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Following devastating August flood, BearWaters Brewing reopens

BearWaters co-owner Kevin Sandefur. (photo: Margeaux Boles) BearWaters co-owner Kevin Sandefur. (photo: Margeaux Boles)

Sitting at a picnic table on the banks of the Pigeon River in downtown Canton, Kevin Sandefur turns around and points to the high-water line on the side of the BearWaters Brewing building. 

“Just below the big windows right there,” said Sandefur, co-owner of the brewery, in a humbled tone. “The water just didn’t stop rising — I thought we had lost everything we’d worked so hard to build.” 

That waterline is several feet above the parking lot, the basement of the facility filled to the brim with slippery mud, silt and water. Unless you witnessed it first-hand, it’s hard to imagine how violent and widespread the ravaging floodwaters of Tropical Storm Fred were when it overtook the small mountain town and other parts of Haywood County on Aug. 17. 

“It was almost like a dream, but more so a nightmare,” Sandefur said. “With any kind of disaster that you’re part of, it starts to unfold and it seems surreal because you feel so helpless. We thought we had the flooding under control and then, just a few moments later, the river is over the banks and it’s climbing quickly. 

Now it’s fall and the doors of BearWaters are once again open, the cold ales pouring from the taps and hot food coming from the kitchen. It’s been a herculean effort to remove all the mud and debris from the property and rebuild, this seemingly never-ending task of mankind versus the wrath of Mother Nature. 

“The reopening should have probably taken three more months to do the repairs. But, the first five days after the flood was so incredibly crucial with all of the volunteers who showed up,” Sandefur marveled. “There’s no way we’d be open here today if it wasn’t for the volunteers who showed up from all over to help us clean up and get back on our feet.” 

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The morning of Aug. 18, with the sun out and floodwaters slowly receding, Sandefur and his staff returned to the brewery to inspect the damage. What they found was a war zone of materials and mud. Kegs and cans strewn in every direction, most filled with product now deemed unusable. 

Of what product could be salvaged, Wicked Weed Brewing stepped in and picked up the numerous kegs to be housed in its Asheville cold storage facility until BearWaters was able to start pouring again. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. also lent a hand by coming in to aid in equipment that was in need of immediate repair.

And when the cleanup began, hundreds of volunteers stepped onto the property, offering services from simply shoveling mud to expert skill sets in electrical, plumbing and structural engineering. 

 

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(photo: Margeaux Boles)

 

“We had people taking time off from work to come and pressure wash the walls. Everyone was working to get something done — getting the mud out or moving equipment,” Sandefur said. “It definitely verifies what we had hoped for when we opened here. That we’re not just a brewery or a restaurant, but it’s a community center for people that come here — it means that we’re truly part of Haywood County.” 

In a sort of twisted irony, BearWaters was awarded the “Business of the Month” by the Haywood Chamber of Commerce during the period in which it was closed and under construction due to the flooding. The award itself was already decided before the storm rolled through Western North Carolina. 

And yet, the award itself is a testament to the brewery, to the vision Sandefur set out to accomplish some 10 years ago with an $8,000 chamber seed grant and a deep love for craft beer and brewing that’s only grown and blossomed since then. 

“It’s all been incredibly overwhelming and humbling. It’s all of these things that let you know that care about your brewery and what it means to the community,” Sandefur said. 

Getting up from the picnic table and making his way back to the brewery, Sandefur readies himself for the afternoon rush of customers that usually wander in come 5 o’clock. What was once, perhaps, a whirlwind of people and drink/food orders is now a buzz of humanity — old friends and new — that Sandefur & Co. will never take for granted. 

“Sure, you can sell beers and you can sell hamburgers all day long. But, there’s an intrinsic value that exists now that is beyond anything we could make or sell,” Sandefur said. “One of the most powerful statements said to me was, ‘We need you guys to survive.’ It was crazy to hear that — it’s very rewarding to know you’ve built something that people care about.” 

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