Hidden behind 16 feet of Main Street storefront, the inside of The Strand Theater looks like a cave. The floor slopes down to a black stage surrounded by tall, black walls. Old theater chairs are stacked on the wall closest to Wall Street.
Tools, random pieces of furniture and a few lights are scattered around the interior. A ramp leads up to the balcony, which is little more than wooden beams overlaid with plywood.
But all of that is about to change.
“I can see it all,” developer Richard Miller said, looking around the vacated building. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Miller has renovated several other properties, including buildings at the corner of Church and Main Streets. He acquired the theater in a trade for apartments and condos last year, he said.
The theater has been closed since the early 1980s, and opening The Strand again will cost about $1.4 million, Miller said. His next step is raising $1 million from investors who can contribute between $50,000 and $250,000. Waynesville has secured a $300,000 grant from the state’s Main Street Solutions fund to renovate the theater.
“We are offering a chance to own a piece of Waynesville and a piece of Waynesville’s future,” he said.
Kevin Sandefur, founder of Headwaters Brewing Company, said he thinks the renovated theater will draw more tourists.
“I think it will be a huge draw to the downtown area because there’s not an attraction on Main Street,” he said.
Sandefur will be opening a microbrewery in the theater. He also won $8,000 in the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce Business Start-up Competition this year to buy brewing and bottling equipment so he can start selling his beer out of The Classic Wine Seller on Church Street, which is also owned by Miller. The area at the Strand will serve as a small distribution center, he said.
He has established five beers he will serve at both the Strand and The Wine Seller, including a rich, robust chocolate porter; an Irish red; an ale that’s one of his favorites; a hoppy, citrusy IPA; a lager; and his award-winning Black Eye Rye.
Sandefur said he also plans to create specialty beers flavored with local produce. He said he’s both excited and overwhelmed by the grant.
“It puts a sense of urgency on my plans,” he said. “But if anyone can do it, we can.”
Sandefur is a full-time emergency room nurse at Harris Regional Hospital. He works three 12-hour shifts a week but plans on spending some of his own time on the construction since he has a contractor’s license.
“I feel I can invest some time and sweat equity into it,” Sandefur said.
The first steps will be leveling the floor that slopes down to the old stage and fixing the plumbing, Sandefur said.
Sandefur’s brewery will be located beneath the existing balcony. The balcony overlooks the old stage and is perpendicular to Main Street. Although the old stage will be removed and replaced by a kitchen, the balcony will stay.
The old balcony will be walled in and turned into an art gallery. Another lower balcony, opposite of the existing one, will be built over the kitchen with restaurant seating.
An affordable Italian restaurant will occupy the center of the first floor, and a new stage will be built on the wall adjacent to Main Street.
Miller said he envisions a variety of performances, including Sunday morning gospel music accompanied by brunch.
Although the Main Street grant is a start, Miller said he and others will not receive the money until the building’s renovations are complete.
“It’ll be a good thing to have a building that’s been empty for 25 years open,” Miller said. “It’ll bring a lot of new life to downtown.”
From the time the project has enough investors to start construction, it will take 14 months to complete, Miller said.
Downtown Waynesville merchants hope a plan to remodel the old Strand theater as an entertainment venue, restaurant and microbrewery will return the former icon to a Main Street magnet once again.
“We are excited about it. We think it is certainly needed here in Waynesville,” said Tom Massie, owner of Massie Furniture. “I think it will bring a lot of people downtown at night who will be exposed to Main Street and see things to come back and buy.”
Those who grew up during the heyday of Friday night features and Saturday matinees remember the line at the former Strand movie theater stretching a block and a half down Main Street. In the days before television, many people went religiously every time a new picture came to town, recalled Bette Sprecher, who grew up during the era.
During the post-World War II years, there were even dueling downtown movie theaters stationed across the street from each other. The Strand remained in operation until the early 1980s when attendance eventually withered too low to remain operational.
“TV kind of ruined the theater business,” said Massie.
Ed Kelley, owner of Ridge Runner Naturals gallery on Main Street, can’t wait until the new venue at the former Strand opens its doors.
“I have been saying this for ages, that the Strand needs to be turned into a brew pub kind of place,” Kelley said. “I think it will enhance what we already have to draw people here.”
