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Hop, tip and a pump away: Haywood welcomes a burgeoning brewery scene

coverIt’s noon on a Wednesday and Scott Peterson already has beer on the mind.

Brewmaster at the Tipping Point in downtown Waynesville, Peterson wanders behind the bar, down a narrow staircase and through a cool corridor to his basement laboratory. A mad scientist of sorts, he moves around the small space like a man with 10 hands and 10 legs, always checking temperatures, water levels, cleanliness and most all, the magic process coagulating within the large barrels he constantly mixes like a mysterious cauldron.

“People just think you sit here with a beaker and measure stuff, but you’ve got to be hands on,” he said, shoveling grain into a wheelbarrow. “You just keep your eye on everything and react to it. It’s a lot of hard work, sometimes seven days a week.”

Peterson is one piece of a rapidly growing machine in the newly formed Waynesville microbrew scene. Alongside Tipping Point Brewing, Frog Level Brewing and Headwaters Brewing have all opened in the past year, striking while the iron is hot in an industry with seemingly no ceiling of potential.

As nearby Asheville is continually voted “Beer City USA,” it seems Western North Carolina has become a hub for beer connoisseurs and the curious alike. More than a dozen breweries (with 50-plus different beers made) and innumerable niche bars dot the cosmopolitan city. Microbrew giants Sierra Nevada and New Belgium are both eager to break ground in the area, with enormous breweries planned that will not only accelerate the already-bustling scene but also provide hundreds of jobs and a well-needed shot in the arm for the regional economy.

The same could be said for the burgeoning brewery scene in Waynesville. The Haywood County Chamber of Commerce recently touted the launch of Waynesville’s three new microbreweries as a symbol of its healthy business climate and the role of industrious entrepreneurs in growing the local economy.

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“People think that it’s a bar scene here, and it’s not. Microbreweries are an affordable luxury. We’re not a party crowd,” said owner/brewmaster Kevin Sandefur of Headwaters. “In reality, it’s a form of manufacturing we’re bringing back to the county, with breweries in North Carolina being one of the fastest growing, job creating scenes.”

While the culinary and nightlife culture of Haywood County evolves and strengthens, Waynesville resident and microbrew aficionado Greg Kidd thinks the small town can grab a piece of the Western North Carolina brewery attention for itself, a deserving piece of respect that’s proving itself each day.

“Though Asheville gets all the recognition, now that Waynesville has three breweries, we just might have more brewers per capita than they do in the city,” he said.

Homebrewing for more than 30 years, Kidd said the fascination with a do-it-yourself method came from the simple fact that years ago you couldn’t find craft beers at your corner store and instead were stuck with mass-produced American pilsners, which were sometimes weak or basic in taste.

“What’s so great about these breweries is they abandoned the old model of making American beer,” Kidd said. “Nowadays, brewers have developed a completely American style of craft beer, which has sophisticated the palate of this country significantly.”

The sudden explosion of the microbrew scene in Waynesville is impressive — from zero to three breweries in a single year span. Leading up to their launch, all three were working simultaneously to get their operations up and running: honing their recipes, dialing in a business plan, finding a location, creating their brand and applying for the myriad permits needed to mass produce alcoholic beverages.

Ultimately, Frog Level Brewing was first out of the gate. Clark Williams, owner/co-brewmaster of Frog Level, called craft beer a “good drive.”

“If I can grow a successful business and at the same time bring others here who would normally not come here, who will then enjoy and experience our culinary scene, our mountains, our artwork and museums, then that’s great,” he said.

Viewing the art of brewing as a way to connect all other aspects of touring in Haywood County, Jon Bowman, co-owner/manager of the Tipping Point, feels the more the merrier for breweries in Western North Carolina.

“This area is already a tourist destination, and these breweries give them one more thing to do while they’re here. Hike all day, bike all day, float the river then go check out the breweries,” he said. “At some point, we’ll bottle our beer to be distributed around the area, the South and maybe the country. The great thing is it will always say ‘Waynesville, North Carolina.’”

Despite all of the noise and excitement echoing out Asheville’s microbrew scene, those in Waynesville look to create their own buzz, something that will stand on its own and ultimately link into the future of brewing and backwoods tradition in the Appalachians.

