The beer business has exploded on the scene in Western North Carolina in the past several years, with Asheville alone now home to seven craft breweries. A recent poll cemented the city’s status as an up-and-coming brewery epicenter, naming it the number one beer town in the country. Despite the proximity of a thriving beer culture, however, craft brewing has been much slower to catch on in the far western counties — until now.
In recent months, three different companies have popped up with plans to establish breweries in Haywood, Swain, and Jackson counties.
The move of each company is well-timed, “with Asheville becoming a craft beer city and WNC becoming a destination for people who enjoy that stuff and are seeking that out,” says Kevin Sandefur, owner of Pot Licker Brewing Company in Haywood County.
But it’s not just tourists that breweries hope to draw in. A growing number of locals, both natives and newcomers, are thirsty for craft brew.
“I think there’s a lot of people around here that appreciate good beer,” says Chris Cooper, owner of Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative in Sylva.
The Smoky Mountain News caught up with the founders of three upstart craft breweries soon to grace WNC.
Owners: Kevin Sandefur and Brad Morello
How they started
Kevin Sandefur and Brad Morello had been avid homebrewers for several years when their operation started getting a bit out of control.
“We got thrown out of the kitchen by our wives because more and more equipment started showing up and we needed more space,” Sandefur laughs. “We ended up building a small kitchen area that’s specifically dedicated to trying out recipes.”
The need for a larger space was fueled by increasing requests from people who tried the pair’s beer at various functions.
“People said that it was really great, and wanted to buy it from us,” says Sandefur. “Of course, you can’t sell it (as a homebrewer), but more and more people started asking for it. They started to say, ‘You should do this for a business.”
Sandefur and Morello started taking that idea seriously.
“We thought, this could be something we love to do that could be turned into a business,” Sandefur says.
About the brewery
Sandefur estimates the Pot Licker Brewing Company will sell its first batch of beer in about a year from a location somewhere in Haywood County. Initially, the brewery would start out small, similar in size to Heinzelmannchen in Sylva, the only other operational brewery west of Asheville.
Sandefur and Morello have an interest in collaborating with other craft breweries in the mountains as more come on-line to help lessen costs.
“One of the things we’ve looked at is to create kind of a cooperative, to where we could actually join forces with one or two more craft brewers in the area, and actually build a facility that would enable three craft brewers to occupy one space and share a manufacturing space,” Sandefur says.
No matter the final brewery setup and location, Sandefur says Pot Licker Brewing Company definitely plans on opening its facility to the public for tours and tastings. The company also hopes to engage in some regional distribution, offering their beer in the Charlotte metro market as well as in local restaurants.
“Our demographics and potential buyers are stronger in that market than locally because of competition,” says Sandefur.
But that hardly means the company plans to ignore the local community — in fact, that’s anything but the case. Sandefur and Morello have a grander vision than simply brewing beer in Haywood County — they want their operation to improve the economy of the area as a whole. Breweries could provide a substitute for the declining manufacturing industry, Sandefur suggests, and could also help grow the region’s tourism economy. A brewery could also aid local farmers by supporting hop growing programs, a form of alternative agriculture that farmers are frequently turning to.
“With a craft brewery, we could touch all facets of the economy,” Sandefur says.
What’s in a name?
“Pot licker,” is the nickname that Morello has jokingly called Sandefur over the years. It also translates well into a company logo. Beer labels will feature a character upside down in a big cauldron, with just his legs poking out, supposedly licking the last drop of something delicious.
“The whole concept was that the beer’s sooo good,” says Sandefur.
About the beer
Sandefur and Morello practice grain brewing, which makes for a longer fermentation process and allows for more control over the final product. They also aren’t afraid to experiment.
“We’re real creative as far as the recipes go and what we try to create. They’re really unique,” Sandefur says.
The current Pot Licker lineup consists of about five beers with names like Mountain Steam Lager and Paint Rock Porter, as well as a rye India pale ale, a pilsner, and a stout.
The pair would also like to unroll a line of specialty and seasonal brews to honor certain local events. Sandefur says he’d like to do a Folkmoot beer, for instance, to honor Haywood County’s popular international dance festival.
Brewing in WNC
The pair says there’s already been a precedent for establishing a craft brewery west of Asheville. One of the first WNC craft breweries actually started in Waynesville in the early 1990s, and was once located on Main Street.
“The birthplace of the movement really started right there in Waynesville,” says Sandefur of the former Smoky Mountain Brewery.
That brewery went under several years ago, and since then, a huge craft brewing scene has sprung up in nearby Asheville. But there’s still been a dearth of craft breweries in the far western counties.
“We talked about how neat it would be to get one in Haywood County and be outside the Asheville pack, which is growing so rapidly,” says Sandefur. “We also wanted to bridge the gap between there and Sylva (home of Heinzelmannchen).”
Pot Licker Brewing Company has already formulated a business plan (they were the runner up in the business plan contest sponsored by the Haywood Chamber of Commerce) and has trademarked and registered the logo and name of the company. Now, they’re in the stage of getting the actual product off the ground.
