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10Brews: Comparing Knoxville & Asheville's beer communities

Our neighbor across the Smokies may have once held the title Beer City USA, but we're getting closer as more breweries open in Knoxville.

Knoxville isn't quite a town people come to solely for beer just yet... but our neighbor to the east is.

Asheville, North Carolina, is recognized as one of a handful of Beer City USA's.

With about 30 breweries and just a two hour drive from here, beer tourism pulls people to that city.

Will Knoxville ever be able to foster that type of beer culture? It depends who you ask.

EXPLORE: Knoxville's growing craft brew scene

"Knoxville has finally discovered itself," said local beer fan Donna McClure.

"I was not expecting to see like this many breweries here," said new Knoxville resident Cory Graham.

When it comes to our local beer scene, it's pretty cool. We've got 15 breweries and counting, many of which have opened just within the last five or six years.

"Knoxville is getting there, but it's no Asheville," said East Tennessee native Megan Lawhorn.

To some, Knoxville is just living in the shadow of our older, more established beer-centered neighbor, Asheville.

"They're obviously way ahead of us," said James McClure, whose daughter lives in Asheville.

QUIZ: Test your craft beer knowledge

To understand how Asheville grew to once claim the title Beer City USA, we went back to the beginning.

"So it was in 1994 in a basement in downtown Asheville," said Leah Ashburn, president of Highland Brewing Company.

Highland is Asheville's first brewery to open since prohibition, and it'll be celebrating its 25th anniversary next year.

Now distributing throughout the southeast from its production facility in Asheville, Highland started small as the retirement project of Oscar Wong.

"It wasn't totally a cake walk," said Ashburn, Wong's daughter. "One of my dad's best friends told him he was gonna go broke trying to sell this stuff."

Ashburn said Highland didn't make a profit for nine years. Now, it's a brand recognized nationwide.

DISCOVER: The Knoxville Ale Trail

With Highland paving the way for more breweries to open in Asheville, dozens more have joined the scene in almost 25 years.

"The beer culture has just revolutionized beyond any of our imaginations," said Ashburn.

One of the breweries that opened as Asheville was picking up steam as a beer city is Burial Brewing Company, started in 2013

"At that time it was kind of on that list of like Beer City USA or like most breweries per capita," said Tim Gormley, co-owner and head brewer at Burial.

He and his co-owners from Seattle six years ago to open burial in Asheville.

"I think that has been really critical to our success," said Gormley.

He remembers looking at other cities like Charleston and New Orleans to open the brewery, but ultimately chose to open in a place where other breweries thrived together.

Burial is growing fast, and Gormley and other local brewers don't plan to leave Asheville any time soon.

Well, unless opportunity calls in a growing beer city like Knoxville. That's what happened to Jordan Skeen.

"I went and worked for Oskar Blues [in Asheville], and that was great. I probably would still be there had I not gotten the opportunity to come back and help a brewery open in town," said Skeen.

She's now the head brewer at Clinch River Brewing in Norris, just one of several breweries to open in the past couple years. Skeen said businesses is booming up there, attracting locals in the area almost nightly.

Skeen serves as the president of the Knoxville Area Brewer's Association, and said Knoxville's brewery count is growing rapidly.

"To go from two to about 14, 15, 17 and three or four more in the works, that's tremendous and to see that in eight years whereas it took Asheville about 20 years to see that type of growth."

It's a good sign. As more places open, so the beer tourism grows, and the Knox Ale Trail expands.

Brewers in Knoxville agree our beer market isn't overcrowded with breweries quite yet.

"At this point still everybody's doing their own thing and they're all doing it differently enough that no brewery feels like it's being crowded out by anybody else I would think," said Skeen.

She said all the Knoxville breweries share supplies, ideas and collaborate on beers all the time.

Plus our breweries are more spread out than they are in Asheville, which some see as a good thing.

"Knoxville has amazing neighborhoods and people want to support these neighborhoods," said Donna.

Both cities' brew communities are tight knit, but Asheville is a little more competitive.

Gormley says that heightened when big national breweries like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada moved in.

"More competition was just causing everyone to work a little bit harder and smarter and it elevated the entire, the quality of beer across Asheville," said Gormley.

But that doesn't mean our beer is bad! Brewers are working constantly to come out with new beers that people of all taste preferences can enjoy.

Asheville is a destination for beer, and nothing Knoxville does will change that. But the Scruffy City is a destination for hiking, for UT football games, for festivals and so much more.

Now they're working to make "beer destination" just another check mark on the list of why Knoxville is already a cool place.

"They want to build a place from scratch that is a place you want to come for beer," said Skeen.

We'll get there, it's just gonna take a little time.

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