Watching the beer landscape unfold in his own community, Kidd said he’d be surprised if Waynesville could support more breweries, but is optimistic because in a game of survival of the fittest, only the best beers will prevail.

“The beauty of food and drink is it’s subjective,” he added. “As Waynesville becomes more recognized for its food and drink, maybe more restaurateurs will recognize this town as a great opportunity for investment.”

Though the national attention is aimed at Asheville, Bowman looks to establish Waynesville as a destination for quality beer. On a recent trip to the northwest, he pulled inspiration from the high density of breweries in Oregon and beyond, learning to pay attention to detail, freshness and have a keen sense of what the consumer wants.

“I’m picking up that Haywood County has people here that appreciate craft beer. You might not think that, but there is a population of that, and the tourists definitely seek out craft beer,” Bowman said. “We’re getting people from Asheville trying our beers, just like we go over there and try their beers. They like it, and we’ve gotten some great feedback.”

Reflecting on his own heritage growing up and residing in Haywood County, Williams feels these up-and-coming breweries will be a catalyst for the culture and tradition unique to the Great Smoky Mountains.

“I think that heritage mentality goes from the tobacco grower to the moonshiner, being proud of something and making a product to support their families,” he said. “I like that Bryson City can claim they have a brewery; Sylva can claim one; Waynesville can claim they have three. It’s almost retrograding back to the days when every town had a brewery.”

And with the bottom line being camaraderie in this industry of friendly competition, vast exploration and discovery, Williams feels there’s more than enough room for three breweries in Waynesville, a notion that could spur on future businesses to open up shop in town.

“I want everybody who comes to Haywood County to try all the breweries, pick a favorite and support them. Try us all, like us all,” he said. “Amongst the breweries, there is camaraderie, and we also want that from those who drink our beer. Enjoy the Smoky Mountains. Buy and consume what this county has to offer.”


Tipping Point Brewing

190 North Main Street

Steam and the smell of mash fill the basement at the Tipping Point. With sweat rolling down his forehead, brewmaster Scott Peterson is exhausted from another cycle of brewing, which today was an autumn harvest ale in celebration of the upcoming season. But, a smile remains on his face.

“I like the respect that goes along with brewing,” he said. “People don’t really know how to do it, and it’s great showing them around and how things work.”

Training from the ground up in Colorado, Peterson was 25 when he started washing kegs, working in the cooler, eventually moving up to brewmaster. As the beginning of the microbrew scene exploded in the Rocky Mountains during the 1990s, he was on the ground floor of a new era in American beer.

“That’s why I think there’s such a surge in microbrews, because the younger generation is getting into more tastes. People want quality,” he said.

Though the location has been known as the Tipping Point Tavern, the transition from a restaurant and bar into a brewery was all part of the original plan.

“We wouldn’t have opened this without the idea of the brewery. It’s all about the brewery,” Bowman said. “I’ve been drinking craft beer since that revolution started. Then, I started brewing my own beer. I always thought it’d be cool to brew your own beer.”

One of its five owners, co-owner/manager Jon Bowman remembers the initial seed of thought that has now grown into a reality. Working behind the bar at the popular downtown Waynesville restaurant The Sweet Onion a few years back, he befriended its three owners Dan Elliot and Jenny and Doug Weaver, where they tossed around the idea of a brewery with Peterson. Add associate Tony Rogers to the mix, and soon the Tipping Point was formed.

At the time, Waynesville’s bar scene was in flux. Main lacked a quality pub with a neighborhood feel, so they seized their chance and opened the Tipping Point, even though the brewery side would be a couple more years in the making.

The success of the business has given the green light to unveil the brewery. Soon, the front entrance awning will be changed, along with a few additions to facilitate and expand the brewery, something that will give Peterson all the tools and space he’ll need to create.

“It’s a baby here, and we’re getting the ball rolling, making sure everything is going right. It all depends on if everything wants to cooperate with you,” Peterson said.


Frog Level Brewing

56 Commerce Street

Strolling down Commerce Street in the Frog Level district of downtown Waynesville, the sweet, smoky smell of roasting of coffee beans from Panacea Coffee Roastery wafts onto the sidewalk. A few steps further and nostrils are treated to the invigorating scent drifting from Frog Level Brewing.

