A native of Mills River, Joey Soukup dreamed of bringing a brewery to his hometown — and was promptly told that he was crazy for wanting to put such an establishment “in the middle of nowhere.” Nevertheless, he registered Mills River Brewery as an LLC in January 2014 and was considered a good deal less insane once Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. opened its East Coast brewery and taproom nearby just over a year later and Bold Rock Hard Cider joined the scene at the end of 2015.
“It legitimized what I was trying to do out in Mills River,” Soukup says. “But we were going to do this either way.”
Just across Highway 280 in Fletcher, Zach Horn took a similar approach when he and Erik Weber co-founded Blue Ghost Brewing Co. in March 2016. The business partners knew they wanted to open a brewery in Fletcher, where both also live, but the addition of nationally distributed players down the road gave them confidence that their operation would be viable in their desired location.
“Sierra Nevada being two miles away was definitely one of the things that we said, ‘Yeah, well, that’s not going to hurt anything,’” Horn says. “People come out to this area from Asheville because of Sierra Nevada, but since they’re out here, even though it’s just 20 minutes away, they definitely look for the next-closest brewery.”
While the tourism draws of Sierra Nevada and Bold Rock help bring in customers through referrals or independent means, Horn and Soukup report that repeat visits by locals make up the majority of their sales. They both view area craft beer drinkers as well-educated and refusing to settle for low-quality brews while remaining as close to home as possible.
“I think the customer is looking for that hyperlocal experience where they can have that experience of going to downtown Asheville, but if they don’t have to go there, they’d rather not,” Horn says. “I think we definitely fit into that category. We’ve had a number of people describe the atmosphere here as the old-school Asheville brewery experience that they like. But the fact they don’t have to drive the extra 15 miles makes it all the more enjoyable for them.”
Though Mills River Brewery’s current location is just off I-26 in Arden, Soukup always considered the site a starter location until it made financial sense to build in Mills River proper. In its nearly four years since opening, customers have responded positively to the pub-style atmosphere that he feels is not seen as much in breweries, but is inherent to its smaller retail location.
“At first, people were skeptical of a strip mall, but once we get them inside, they seem to enjoy the beer and what we have to offer,” Soukup says. “It’s not an event to come here. It’s comfortable to walk in, sit down, have a beer and then go to Lowe’s. Or drop your wife off at Target or your husband — it’s happened both ways here — and have a pint of beer and enjoy it. We do have that convenience.”
His grand vision, however, is about to be realized. Mills River Brewery recently broke ground on a 4-acre parcel on Banner Farm Road that Soukup refers to as “within eyeshot of Bold Rock.” He’s shooting for a late summer/early fall opening date for the 9,000-square-foot brewery, which he says will quadruple production and include a canning line.
“It’s a nice piece of land with a great wooded area behind where the brewery will be — very beautiful,” says Mills River Brewery brew staff member Abe Anderson, who’s confident their customer base will be drawn to the location. “Honestly, it’s just good people that come in here. I never really worked in a bar situation, but growing up I did go to bars. And you just see a lot of drama and drunken stupidness — and I don’t see that here.”
Beyond the success that’s come with running their businesses in the shadows of industry titans, the Blue Ghost and Mills River Brewery teams feel nothing but support from their famous fellow residents. Employees from Bold Rock and Sierra Nevada are among their regulars, and Horn and Soukup are optimistic that should the need arise to seek Sierra Nevada’s help for something beyond the minor assistance they’ve already received, it would be given.
“Anyone I’ve contacted for help, be it yeast, lab work, stupid questions, whatever it may be, everybody’s been helpful and responsive,” Soukup says. “Once you find the right people to talk to, you don’t feel like you’re standing in Sierra Nevada. You’re standing there talking to some average dude that makes beer or works in a lab. That’s the feeling I’ve gotten with everybody.”
The area will eventually be joined by Lanning Brewery, which the town of Mills River’s website lists as under construction “off NC-280 near Clement Drive.” Since it, Bold Rock and Mills River Brewery will be true neighbors, Soukup says the town has expressed interest in connecting the three breweries with a trail system, further building a community that the local giants see as enhancing the character and diversity of the local brewing scene.
“Mills River and Fletcher already feature an abundance of well-established producers with the likes of Sierra Nevada, Blue Ghost, Mills River Brewing and Bold Rock all in close proximity to one another, and it is an exciting prospect to continue to develop the area as a focal point for craft beverage,” says Lindsay Dorrier III, vice president of retail operations for Bold Rock. “We feel that the rising tide of so many great like-minded businesses nearby should lift all the boats and serve to attract visitation from Asheville and other regional metropolitan centers.”