By John Bailey email@example.com HICKORY DAILY RECORD
Posted: Monday, August 29, 2016 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:57 am, Tue Aug 30, 2016.
When you combine water, malt, hops and yeast, you have the start of something that just makes people smile.
It’s called beer in case you didn’t connect the ingredients to a glass, but while this is an accurate description of what a beer is, it barely touches on what a beer means to the person who drinks it, the person who brews it, or the people who provide those ingredients and more to create it.
In the end, beer is like any quality local product – it’s all about the community of the creative.
North Carolina has become a Mecca for this tasty form of creativity.
More than 30 new breweries are planning to open in the state by the end of 2016, pushing the total to more than 170 in North Carolina, according to NCbeer.org. In 2015, craft brewers in the state produced 675,469 barrels of beer, using local ingredients like sweet potatoes, sorghum, blackberries, persimmons and hops.
It’s also become a billion dollar industry in North Carolina, employing 10,000 with $300 million paid out in annual wages.
The region around Hickory and Catawba County has certainly been part of this growing industry in the last decade, and while every brewery has its own approach to the business, one thing stays constant from tap to tap: The desire to be creative and local.
20-plus years of local flavor
Olde Hickory Brewery (OHB) is one of the oldest breweries in the region and an example of the growing popularity in craft brewing. The company’s journey began in 1994 with a seven barrel converted dairy system, according to oldehickorybrewery.com.
Owners Steve Lyerly and Jason Yates would see the business grow from Amos Howards Brew Pub on Highway 70 to the renovation of an 1880 Historic Landmark building in downtown Hickory that would become the Olde Hickory Taproom in 1997. The additional taps meant the need for greater production, so OHB again looked to expand and found another downtown location, which now houses the company’s brewing facilities, a 25-barrel Price Schonstrom brew house.
Building on the trend of making craft breweries a tourist destination, the Hickory Hops beer festival was first organized 14 years ago through a partnership between the Hickory Downtown Development Association and Olde Hickory Brewery.
The festival is an annual example of the camaraderie among craft brewers and the impact the industry has on destination tourism.
Last April, more than 1,800 people showed up to sample more than 400 varieties of beer from 50-plus breweries. The event brought in $268,860 dollars to Hickory and the surrounding area, Executive Director of the Hickory Downtown Development Association, Connie Kincaid said.
The festival also translated into 346 room nights at local hotels/motels. The 2017 Hickory Hops festival is scheduled for April 22.
With years of success and continued growth behind them, OHB saw room to expand again in 2013. The company remodeled an old train station in downtown Hickory to create the Olde Hickory Station deli and restaurant.
When Granite Falls Brewery owner Mario Mastroeli started his business in 2013, he was looking to fill the need for a local “watering hole” in that part of Caldwell County.
“When my wife and I moved out here, we came out of Raleigh. We had nothing like this here,” Mastroeli said. “There was nowhere for people to gather and have a beer…I said there was nowhere for future husbands to meet their future wives.”
Beyond that, Mastroeli wanted to build a brewery with a strong connection to the local community and economy. When Pepsi Cola bottling company owned the facility (1978-2012), they employed 11 employees. Granite Falls Brewery now employs 48.
The brewery also has built several partnerships with other local businesses. Granite Falls Brewery works with Seventeen Twelve Spirits in Conover to use their Bourbon barrels to age specialty beers. The brewers also source hops from Bright Leaf Hops Farm in Granite Falls and recently used strawberries from another Granite Falls farm Triple Oaks.
“To me it’s this cultural uprising we’ve created in small communities that are reminiscent of the way things were pre World War Two,” Granite Falls Brewer Zach Newton said. “If you go back through history to see the culture behind craft beer…every town had their own brewery.
“I like to call it a renaissance of sorts because we’re kind of going back through that era where people are wanting to go back to farm-to-table and they want local not because it’s cool but because they can reconnect with their own community.”