“We’ve been doing research and development for the last year, and we’re getting really close to actually having a full-blown facility,” Sandefur says. “We have a test kitchen that we’ve been working out of where we’ve been doing recipe formulation of beers. We’re at the point where we’re applying for licensure and must identify a permanent site.”
Sandefur and Morello haven’t yet decided where to locate Pot Licker. They’ve considered sites in Jonathan Creek and in the Dellwood area, where Sandefur owns property. Recently, they’ve directed their focus to sites near downtown Waynesville to take advantage of tourist foot traffic.
The pair hopes to be fully operational by next summer.
“It’s a long process to get these things up and going,” says Sandefur.
Owners: Joe Rowland, Chris Collier, Ken Smith, Mike Marsden
How they started
The way they see it, it was fate that led these four men to cross paths. Joe Rowland is the owner of an outdoor adventure company, and splits his time between South Carolina and Bryson City. Mike Marsden is the local bar owner of Across the Tracks, which Rowland has frequented over the years. The two men met Chris Collier, a well-known brewmaster in the region and a writer for Southern Brew News, when Collier was up visiting Bryson City one weekend. Ken Smith, a friend of Rowland’s, wanted in when he heard Rowland talking about the brewery idea.
The men each bring something to the table. Marsden is a built in distribution channel with the perfect brewery location — attached to his bar is a giant warehouse with 30-foot high ceilings, which are “hard to find,” says Rowland, and was a factor in choosing the Bryson City location.
Collier has already established himself as a brewer.
“Every brewmaster in the Southeast knows who he is,” says Rowland. “He’s very well-respected. He’s been brewing for about 15 years, and knows what he’s doing. He’s kind of perfected the art.”
Smith, who owns two construction companies in the Southeast, is business-savvy and provided the critical upstart funding.
“He brings a lot of wisdom and unlimited capital,” Rowland says.
As for Rowland himself, he wasn’t always an outdoor adventure guide. Previously, he worked for an international company, “doing marketing for pretty much every liquor product you’ve ever heard of.” As he puts it, he has the institutional knowledge to market alcohol.
After the men all crossed paths, the idea for a brewery got rolling about a year and a half ago. Bryson City would prove to be the perfect location for a number of reasons, among them that the small Smoky Mountain town is poised for explosive growth.
“As popularity increases, you’ll have a higher-end clientele and tourism will keep increasing,” says Rowland. “I feel there’s a huge opportunity here. At some point, this place is really going to take off.”
About the brewery
Nantahala Brewing Company has big aspirations. The owners plan to establish it as one of the largest breweries in the state.
“That’s definitely one of the biggest differences you’ll find between us and other breweries in the region, is that we will be one of the largest breweries in North Carolina,” Rowland says.
The company has purchased a secondhand brewing system from a Spartanburg brewery that just got a new set. The equipment is built to churn out 30,000 barrels, or 6,000 kegs, each year.
“That’s huge — enough to distribute throughout North Carolina,” says Rowland.
The Nantahala Brewing Company will focus on distribution, and won’t be available for drop in tours and tastings. However, customers to Across the Trax will be able to see the brewing operation through a glass wall behind the Across the Trax bar. Marsden will purchase kegs of beer and sell them at Across the Trax, a plan that proved convenient for the brewing company owners.
Mike “is already in the business of selling alcohol to the public, and it’s not something the four of us as a whole wanted to get involved in,” Rowland explains.
What’s in a name?
Everything, as it turns out, when it comes to the Nantahala Brewing Company. Naming the company after the popular whitewater rafting river was a strategic move, because the name is already well known and connected to a specific region.
“Out of the gate, we have a brand that most people spend 10 years trying to develop,” says Rowland. “It’s pretty much a once in a lifetime opportunity when I look at it from a branding standpoint.”
Rowland says the Nantahala name is so recognizable that people often swear they’ve tried the beer, though it’s not even on the market yet.
The owners also want to make the Great Smoky Mountains National Park part of the Nantahala Brewing Company brand. Naming a beer after a popular outdoor region has worked well for other companies, such as the top-selling Sierra Nevada beer.
About the beer
Nantahala Brewing Company plans to set itself apart by making some unusual brews.
“That’s the difference between us and other breweries,” says Rowland. “People try to be mainstream and appeal to everybody, but we’re looking at niche products that not everyone else is doing.”
Collier in particular is known for crafting some unusual recipes that have taken top honors in national brewing competitions. One is a lemongrass pale ale. Another is a type of beer made from herbs and spices like lavender and chamomile. The brewery will also make some standards, like a pale ale, India pale ale, stout, and brown ale.
The brewery is currently only making small batches for tastings. They have 12 beers available to taste, and the owners have been working to build accounts in other parts of the state. They’ve done beer tastings in the Chapel Hill and Raleigh areas, where a restaurant chain has agreed to carry it. Locally, “pretty much everyone has agreed to carry it,” Rowland says.
Nantahala Brewing Company will officially take possession of the Spartanburg brewery’s old equipment around July 1. It will take about two weeks to move the equipment from Spartanburg to Bryson City, then another two weeks or so to install it, says Rowland. He says the beer won’t be available in quantity until the end of August — just in time for the region’s busy fall season. The company is planning a big kickoff celebration for the official opening and hopes to secure a big-name musical act for the event.