Kelley is a musician and appreciates craft beers, so he will likely be a regular. But as a business owner directly across the street, he’s already plotting how to tap into the presumed bump in downtown nightlife.
“I think I will get trickle down from it,” Kelley said. He hopes the evening foot traffic will inspire merchants to stay open later.
“Waynesville pretty much rolls up the sidewalk at 5 or 6,” Kelley said. “I think it will give people some options of things to do in the evenings, which is something we seem to lack.”
It may also motivate more redevelopment.
“If people see things happening, that is good PR, and that can actually enhance somebody’s perception of what Waynesville is or is going to be,” Kelley said.
That’s exactly the outcome Buffy Messer, the director of Downtown Waynesville Association, was hoping for when chasing a grant to make the Strand venture a reality.
“The project will spur more interest and growth not only in our downtown, but also in our community,” Messer said. “An economically vibrant and growing downtown is not just good in itself — it is vital for a prosperous region.”
Besides, merchants could use some rosy news, she said, not only due to a two-year recession but a winter hammered by snowstorms that kept shoppers holed up at home.
“It was just a really rough winter. The snow came every Friday. It killed their weekends,” Messer said of the merchants. There are certainly signs 2010 will mark a turn-around based on downtown development in recent months. In addition to half a dozen retail shops and a couple new professional businesses, two large anchor buildings have been filled. Main Street Artist’s Co-op moved into the space vacated by Furniture Village and Davis Clothing opened in the former Towne Square space, which had been vacant two years.
There have been two new restaurants to open as well, Nico’s Café and soon Café 50, both of which remodeled downtown spaces in recent months.
While Waynesville’s downtown has been a shining model for Main Street revitalization and the envy of small towns across the state, the once-beloved Strand has remained shuttered. Then a dose of good fortune arrived in February. The state announced a pool of grant money through the new Main Street Solutions Fund, designed to drive economic development by assisting small business owners in downtowns.
“It was the first opportunity we had been given in years for small business,” Messer said. “I couldn’t look back and say I didn’t try.”
Messer and the owner of the Strand, Richard Miller, toiled day and night to complete the application. The grant required an exhaustive business plan and putting it together by the 30-day deadline was be tricky. Luckily, key pieces were already in place. Joey Massie, the Strand’s owner before Miller, had a similar plan to transform the space into an entertainment venue, restaurant and bar. He even had architectural drawings for the interior remodeling work and a business plan. Massie never got the project off the ground, however, because the renovations were cost-prohibitive.
Massie’s architectural drawings and business plan provided a foundation for the application. Meanwhile, a local beer brewer, Kevin Sandefur, happened to have a comprehensive business plan in his pocket for the brewery angle. Sandefur created a business plan the previous year in order to enter the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce Business Start-Up competition.
“We wouldn’t have made it if there hadn’t already been some paperwork in place,” Messer said.
Competition was stiff. There were 29 applications requesting $7 million — but only eight were awarded and $1.95 million given out.
The Strand venture will obviously compete with other downtown restaurants and bars. Jennifer Ewart, owner of Nick and Nate’s, a popular Main Street pizza restaurant known for its outstanding selection of microbrews, wonders whether there will be enough business to go around, particularly during winter months. Nick and Nate’s generally has a wait list going by 6 p.m. during the height of summer tourist season, but the winter months are “very slow,” Ewart said, citing that as the true test facing the Strand venture.
Zach Phillips and Mike Valente graduated from Western Carolina University just in time to enter the worst job market in 80 years. Instead of crying into their beers, they decided to brew their own.
“I’d applied for a few jobs and when it didn’t work out, it sort of disillusioned me,” Phillips said. “So I figured I’d work, and work on my beer at the same time.”
Phillips has spent the last year perfecting his home-brewing techniques, while Valente has been a mainstay as an apprentice brewer at Heinzelmannchen Brewery in Sylva since 2008.
Next Saturday, the two friends will showcase the fruits of their labor alongside 15 or so other local brewers at the inaugural Smoky Mountain Craft Beer Festival. Phillips organized the event after being inspired by craft brew festivals in Chapel Hill.
“You get to brag and show off your beer and everybody who’s there is an experimenter,” Phillips said. “It’s a great way to trade ideas and get to know other brewers. It’s beer and music and food. What’s not to like?”
