For multiple, fast-growing Asheville breweries, the next logical step has been to build additional taproom and brewing locations, sometimes in town, other times in new markets. But the latest expansion can only be described as unexpected and surprising.
Hillman Beer, which opened outside Biltmore Village in April 2017, is building a new brewery in Old Fort, a dry town in dry McDowell County. The move is made possible through North Carolina’s Senate Bill 290, which, as of Sept. 1, allows beer, wine and cider to be served on the premises where they are made, “regardless of the results of any local malt beverage election.”
There’s already one brewery in McDowell County — Mica Town Brewing in Marion, a community that allows alcohol sales — but Hillman will be the first such establishment in Old Fort. The new location in the historic Parker Hosiery building will feature a taproom, a 15-barrel brewery and a restaurant.
Founded by Brad Hillman, his brother, Greig Hillman, and Greig’s wife, Brandi Hillman, Hillman Beer already has strong connections to Old Fort, a once booming textile community. Greig and Brandi have run a Subway franchise there for almost four years.
“We are familiar with the town,” says Brandi, who recently took over as president of the Asheville Brewers Alliance, the nonprofit group that represents area breweries and beer-related businesses.
“We started talking about [Old Fort] 3 1/2 years ago, but if we couldn’t sell beer there, it didn’t make sense for the investment,” she says. “[The new law] doesn’t mean you can sell beer in the grocery stores, but if we are making it, we can sell it [on-site].”
The early stages of cleaning up the Parker building have begun. “Now that we’re getting permits, we can start other things like drain-cutting,” Brandi says. “But there’s a lot of work ahead of us. We’ll be going from a 5-barrel brewhouse [in Asheville] to a 15-barrel [system].”
The existing Hillman brewery and taproom will carry on as usual, possibly with the addition of serving beers brewed in Old Fort. Brandi anticipates that the second location will open in April or May 2020 with help from around 30 new employees. Hiring will likely begin in the new year. “We’ve had so many inquiries about that,” she says.
Hillman Beer will occupy 10,000 square feet in the Mill Creek building. The space was originally used for the production of hosiery, but when that work moved overseas, the Parker family began opening it up for small businesses. “There are 25-foot ceilings — a typical factory-type feel,” Brandi says. “Our goal is to make it comfortable like our Biltmore Village location.”
She thinks the brewery will attract a mix of both locals who work in Asheville and Black Mountain, and tourists stopping by in search of fun activities. Plans for the location’s food component are not yet final. “And there will be [an entertainment area],” she says. “The town needs that.”
Building a brewery consistently presents construction and permitting challenges, though the Hillmans have been greatly assisted by their Old Fort landlord, Jeff Parker. “This is something new — and that can be a little bit scary,” Brandi says.
Parker believes the brewery and restaurant will be a big boost for Old Fort, which he feels never fully recovered from the flight of manufacturing. “We’ve been working for years to get beer. Every business that we try to recruit here, whether it’s a manufacturer or technology [company], they always ask, ‘Why is the town dry?’ They need places for employees to eat,” he says. “I think this is a huge first step for Old Fort. People are dying to invest here. It’s already bearing fruit.”
Parker predicts that the brewery will have a ripple effect, leading to the creation of more jobs in Old Fort, but he knows there will likely be some resistance to beer being made and sold in the town.
“There is a percentage of the population that doesn’t want it here or who don’t drink,” he says. “But they spend their money by driving to Buncombe County to establishments that sell beer and wine. I’ve met many of these citizens who don’t drink and are wary, but they see the economic issues that Old Fort has had. And one of the major reasons is because there is no beer and wine here. There will be resistance, but it will fade.”
The announcement of the Old Fort expansion comes amid other exciting developments for the Hillmans. In addition to Brandi beginning her work with the ABA, Xpress readers voted the brewery the top neighborhood bar in South Asheville in the 2019 Best of WNC poll and named Brad the area’s best brewmaster.
“That was pretty awesome,” Brad says. “I am very thankful for all the support that we get at Hillman. It takes a team to do it.”