I’ll let you speak to that. But we had the first sour in Asheville, and that’s a fact. And that’s a pretty cool fact we should talk more about, but we want to do a better job of making more of them. Sours are huge, but you ideally need to have them away from all of your other beers. That’s why Wicked Weed has Funkatorium. We did it just because we were being experimental. The guy that’s not here anymore said “I want to do this”, and I said “What? I’ve never even heard of this shit.” So, the old place at some point could become a sour facility just like Hi-Wire is doing. We are still a year away, at least.
Elise: We have to get the new brew house in here before we can do all that. I mean, when we did sours before we made it work on that system, and then pinched everything into the barrel so there was no bacteria involved. We know what we are doing, but we only have so many barrels, and they take a year at least to make a batch.
That’s a very big, emerging style. So the next question, what do you feel like the new GreenMansion is going to offer that the rest of the brewery taprooms in Asheville can’t?
Oh, that’s a good one…
Elise: Well we offer free tours, that’s one thing. And we’ve been offering free tours for a while on Saturdays. We are going to have four times slots, you can sign up online, and it’s free! (see the link at the bottom of this blog to sign up!)
Dennis: Free beer, two small samples, a sticker…
Elise: Well, two small samples of beer! But anyway, it’s going to be much larger, because now you have much more to see. The tour starts at Dirty Jacks, then then walks the road where it all started, leading to our new production facility, then the GreenMansion.
I obviously wrote this comparison before I got to see this new facility, so I can already see it’s going to have a lot to offer that other taprooms don’t. Very impressive.
Dennis: I feel like this is like the Terminator movies. Terminator One was the shit. Green Man Brewery is like Arnold in the original Terminator. Over time, a lot of other Terminator movies came out, and a lot of other breweries opened up. We were the original, we kind of stood back, and watched everything happen around us, until it was our turn to rise again. And now, Green Man rebooting everything. Arnold is coming back after being in the background a few years to remind everyone he’s a bad-ass. The Green Man Terminator is back.
Wow. That certainly puts a lot of things in perspective!
Yeah, we went for it.
So, I see the differentiating factors being one, you weren’t afraid to scale, and two, the experience that you are offering people is a multi-level brewery. Just for the record everyone, Green Man is the first brewery in Asheville with an elevator. At least I’m pretty sure. Does anyone want to correct me? Also, the outdoor deck, it’s the first elevated deck in an Asheville brewery. The view is just amazing.
You can see all the way to Mount Pisgah on a good day.
Are there any special/experimental brews coming up that we haven’t seen from Green Man before?
We’re just brewing as much as we can. We have three brew-houses and we are pushing the limits of what we can experiment with.
Elise: We have a 1 barrel system for the brewers to play with the more over-the-top experimental beers. We have a one, a thirteen, and a thirty.
I’ve always heard that brewers love the small systems, they can get crazy and make some really unforgettable beers.
You hear about new hops, this is how we test them. You don’t know what they taste like, you just have to brew with it. We are brewing as much as we can and we have a whole list of beers that we want to make.
You are traditionally English-Style ales, but can you think of anything specific in mind that you are wanting to experiment with?
Elise: We have a beer coming out for the ribbon cutter, and I can’t really disclose what it is…
Dennis: It’s definitely not something we’ve done before. But it’s getting hard to do that at this point because we’ve done so many different beers! We use primarily English malt. And that’s not a negative, that’s a positive. It’s the best. It’s a lot more expensive. A lot of guys don’t use it because it’s a lot more expensive, and it’s the best you can get. It’s the highest quality, and you can run from there. Of course, if you want to run a pilsner, you need a pilsner malt.
Do you do many pilsners?
We have a pilsner on tap at Dirty Jacks, actually. I encourage you, if you like pilsners, to give it a try. It’s called Sunseeker. It’s going to be our summer seasonal, and it’s going to be offered in a six-pack.
Speaking of six-packs, how far is Green Man spread out? How far are you now, and how far are you focused on growing?
We’re in select markets in Florida. Real sparingly, just the flagships- playing with it in Tampa, Orlando, and Miami. All of South Carolina and North Carolina, all of Eastern Tennessee. Oh, and Nashville! Georgia is imminent, but other than that we are focused on what we have going on here for now.
So what’s the biggest change to the to the Asheville brewing scene that you have witnessed since you bought Green Man in 2009? (CHECK – Can’t find online) In other words, who or what has changed the game the most?
I would think that Wicked Weed has changed a lot, not necessarily the game. Their game is way, way beyond Asheville. Their aim is not Asheville. They are even in Boston. They changed the playing field, not the game. The big boys coming in, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium- they changed the playing field as well. We go toe-to-toe with all those guys in Ingles Markets, and as a local Asheville guy, I don’t know how stoked you are about that, but that was something that if we didn’t do would have put us at a competitive disadvantage.
As a local Asheville guy, I think that is key. I want my friends that grew up around here as well to enjoy local beer even if they aren’t going downtown. Having it available in our hometown grocery stores is amazing.
You know the tourists, the traffic. I didn’t account for all that shit.
Well that’s how most of the businesses take off; you have a good idea, and sometimes you get lucky and time it perfect.
I didn’t even want to be in the bar business. I wanted to build a brewery, but you have to do it because then people say “Oh, Green Man was lame. Only one bathroom and it was shitty and looked like a dorm room”. And we don’t want people to walk away with that mindset.
What do you think the cap on the Asheville Breweries is? Do you feel like the market is becoming over-saturated?
Well, we are ten years behind the west coast, right? So we aren’t creating the wheel here. But I think overall, the question is unanswerable right now.
I’ve heard several people say that Asheville is trying to become the “Napa Valley of Beer”, and if we keep adding hotels and places for visitors to stay, that grows the cap. So we are depending more and more on our visitors.
What I see happening is where a bar would be opened in any other city, these owners will just open a brewery instead. There just going to start making beers out of little three barrel systems, and by doing that they keep all their profit in-house. It’s already happening with a lot of the smaller breweries around here. I think the question is, are they going to distribute or not? You got some guys that are half-ass distributing, maybe ten accounts. Okay, that’s cool; do you want to distribute or not? Tim for The Wedge is my idol. He said “Nope. Get it here or forget it.” Heady Topper in Stowe, Vermont, I love them. They make two beers- no draft, cans only, f**ckin’ get it here at this price or good luck getting it somewhere else anywhere close to this rate.
I believe that’s about all the questions I have for you today. I really appreciate both of you taking the time to sit down with me and I can’t even tell y’all how excited I am for the GreenMansion and seeing Green Man represent Asheville. I think you’ve got something really good going on here and I look forward to frequenting this fancy taproom often.
Want to drink some beer next door at Dirty Jacks?
*Interview ends, beer drinking ensues.
The GreenMansion opens March 17, 2016 on 27 Buxton Avenue, Asheville, NC. If this doesn’t have you fired up, well, you just don’t like beer and we aren’t friends anymore. Click here to reserve your spot for a free tour, follow Green Man’s happenings on our app and website here, so please share and follow my blog to keep up with all your favorite Asheville happenings. And lastly, if you see me out there or at any of our other amazing breweries, let’s have a beer and toast to our Asheville brewers out there like Green Man, making some legendary ales for all of us to enjoy.