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Catawba Valley Brewing

November, 1999

By Bobby Bush

North Carolina’s first brewery dates back to 1774. Single Brothers Brewery & Distillery operated in what is now Old Salem until 1813. It took another 220 years for the western end of the Tarheel State to get into the brewing business. Smokey Mountain Brewery (now defunct) opened in Waynesville in 1993 and Highland Brewing started production in Asheville the following year. The Blue Ridge Mountains and foothills also host a brewpub in Boone (Cottonwood), two brewpubs in Asheville (Green Man and Asheville Pizza) and one in Hickory (Olde Hickory). And now, at the turn of the century in 1999, the Burke County town of Glen Alpine, a very dry community, joins the WNC brewing brotherhood.

With business acumen, rather than history, in mind, Billy, Jetta and Scott Pyatt acquired their first brewing equipment over four years ago. While pieces of a defunct Boulder, Colorado brewery gathered dust in Billy’s garage, the Pyatt brothers scouted additional equipment and searched for an affordable building in which to begin their brewing business. They settled on the basement of an old, two-story brick building, originally a textile mill, on Highway 70 in Glen Alpine. Not the consummate brewery building they would have designed, but workable nonetheless.

Though still a hodgepodge collection of various and sundry tanks, pumps and jury-rigged systems, Catawba Valley Brewing Company released their first beer in July 1999. It’s not as rube goldberg as it sounds, but their only new equipment is a ten barrel brew kettle and a nifty wort chiller. With cost effectiveness in mind, the brothers let innovation be their guide, pumping chilled water (where glycol is the refrigerant of choice) through their jacketed fermenter and building their own keg cleaner. The micro keeps overhead low by shunning such niceties as air conditioning and heat, which contributes to an extremely light debt load. To this point, cash flow supports the fledgling operation. That’s quite a feat for a business so young.

With four non-brewing years to sample and research the market, their homework is paying off. In fact, Scott voiced, the brewery has “done very well since opening.” Over 15 accounts- from Hickory to Asheville -are carrying their original keg-only brew, a medium-bodied ale called Indian Head Red, and its lighter, little brother Wooden Nickel Ale. Brown Bear Ale, a dark, softly hopped English recipe, will debut next.

Scott does the brewing, but also sells and delivers, whatever it takes. Brother Billy and his wife Jetta, who moved away from the area last year, assist whenever possible. Working with a stockpile of 175 kegs and a delivery vehicle that is described as “anything that’s running,” Scott takes great pride in his work. “It’s exciting to sell new accounts,” he explains, “but it’s even more exciting to have customers ask about new products.” Repeat sales “show that you’re doing something right.”

With Jetta’s marketing guidance, Scott and Billy are hitting beer festival and charity events pretty hard, trying to get the word out about their local beer. From their ideal location, not far off I-40 between Hickory and Asheville, they hope to expand self-distribution into the Boone/Banner Elk region next, with Statesville and Charlotte as targets for the future. As Scott’s voice recites in the company’s answering machine message- “If we’re not here, we’re delivering beer” -the trio has found a way to mingle fun with work. It’s obviously effective.

Fledgling musicians measure degrees of success not only by quality of venue and size of audience, but also by personal job status. When a bar circuit rock ‘n roller quits his day-job and makes music his sole livelihood, he’s hit the big time. Apply that same analogy to Scott Pyatt and his full time gig at Catawba Valley Brewing Company and it appears that this local brewer is on his way. He explains it this way: “We’re not going to get rich, but we’re having a good time.” They’re rockin’ and rollin’ in Glen Alpine.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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