Carolina Beer Guy: Catawba Brewing turns 20

DOUBLE DECADE DELIGHTS: Catawba Brewing Co. owner Billy Pyatt and his wife Jetta toast the opening of the Palmetto Brewing Co. courtyard in Charleston, S.C. Catawba purchased the brewery in 2017, one of many milestones its staff will celebrate during a week of 20th anniversary festivities, starting July 15. Photo courtesy of the Pyatts

The history of Catawba Brewing Co. starts small, with the gift of a homebrewing kit for Christmas 1994.

“I am a notoriously hard guy to buy anything for,” says Billy Pyatt, who co-founded Catawba with his brother, Scott Pyatt. “My wife [Jetta Pyatt] got really creative and bought me something I would have never gotten myself — a 5-gallon homebrew kit. I fell in love with the process. Making recipes became an obsession of mine.”

The Pyatt brothers began homebrewing and honed their skills for about three years. “We thought there might be a business there,” Billy says. “And that’s really how we decided we would go pro.”

Twenty years later, they’re still at it and will celebrate the milestone with a week of festivities starting Monday, July 15. The brewery plans gift card promotions and an all-day party with multiple live bands, on-site T-shirt printing and more on Saturday, July 20, at its South Slope location.

Four anniversary beers will be released at the party. The details on those beers are still under wraps, but a press release says that each “is representative of Catawba’s past, present or future.”

Making beer was far removed from the Pyatts’ original jobs. Scott had seasonal ski resort work in Colorado, and Billy was employed by Corning Inc., where he worked in a variety of positions.

Catawba Brewing opened in 1999 with a used 5-barrel system in the small Burke County town of Glen Alpine. Immediately, the Pyatts decided that Asheville would be the brewery’s initial market area. The craft brewing industry was just taking off in their neighbor to the West, which was still years away from being recognized as an American craft beer capital.

The brewery started with a modest crew — just Billy, Jetta and Scott. According to Billy, a lot of the initial work fell to his brother. “Scott really did everything,” Billy says. “He made the beer. He packaged it. He sold it. He collected.”

Today, Catawba has a crew of over 100. It eventually closed the Glen Alpine location, opened a much bigger brew house in Morganton, then expanded to a taproom in Asheville’s Biltmore Village. Specialty breweries were then added in Asheville’s South Slope and Charlotte, and in 2018, Catawba acquired Palmetto Brewing Co. of Charleston, S.C.

For Billy, 20 years has gone by fast. “I think that was a long time ago,” he says. “Who were those young guys who were messing around with hand-built equipment? We were basically making it up as we went.”

Billy remained at Corning for 27 years, long after Catawba was started. “I got to travel the planet,” he says. “I’ve had Japanese lagers. I’ve had all the European styles from Belgium, northern Germany — you name it. It was a symbiotic career for me.”

Meanwhile, Scott was working full time for Catawba, where he felt confident from the brewery’s earliest days that it would be successful. “People in North Carolina had no clue what was going on [with craft beer in the Western U.S.],” he says. “I was out there when several of the big Colorado breweries opened. I was already immersed in it.”

He adds that starting as a small, family operation was a matter of necessity. “Once we got into it, there wasn’t enough business to have employees,” Scott says. “There wasn’t enough business to be anything other than a mom-and-pop shop. I was a one-man circus for many years with a little part-time help. To make it successful, I had to do everything. It was very challenging.”

The brothers relied on their own skills to get Catawba going. “Billy, though he won’t admit it, has always been better at writing the recipes than I have,” Scott says. “I think I’m better at bringing stuff together once it’s on paper. We would come up with an idea, and we would start brewing, and I would start changing it a little bit. And we had a library of beers that we had made at home before we ever got open. It’s always been a team effort.”

Catawba’s first beer was Indian Head Red Ale. “It was like an Irish red — very malt-forward,” Billy says. “Almost everything Catawba produced back in those days was very malt-forward. That has changed. Today’s IPAs are very hops-forward.”

Catawba then began turning out other beers, including a blonde ale and Firewater IPA with six kinds of malts and subtle bittering hops. “When Scott and I were homebrewing, we took professional-style notes,” Billy says. “One thing we did was learn how to make the beers that we liked over and over again so we could replicate them when we scaled up production.”

Today, Catawba has produced more than 100 beers, and its flagship brew is the White Zombie White Ale.

As for the Catawba name, it pays homage to a Native American tribe and a river that runs through the mountains. “The river ties together the region that we love,” Billy says.

WHAT: Catawba Brewing Co.’s 20th Anniversary Party
WHERE: 32 Banks Ave., Asheville. avl.mx/6a5
WHEN: Noon-11 p.m., Saturday, July 20. Free to attend.

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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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5 thoughts on “Carolina Beer Guy: Catawba Brewing turns 20

  1. Michael Koerschner

    The Pyatts have been a fixture on the Asheville beer scene – their first tap was at Mellow Mushroom. Not only has Billy tasted beers and travelled around the world, since moving to town in 2009 he has planted seeds of beer growth in and around the Asheville beer scene. Some have blossomed (think Fonta Flora) while others have died (Bele Chere Craft) but I’m 100% sure the legacy will continue….because they remain a family brewery – with family values, thru and thru

  2. Melissa Williams

    I love Catawba beers and the new ones I’ve tried from Palmetto! However, it sounds like the company was started by 3 people and you really only concentrate on the two males. I am sure that Ms. Pyatt has more to do with this company’s success than a beer kit and a great smile! There appears to be a glaring hole in your article. Just sayin’….

  3. Gregory Jones

    Congratulations on twenty years, Catawba! I love the story of such a success being built out of passion for beer and the craftsmanship of brewing. And Catawba has honed their craft to produce some excellent beer! But for those that know the history, this article leaves out a huge piece of the story. Yes, Jetta Pyatt sparked the whole thing by gifting that starter kit. But she has done much more that the article omits. She left Corning to work full-time for Catawba years earlier than husband Billy. And she has been the entrepreneurial backbone of the whole operation, dealing with every aspect of HR, legal and regulatory compliance, finance, and accounting. Not to take anything away from the brothers. It’s just that what is characterized as a duo is most definitely a trio. Just to set the record straight.

  4. Kit Guinan

    I’m wondering when Part 2 will be published, focusing on Jetta Pyatt and her part in this excellent company. It may have started with her unexpected gift to Billy, but her critical and central role in Catawba Brewing Co. since its beginning has fostered its success. Among other interesting things, she is co-owner and the backbone of the fine-print part of the operation.

    Not many women were at the helm of microbreweries two decades ago. It would make for a fascinating follow-up article and certainly would make the story above more accurate.

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