Craft beer is essentially small batch beer that showcases the brewers’ recipes and measures their technical acumen. The festival marks the growth of the craft brew scene in the mountains west of Asheville –– breweries from Sylva, Bryson City, and Waynesville are slated to show off their wares –– but the effort to put it together is really a testament to the commitment of two friends who see beer as more than a pastime.
Phillips graduated in May 2009 with a communications degree. He thought he had a job lined up in his hometown, Raleigh, but when it fell through, he was lost in a sea of resumes.
Phillips traces his love affair with beer to his 21st birthday party, when his mother presented him a bottle of Delirium Tremens to mark the occasion. The high-alcohol Belgian pale ale won the “Best Beer in the World” title at the World Beer Championships in Chicago 1998, and it opened Zach’s eyes to a world beyond frat party kegs.
“Up until then I was a Bud Light/Miller Lite type of guy,” Phillips said. “That beer really opened my eyes to what’s possible with beer.”
He bought a $150 beer kit at Dingleberry’s Home Brew Supply in Sylva and turned mad scientist.
“I’m kind of an obsessive-compulsive person,” Phillips said. “When I started brewing my first batch, it was okay, but I was already thinking about how to do it better.”
For many years, home-brewers were treated as odd tinkerers, people who pilfered water coolers from work and created wild concoctions in their dark basements to be doled out at parties.
But in the heart of North Carolina beer country, just a few miles up the road from AshVegas, Phillips wasn’t isolated. For one, he had his friend Mike Valente and the inspiration of Dieter Kuhn, Heinzelmannchen’s German brew-meister.
“Everything I haven’t learned from a book, I’ve learned from Dieter,” Phillips said. “He’s been so supportive, and that guy really knows his beer.”
The first Smoky Mountain Craft Beer Festival will be a farewell party for Valente, who is heading to Chicago in May to pursue an associate degree in beer brewing at the Siebel Institute of Technology’s World Brewing Academy.
“After six months to a year with Dieter, it all started to make sense,” Valente said. “I wasn’t ruining batches anymore or contaminating barrels. The customers were happy. It grew from a fun job and passion into something bigger.”
Like many young craft brewers in their age group, Valente and Phillips tend to gravitate towards beers with unique and powerful flavor profiles. But being around Kuhn, who espouses the German brewing tradition that favors balance and drinkability, has influenced them.
“These guys have a penchant for something extraordinary, something big,” Kuhn said. “But if you have a base in balance, it’s easy to accomplish a beer that’s drinkable.”
Mike and Zach are brewing together one last time.
While their contest offerings at the festival will showcase their own ambitions, they’ll also not surprisingly reflect the Heinzelmannchen influence. Phillips and Valente plan to offer up a single decoction extra special bitter ale inspired by a Green Man ESB and a rye pale ale inspired by offerings from Terrapin and Goose Island versions.
Phillips has worked hard to whip up local support for the event, which will take place at Soul Infusions Tea House & Bistro in Sylva and will feature local bands and the beer of local contestants and barrels from Henizelmannchen, Nantahala Brewing Company, Pigtopia Brewery, and Tuckeseegee Brewing Cooperative.
Brewing contests that award medals can be competitive and controversial. Kuhn helped get experienced judges fresh from the Hickory Hops Festival to contribute their expertise to the Smoky Mountain contest.
But Valente and Phillips are really just hoping for a community-centered celebration of beer, something they hope their own craft brews will foster.
“I want to please the crowd. I’m not worried about the judges,” Valente said. “I want people to want to drink our beer and to get excited about what you can do with it.”
Kuhn, meanwhile, will say goodbye to one protégé.
“I’m hoping he’ll come back,” said Kuhn. “If he doesn’t, I hope he’ll win world beer competitions.”
And Phillips is starting to see how his communications degree and his love of beer might make for a brighter future than he expected.
“I think the brewing industry is definitely going to be my career choice in some way,” Phillips said.
Cooking with wine is familiar. Cajun chef Justin Wilson, one of television’s first real food celebrities, liberally tipped Chablis into his etouffe (who-wee), and Julia Child introduced America to the French style of cooking, deglazing and saucing with wine in the late 1960s.