Learning how to brew in his garage, owner/co-brewmaster Clark Williams got positive reviews and attention for his concoctions from friends and aquaintences. The encouragement put ideas into motion, but the real birth of Frog Level was a chance encounter within homebrew circles. Eventually, Waynesville native Taylor Rogers returned to the town after graduating from college and teaching for a brief period in Spain. A career path as a professional brewmaster wasn’t his life plan at the time, but the pieces just fell in place.

“I couldn’t find a job when I moved back home and heard about this guy opening up a brewery. I got hold of him, started homebrewing, and we worked well together,” Roger said.

Offering four flagship beers (cream, rye, nut brown and pale ale), Frog Level also brews several “rare keg” selections, which can range from a coffee stout (with beans from next-door Panacea) or a harvest ale (with apples from the local Barber Orchard).

“I think the ‘go local’ aspect is a better wing of craft brewing. You’re not going to get any fresher beer than beer made in Haywood County, and if we can get local products to make it, then it just comes full circle,” Williams said. “The creative aspect has grown on me. Developing a product from grain to the glass was inspiring, just to know that I could do that.”

For Rogers, the time is now to brew and the place to be is Western North Carolina.

“It’s a boom time, and it will continue. I think over the next few years we’re going to solidify our place here, then continue to improve the product and refine our methods,” he said. “I’m glad to see other places trying their hand at it. Hopefully, Waynesville will become its own destination.”


Headwaters Brewing

130 Frazier Street, Suite 7

When trying to locate Headwaters Brewing, one questions if they’re at the right place. Creeping down a side-street off the busy commercial thoroughfare of Russ Avenue, you pass a corner gas station and a smattering of boot repair shops, beauty salons and metal storage units and soon begin to loose faith that a microbrewery could actually be tucked down the narrowing alley.

But behind a huge bay of garage doors, which are typically flung open to create an open-air pavillion with corn hole boards and picnic tables out front, another fresh batch of fine local brew awaits.

“We’re brand new; we’re just getting started, but we have big ideas and big vision for the future,” said owner/brewmaster Kevin Sandefur. “We want to grow to the level of an industry leader around here.”

Pouring drinks with a grin ear-to-ear, Sandefur is getting ready for another jovial Thursday afternoon. As soon as the clock strikes 5 p.m., numerous vehicles slide into parking spaces. Friends and strangers filter in, shaking hands with Sandefur, asking him about “What’s on tap?” and “When will the (weekly) cornhole tournament begin this evening?”

“It’s a very labor-intensive business to run. You always have to be concerned about consistency and quality because one bad batch can ruin a business,” Sandefur said. “It’s like a child. You nurture and care for it, then release it when it’s matured.”

Before hatching a business strategy for Headwaters Brewing, Sandefur traveled all over the country studying different breweries, working on perfecting recipes and entering homebrew contests.

He believes the three breweries will ultimately be good for each other.

“We need to have a healthy brewing community here to really be a draw for the overall county,” he said. “It’s hard to get people to make that trip from Buncombe County, but as the industry grows, and with more breweries around here having different things to offer, people will migrate and make the trip.”

Using the taproom as a way to refine flagship beers and introduce new styles, which range as different and frequent as the calendar months and seasons, Sandefur likes being able to provide a wide array of beverages.

“We’re really trying to offer a quality product and create an atmosphere that’s family friendly, a place people are comfortable to come to,” he said. “People can bring their kids, their dog and have a pint, where you can be yourself and hangout.”

Readying himself for the renowned Great American Beer Festival, which takes place in Denver next month, Sandefur will be pouring his flagship Stiff Paddle IPA and Barrel Roll Bourbon Porter in-person at the event.

“I’m really proud to be able to represent our town and Haywood County in a very respected and prestigious event like the Great American Beer Festival,” he said. “I’m looking forward to going out there and saying, ‘We’re from a little town in Western North Carolina, we’re making really good beer, and we’re ready to compete with some of the biggest and best breweries in the world’.”


Heading west

Besides the triangle of brewing in Waynesville, there are also two other area establishments carrying on the tradition in Western North Carolina:

• Heinzelmannchen Brewery — Located at 545 Mill Street in downtown Sylva, specializing in German-style ales.

• Nantahala Brewing — Located at 61 Depot Street (across the street from the train depot) in downtown Bryson City, specializing in traditional and seasonal beers, with flagship beer “Noon Day IPA.”

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