Granite Falls Operations Manager Mike Miskovich likes the idea of being able to offer customers a locally brewed beer that is made from locally sourced ingredients.
“People know where the products are coming from,” Miskovich said. “They know they’re getting a well made, handcrafted beer as opposed to just something that just went through a gigantic line.”
The Granite Falls crew is realistic about the future of craft brewing though, acknowledging that there is a saturation point for the industry.
“What you have is in the last three years, the number of breweries in the nation has more than quadrupled,” GFB Head Brewer Joseph Ackerman said. “But the number of taps at any given bar hasn’t or the amount of shelf space at any given store hasn’t.
“Part of the brewery boom and the number of breweries and the sheer volume of breweries in the nation now, part of what that has caused is going back toward local because you can only expand so far. We’ll probably end up in three or four states, but nobody is going to be Sam Adams now. It’s too late.”
Granite Falls is focused on holding on and building on that strong local presence to become a successful regional brewery.
“That’s what every brewery will be; that’s really quality because there is so much choice out there for the consumer now,” Ackerman said. “What that’s done is made all the consumers realize there’s great beer being made in my backyard.”
Mastroeli compared the state of craft brewing to being a bakery.
“We’re not here to ship Wonder Bread to twenty different states,” he said. “We’re here to make ale for people who will at least know who our head brewers are and know who made the product.”
Honoring local history
Making that local connection was a key component to Blowing Rock Brewery establishing a second production facility at Hollar Mill in Hickory, American Honor Ale House Brewery, which opened in 2014.
For the owners Jeff Walker and Todd Rice, it was important to find a place where they could not only make that connection but also honor the local community.
“Hickory has a long history for manufacturing and in fact (Hollar Mill) stands as a testament to that era,” Walker said. “Really what brought us to this location was the fact we too are in a manufacturing industry. In fact we produce here the beer we distribute not only to our own pub here but also statewide and even to South Carolina.”
Seeing that connection in manufacturing became the catalyst for the theme of both the new brewery and its new pub, from its décor to its beer.
“I think the Mill District as it’s known is going to become a real destination and not just for people enthusiastic for craft beer but for seeking other experiences as well,” Walker said.
Hollar Mill also houses the Di’lishi Frozen Yogurt Bar as well as Highland Avenue Restaurant and The Crossing.
“It brought them here now, so they’re forming their clientele…so there’s a lot of that,” Walker said. “We worked a lot with the economic development people in the City of Hickory and they have a very clear vision for how they see this mill district developing in the future.”
Like Mastroeli at Granite Falls, Walker sees craft brewing as being about people gathering together.
“It’s not about quantity. It’s not about consumption per say. It’s about experiencing innovative styles, new flavor combinations, new flavor profiles, really letting the brewers explore their artistic and creative passions,” Walker said.
American Honor Ale House General Manager Will Locke also talked about the collaboration among breweries.
“When we’ve been in a situation where a brew day was going to be delayed and we were able to get parts or things we needed from a neighboring brewery so that sense of community helps move it along,” Locke said.
“What drew me in to this facility and back to Hickory was the excitement about the redevelopment of the mill and its ability to change the landscape here and affect the economy in a positive way,” Locke said.
Walker also touched on the fun factor that exists in the industry, something most craft beer fans pick up on whenever they visit their favorite beer pub.
“It’s a lot of fun to be in an industry where there is so much passion, not just that I feel but that our brewers you see are feeling when brewing another batch of beer,” he said. “It’s also experiencing what the patrons see when they come to try a new style of beer.”
Walker added while it is fun, craft brewing is still a job and it takes a lot of hard work to be successful in a crowded field.
“We stated our company in 2008 but we’re at the point with nearly 50 employees,” he said. “We’re at a point where a lot of hard work that we’ve invested in our company and in our brand and in our employees and in our communities is starting to bear fruit, so it’s a very good time.”
Visit Hickoryhops.com for specifics on the beer festival.
Also, visit NCbeer.org for information about the industry in general and to learn about other craft breweries in North Carolina.