But if beer is the new wine in Western North Carolina, then Heinzelmannchen’s beer-focused cookbook is set to open up a new conversation about the way the region’s signature beverage pairs with food.
“One of the en vogue things in the craft brewing circuit is to brew a beer that goes along with the food you eat,” said Heinzelmannchen’s brewmeister Dieter Kuhn. “And that’s been the style of beer we’ve brewed all along. It goes back to early times in Germany when you didn’t drink the water, you made beer out of it. And it was always on the table.”
Dieter and Sheryl Rudd are married and they run Heinzelmannchen together as business partners. Naturally their beer found its way from the brewery into the kitchen. Sheryl explained the genesis of their cookbook.
“We found ourselves pouring a little beer in everything, and my mother saw it and said,‘You really ought to start writing this down,’” Sheryl said.
Sheryl’s mother, Elizabeth Rudd, may not have known what she was getting into when she offered a word of advice in her daughter’s kitchen, but the task of organizing and editing the Heinzelmannchen cookbook eventually fell to her.
An experienced editor, it was Elizabeth who took on the challenge of turning Dieter and Sheryl’s collective effort into a published product. Along the way, the three of them found out there is a lot more to making a cookbook than cooking with a pen and an index card on the counter.
“One of the things we wanted to do is to make it more than just a cookbook,” Elizabeth said.
The result of Dieter, Sheryl, and Elizabeth’s work is a book that incorporates cooking techniques, recipes, and anecdotes into a kind of beer and food field guide. For example, the qualities of beer are dealt with in a succinct section called “Cooking with beer.”
“Hops add bitterness and acidity. Malt adds a subtle sweetness. Yeast produces a light fluffy texture, especially in batters. Yeast can also help to tenderize tougher cuts of meat,” one part reads.
That type of matter of fact, practical information helps you think about the possibilities of cooking with beer. But the cookbook also includes recipes that are tried and true, and the book is spiral bound so it can lie flat next to your stove as you try them out.
I tried the simplest recipe first, one for Mexican Cheese Dip, and I ate it during the Super Bowl and thought about all the delicious beer-infused “queso” that runs like a river through Austin, Tex. The Heinzelmannchen recipe yielded the perfect consistency. I tipped in a little more hot sauce and used the Ancient Days Blonde ale to my taste.
The stories that punctuate the book are fun and disarming, like the one about Dieter using the myth of the Henizelmannchen (German house gnomes) to defraud his little sister of her allowance for two years when he was growing up in Heidelsheim.
But the focus of the book is the recipes, which were generated around a nexus of popular favorites that Dieter and Sheryl cooked for their friends and family over the years. Naturally bratwurst and sauerkraut are on the list, and Dieter’s favorite birthday cake, Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte — a mouthful that turns into Black Forest Cherry Torte in English.
This is comfort food, which is really what beer is great for, and much of it has a distinctly German flavor.
“It’s not that it’s a German cookbook. It’s just stuff that we like to eat, cooked with the beer that we like to drink,” Dieter said.
Not all of the food is German-inspired. For example Dieter’s favorite dish — and the last to go in the cookbook — is the paella. The story behind the recipe exemplifies what Dieter and Sheryl are all about. They are community-focused, small business owners who love what they do.
Eric Hendrix of Eric’s Fish Market, their neighbor on Back Street, had a pile of beautiful shellfish for Dieter’s birthday meal and recommended they turn it into paella. Ross Lorenz, chef/owner of 553 West Main restaurant, said he’d help put it together. So the whole lot of them crowded into Dieter and Sheryl’s kitchen and produced the best paella this side of Valencia.
“They kept saying this has got to go in the cookbook,” Elizabeth said. “And I said it won’t make the deadline. And they said well just write it down now.”
Needless to say, it made the book. Dieter and Sheryl were anxious that the book be produced responsibly, and it was. Using 100 percent recycled materials, Rich Kilby of the Barefoot Press in Raleigh worked hand-in-hand with Elizabeth to design and produce a locally made product that’s friendly to the environment and chefs both.
The cookbook is available at Heinzelmannchen Brewery and City Lights Books in Sylva and may be available at Osondu/Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville and Malaprops Books in Asheville in the near future.
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.”