Three’s Company: Sylva welcomes third craft brewery
John Duncan won’t forget Aug. 19 anytime soon.
“It was damn scary,” he chuckled.
That day not only marked the opening of the Duncan’s Sneak E Squirrel Brewery in Sylva, it also marked the culmination of a dream of his that’s been almost 20 years in the making.
“Our theme here is community, and we’re going to let the community build this into what they want,” Duncan said.
Standing in the 8,000-square-foot brewery, which was once a car dealership just west of Mark Watson Park on N.C. 107, Duncan still shakes his head as to how the business finally came to fruition. As co-owner/co-brewer (along with four other investors), his blood, sweat and tears are part of the foundation of the company who mission is to connect neighbors and promote community organizations.
“We want people to feel like they’re part of the community, and this brewery is just an extension of that,” Duncan said.
Carolina to the coast
Originally from Mebane (halfway between Greensboro and Durham), Duncan found his way to the mountains of Western North Carolina by way of attending Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. After a year of school, he joined active duty Army for three years, only to spend another year at Warren Wilson before “doing my hippy walk the earth thing — you’ve got to.”
Duncan then entered the Coast Guard in South Florida, and eventually got a degree in creative writing from Florida International University. It was at FIU where Duncan got involved in a martial arts program specifically tailored for college students. He found a true passion for the program, and decided he wanted to teach it himself. Receiving a teaching certificate at FIU, he found Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, a spot in the mountains near and dear to his heart to pursue his master’s in teaching.
“I knew I missed the mountains,” he said. “I did the beach thing for awhile in Florida, but I wanted to be back in the mountains of Western North Carolina.”
At WCU, Duncan started teaching karate, something he still does to this day, 16 years later. He also has taught health, wellness and fitness at WCU and Southwestern Community College in Sylva. And when he wasn’t teaching, he was a platoon leader and company commander for the National Guard’s 210th Military Police Company in WNC. Of his assignments, he notes his time spent as a peacekeeper in the Sinai Desert, on the border of Israel and Egypt, during times of tension and violence between the two countries.
Crafting your dreams
So, with all these career paths and endeavors, where does Duncan’s love of craft beer come from?
“Well, to start, I was 15 when I took my first sip of a Budweiser and I wouldn’t touch another again until I was in my 30s,” he said.
Duncan had a serious allergic reaction to the preservatives used in Anheuser-Busch products. Add that to his dislike of Miller or Coors brews (“They’re too weak for me.”) and Duncan was on the sidelines of beer enjoyment and enthusiasm. But, that all changed when he was in the Coast Guard down in Jamaica.
“We’d had been out on the ocean for a month, and when we came into port I was in search of a drink,” he said. “The rum was too strong, it could peel the chrome off of a bumper. So, I tried a Red Stripe (Jamaican beer). I liked it and I didn’t get sick — I couldn’t believe it.”
It turned out, Duncan could enjoy other brews without health problems. And when he eventually discovered Samuel Adams, that was it — he wanted to learn everything there was about home brewing.
“I found Sam Adams and it was amazing,” Duncan said. “I didn’t know you could make your own beer, I didn’t know I could do all of these things.”
By 1996, Duncan has his first home brewing kit. He experimented with different types of ales, and soon opened his own home brew store, Dingleberries, in Sylva in 2001 as a way to not only get the products he needed, but also provide a social hub and outlet for other local home brewers in WNC.
And all the while, Duncan had the idea in the back of his head to open his own brewery someday. But, to launch a brewery means lots of time, planning and money.
“I was a minimum wage kid and people aren’t exactly standing in line to give away stainless steel,” he said. “So, I built industry contacts over the years, learned all I could about craft beer, and even through the difficulty of finding investors and the recession of 2008, we were able to start work on the brewery 20 months ago.”
Throughout those last two years, Duncan and his small crew gutted and renovated the large warehouse into a modern brewery. Running on a 7-barrel system, with four 7-barrel fermenters and seven 9-barrel holding tanks, Sneak E Squirrel now pours upwards of 10 different kinds of craft beer at any given time. To dovetail the consumer experience, the location also has a full kitchen.
“It’s about quality beer and quality food,” Duncan said. “It’s pretty great to see someone order a beer and some food, and to see them stare at what they just sipped or took a bite of, and see that smile come across their face.”
Well, what about the name — Sneak E Squirrel?
“It’s my online gaming handle. It was supposed to be ‘Secret Squirrel,’ like after the 1960s cartoon, but I messed up the registration,” Duncan laughed. “So, it stuck, and we ended up using it to name the brewery. There hasn’t been a mythical back story yet that has developed, but we hope one develops as we evolve.”
Now that the brewery is open, and folks are wandering through the door, Duncan is looking forward to having his company become another piece of the puzzle that connects the residents and visitors in the community.
“Everything Sylva and Jackson County are doing these days, from Concerts on the Creek to the Mountain Faith parade to new businesses, is an evolution of the community,” he said. “It’s about bringing in new ideas, expanding on our successes and walking away from things that haven’t worked.”