Owners: WCU professors Chris Cooper and Sean O’Connell, along with a third silent partner
How they started
O’Connell, an associate professor of microbiology at WCU, has been an avid homebrewer for 15 years, experimenting with a wide range of styles from wheat beers to IPA’s to beers made with local ingredients. He befriended Cooper, a political science professor, at the university several years ago, and turned Cooper on to the art of homebrewing.
“Sean’s the brains behind the operation,” says Cooper. “He brings the expertise to the table.”
The men say they first started thinking seriously about starting a commercial brewery about two years ago during a pub crawl of the many Asheville area microbreweries and pubs. The pair routinely churns out batches of beer for weddings of friends and acquaintances, and word has spread about their tasty concoctions.
An idea for a brewery is also part of O’Connell and Cooper’s larger vision for turning Cullowhee into a college town. They predict that one day the town will be incorporated, allowing for the possibility of alcohol to be served there. By founding a brewery now, they’re staying one step ahead of the curve.
“We’re thinking someday Cullowhee’s going to have to become a college town, and actually have pubs and bars and restaurants and a social scene,” O’Connell says. “It would be great to get started now and get our foot in the door.”
About the brewery
The Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative will start out very small. O’Connell, who currently operates his own home brewery, is acquiring the permits to scale up his operation to be what he describes as a nano-brewery — allowing the level of production to rise just a step or two above where he currently is.
The cooperative model the pair is employing is unique. Their goal is to get 20 people to pitch in to purchase the necessary equipment for a larger operation. O’Connell and Cooper will then field requests for what to brew.
By starting up slowly, “as a business venture, it’s not as risky because we’re not going to sink tens of thousands of dollars into this at first,” says O’Connell.
Keeping the operation small will allow it to be more sustainable. For instance, the men plan to grow their own hops used in the brewing process.
What’s in a name?
The name of the brewery honors the Tuckaseegee River, which plays an important role in both men’s lives. Cooper is an avid boater and kayaker, and O’Connell conducts fieldwork in the Panthertown Valley area, where the Tuckaseegee has its headwaters. Plus, the river flows right by the WCU campus, where the two met and are currently employed.
Naming a brewery for a specific place is a strategic move when it comes to marketing.
“Naming breweries after place names brings more notoriety,” O’Connell explains.
“The Tuck flows through and connects all these little towns around here. It’s associated with this particular region of Western North Carolina,” adds Cooper.
About the beer
For the last two and a half years, O’Connell has employed a method called “grain brewing” when he makes his beer. The process is a contrast to the extract brewing method used by many breweries, which uses a syrupy or powdery barley sugar base to start the brewing process. In grain brewing, the base is made using the crushed husks of the hop plant. The fermentation occurs much more slowly with grain-brewed beer, but allows for a greater degree of quality control over the final product.
O’Connell and Cooper have experience making a wide variety of beers, like lager, India Pale Ale, several German styles such as Aultz, barley wine, stouts, and porters. One of their most popular concoctions has been a beer made with local honey and blackberries.
Brewing in WNC
Microbreweries have experienced explosive growth in Asheville over the last few years. There are now nine craft breweries in the city, which was recently voted the Best Beer City in America in a national poll.
But brewing in the seven counties west of Asheville has been much slower to take off. In fact, just one brewery, Heinzelmannchen in Sylva, currently exists in the seven western counties.
“I think it’s an effect of Prohibition,” surmises O’Connell on the lack of far western breweries. “It just hasn’t been rescinded completely, and I guess the demand just wasn’t that great historically.”
The influx of newcomers to the region has helped increase the demand for locally brewed beer, though Cooper says locals want it too.
“I think there’s a lot of people around here that appreciate good beer, both locals and people who’ve moved here,” says Cooper.
O’Connell and Cooper estimate it will take a year for the Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative to brew its first batch of beer. The brewery has not yet been incorporated, and O’Connell is in the process of applying for the correct ABC permits to allow them to brew more than 200 gallons per year (the cap for a homebrewing operation).
The pair has been working with the small business department of the university and has obtained legal advice from ABC officials in Raleigh. O’Connell describes the lengthy process as “more tedious than I’m making it out to be.”
The permanent home of the Tuckaseegee Brewing Cooperative has yet to be determined.
The pair’s ultimate goal is to establish a pub/restaurant with a deck overlooking the Tuckaseegee River, where the beer is both made and served. Cooper has recently worked to bring more music to the area in the form of singer/songwriters from Nashville, and the restaurant would also be a place for them to perform. Such a facility would ideally be built in Cullowhee.
That plan is, of course, a long way off — Cullowhee’s not yet an incorporated area, and the men predict their dream wouldn’t happen for at least another five years. But that doesn’t deter them — they remain passionate about making Cullowhee and the surrounding area a more vibrant, interesting place.
“It’s all part of this general, larger idea,” says Cooper. “I think it’s cool because the more sort of grassroots, community-based stuff we can have around here the better. It’s neat to talk to people about the idea and see them get excited about it.”